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The 'Survival Trick' That Can Actually Make It Harder to Heal From Trauma

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It has been nearly a year since my mental breakdown, and I can say it has been a long road to recovery. I say long — if I sit back and look at the list of traumas I faced as a child and into my 20s, now at the age of 30, a year in the grand scheme of things is a drop in the ocean! At least that’s what I try to tell myself when the feeling of shame creeps up and washes over me. I start to drown myself in questions such as:

Why has it taken you so long, shouldn’t you be better by now?

You had it together, why have you let yourself get to this point?

How are you ever going to get back to “normal?”

The thing is, I beat myself up a lot! I am my own worst critic. My guess is if you are reading this now, you have probably been guilty of this too, at some point. Sometimes you need to take a long stride backwards, evaluate where you have been and give yourself the biggest hug and some self-love for making it this far.

Growing up in a whirlwind of tragic circumstances strangely gives you a tool box full of weird and wonderful coping mechanisms you don’t even realize you have. After years of developing these coping strategies, they become a part of your survival mode. Some are good, and some are not as helpful. Some are even both! It was during a good chat with one of my most inspiring friends, when she alerted me to the fact that one of my survival tricks was actually “emotional bypassing.”

What is Emotional Bypassing?
When something heartbreaking happens in our lives, be it a relationship breakup, a deeply horrific event such as abuse or assault, a bereavement or any other number of traumatic experiences, it comes with a gut-wrenching sadness that is life-changing. Living with that emotional pain changes the way you function, the things you enjoy doing and how you start to view your future. It can transform who you are as a person. You question feeling like this forever, and you wonder will life get any better? Thousands of thoughts run through your mind every day that start to trap you into believing this is the way life is now. In a desperate attempt to move on and not allow your mind to go to that ominous place, you try to block it out as if it didn’t happen. You don’t allow yourself to cry, scream or get angry towards it and choose not to talk about it. Instead, you let your mind and body focus on the things that make you happy. This is emotional bypassing.

The Problem with Emotional Bypassing
Don’t get me wrong, this is a survival technique that genuinely helped me through a lot of my childhood and adulthood. Without mastering the art of moving on from traumatic events, I don’t know where I would have ended up. It allowed me to wake up every day and still believe I had a purpose. It gave me the courage to follow my dreams and work hard towards a career. I would have my highs and my lows. But generally speaking, I was always able to pick myself up from a low pretty quickly and put a bandaid on it in the form of a self-help book and a paper smile. I would ignorantly run along to that high without really understanding any of the wounds I had masked. What I didn’t realize is that after 23 years, I was bandaged from head to toe.

What I recently learned is there is only so much emotional bypassing you can do before you start to question why things are spiraling out of control, even when you are doing everything in your power to be “happy.” You know those days when you have to force a smile on your face to cover up the constantly lingering anxiety you have that eats away at you? The triggers that lie so deep they cause you to overreact at the most minor situations? Depression becomes a full-time resident, and all you can ask yourself is, why? I was working hard to stay positive and had things I seemingly wanted.

Well, the answer is because I hadn’t ever allowed myself to truly heal. Emotional trauma doesn’t just disappear into the abyss. Even when you mask it all up, it still remains. It may manifest itself into many things out of your control such as mental illness, addiction to numb the pain or triggers and flashbacks. Even though it might feel like you got away with it unscathed, the body doesn’t forget trauma. It remembers it like it happened yesterday. I realized in order to be sincerely happy, I needed to face up to the parts of my past that made me desperately sad, to understand and accept them.

Reversing the Effects of Emotional Bypassing
Therapy, therapy, therapy! Whatever method works best for you. There is no right or wrong type of therapy or one that is better than the other, as it depends on you as an individual and your preferences. Everyone can find a method they are more receptive to. For those of you who feel completely overwhelmed by therapy — don’t worry, I hear you! I will be writing another blog post on the different types of therapy available and what to expect from them. I was resistant to the idea of speaking to someone about my past for a long time. But after reaching rock bottom and putting myself out there and trying different types of therapy, I believe now this is the way to really clear those demons from the past contributing towards your anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

We all have likely been guilty of emotional bypassing at some point in our lives. For anyone who has used emotional bypassing as a coping mechanism for a traumatic event, if you don’t put in the work to understand it, it will likely start to creep out in every day occurrences and impact future choices, without you realizing it. It may come out as flashback of a painful memory, someone saying something that takes you right back to the very moment you tucked away in the trinket box of your mind labelled do not open! You may focus heavily on the minor issues that crop up on a daily basis to compensate for the lack of respect you had for those big events you never dealt with. Perhaps you struggle with relationship breakdowns. You may push those closest to you away in fear of being hurt again and having to cope with the large task of admitting you need support, because of those daunting events you brushed under the carpet. When you can hold your hands up and surrender, allow yourself to gradually start talking about your emotions and process them, you will start to see that true happiness isn’t a fairy tale ending after all!

It has now been nearly nine months since I started therapy myself. Peeling back the layers to reveal those neglected trauma wounds has been a cocktail of emotions. Some are deeper than others, and there are wounds I had completely forgotten about or never realized were there. But layer by layer, they are gradually healing. I’ve analyzed them, poked and prodded them, and I got used to looking at them in a different way. The scars will remain, but I am not afraid anymore. I’m no longer wanting to cover them up and hide them from the world because I now know, finally, I am going to be OK.

In the beginning, I worried about never getting back to being the person I once was — the seemingly strong fighter who could handle the most brutal battles, brushing them off like specks of dust and moving on. Now I am relieved that the old me won’t be returning. I respect and love her for getting me to where I am today, and I will be taking the strength she had on my journey. But this time, I will remember the importance of healing in order to create my ultimate happiness!

Follow this journey on Beautifully Broken by Trauma

Getty image by LucidSurf

Originally published: October 11, 2019
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