The role of Compassion in healing from Trauma...
In a broad sense, psychological trauma is experienced when an individuals emotional sense of safety or security is threatened or overwhelmed. This can occur from distressing events that are often out of the blue, like a sudden attack, accident or loss as well as from enduring ongoing situations of abuse or neglect. Traumatic experiences have a significant effect on our neurobiology. Often when bad things happen to us it triggers deep feelings of shame, worthlessness and isolation. This can result in us talking and relating to ourselves in a way that is increasingly harsh, critical or judgemental. It’s very common following traumatic experiences of any kind. It’s the kind of internal self-talk that tells us; “It’s my fault”, “How could I have been so stupid?”, “I’m worthless”, “I deserved it”, “Why can’t I just get over it?”, “It’s because Im a bad person”, “I don't deserve any better”, “I shouldn’t feel like this” and so on…
Trauma is a complicated response to threatening or frightening experiences of any kind. Some people regard it as ‘a normal reaction to an abnormal event or situation’. Traumatic memories are held on a physiological, neurological and psychological level - so with all the will in the world, without the right kind of specialist help, support, time and treatment, it is highly unlikely we can just simply ‘get on with it’. Instead, we are much more likely to find ourselves caught in a very real fight-flight-freeze response and cycle of intrusive memories, flashbacks, issues with mood, shame, self-criticism, triggers, isolation, self-absorption and maladaptive coping strategies.
Compassion-Focused Therapy is a model devised by Paul Gilbert that incorporates a wide array of psychological influences including neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, cognitive therapy, attachment theory and Buddhist philosophy. CFT was developed to help address the self-criticism and shame often associated with the feelings that follow stress, trauma, PTSD and complex trauma.
CFT suggests there are three distinct human systems, each synonymous with motivations, behaviours, thought process and emotional responses. The three systems are threat/survival, drive and care-giving.
We are all inherently born with a threat system. This is essentially our survival instinct and houses our innate fight-or-flight response, designed evolutionarily to keep us safe and alive. When this is active we sense danger and feel fear and anxiety. This to some extent serves a helpful function to warn us of dangers, however many of us live with overrun systems due to exposure to stress and traumas. This also affects particular parts of the brain and alters our neurochemistry.
Our drive system is a more optimal level of functioning, where we are driven to succeed and achieve. It is associated with goal-motivated actions and a high level of mental focus. This kind of mode of being is seen in successful business owners, entrepreneurs, academics and achievers. Whilst there are many positives with this mindset, such as material success, financial gains, status, etc. this mode in its extreme relates to obsessiveness, compulsions and perfectionism, addictive tendencies and a sense of discontent, a “nothing is enough” kind of feeling that drives workaholism and never-ending ‘to-do’ lists. In time this can lead to severe levels of stress, stress-related illness and burn-out.
The care-giving system reflects our capacity for self-soothing, empathy, kindness and self-care. It fosters our ability to offer ourselves a sense of containment and safety. Something that is crucial in resilience and healing from trauma, depression, anxiety and other emotional issues. The care-giving system is the ideal ‘loving parent’.
With the right kind of nurturing and environment during our childhood, our care-giving system develops, however many people with trauma and complex PTSD have not always had life experiences and modelling of this kind of care, comfort and sense of safety. Understandably and through no fault of our own, we will then struggle with self-compassion until we can focus particular attention and effort in developing a more understanding, forgiving and loving relationship with ourselves. This is particularly useful when we have experienced trauma. It is also an important part of recovery from codependency and unhealthy relationships.
Emotional responses to trauma can be a varied and complex process. This can include feelings of numbness, confusion, rage, anger, depression, anxiety, panic, sadness, grief, hopelessness and despair. Many people report feeling trapped in a self-defeating, punitive cycle of negative feelings. The battle in itself can keep us feeling stuck. Compassion only has room to grow when we stop fighting our emotional experience.
Self-compassion and care-giving means fostering a warm, kind, empathic, forgiving, non-judgemental and supportive voice to our experience. This includes (as often relevant in cases of trauma and PTSD) being mindful and compassionate to our experience of; our physiological responses, feelings, our thinking, our emotions, our responses and more… It is a voice that is much more likely to remind yourself “It’s not my fault”, and lovingly encourage us “I can get through this”, “I can get help and heal”, “I’m not responsible for the actions of others”, “I have a responsibility to grow and be the best I can be. “I’m OK” and “I can feel safe”. This kind of approach incorporates mindfulness and aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy
Compassion is about being gentle with ourselves and our experiences. Its about understanding and knowing that things that have happened in our life are not always our fault, but that we can take responsibility for our wellbeing and grow. Compassion is an important attitude to adopt in order to help alleviate your suffering and aid recovery.