Ep. 62 | Trauma Responses: Why We're All Stuck In Them And How To Get Out


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Hey Life Booster! This is Dr. Amelia, integrative health and life coach and recovered burnt out veterinarian, here to help you ditch the things that are weighing you down by breaking the norm and living a life that energizes you from within.

I hope that your day is going well, or is off to a good start, depending on when you're listening to this. Earlier today, I had one of the complimentary clarity coaching calls that I offer, and those always bring me so much joy. They're really fun for me. I love the opportunity to connect with people, and being able to offer an hour of coaching to anybody is something that is important to me because I remember what it was like when I was just feeling completely stuck, and overwhelmed, and miserable as a vet. And a big part of getting unstuck and starting to create really positive change in your life is just starting to become aware of the things that have been holding you back, or getting in the way, and making things feel hard, so that you can start to overcome them. And that's something that I'm able to do in those hour coaching calls. So as of the time that I'm recording this, I do offer those one time complimentary calls and if that is something that you are interested in - experiencing what coaching is like, rewiring your brain, finding out what are some of those invisible or unconscious chains that have been holding you back from feeling the way that you want to be feeling (mentally and physically) - then that call is available to you. I'll leave the link in the show notes and you can schedule it and let's connect and have some fun. We'll just play around see how your brain works and see if we can help you have clarity on what's going to help you to move forward in a way that feels really doable.

And then after that, I've planned on... I have so many podcast episodes that I want to do, so, so many topics, and I was procrastinating a little bit, or just having a hard time getting started with this podcast episode. Starting with even the intro, I'm just making up a mind drama about, like, how should I even introduce myself, blah blah blah, things that truly don't matter. My brain was getting caught up in it.

The funny thing about that is at the root of that was some perfectionism creeping in and the topic today is trauma responses. We're going to be talking all about them because trauma responses were really at the root of what led me to burnout. That was one of the the main things, really, that led me there, and I think it should just become common knowledge. And the funny thing is that perfectionism is a sign of one of the trauma responses, that flight response. Here I am, getting caught up in it, and one thing that we'll talk about is that, you know, I've talked a lot on this podcast about how I have done so much work in recovering from people pleasing and perfectionism, both of those are rooted in trauma responses, and you can absolutely be doing lots of work and moving past these old tendencies and habits, but there are times that you may noticing them bubbling up more and that's something that I'm experiencing right now. And we'll talk about why that can happen, but basically it boils down to this year I have had a lot of change and growth and going outside of my comfort zone and so anytime that my nervous system is feeling a little bit challenged or navigating new things it likes to default back to these tendencies that it thinks will keep me safe. And the biggest difference now is that I am able to recognize that, instead of just feeling caught up in it and out of control and letting that guide me or take me to places of overwhelm. I more just observe that it's happening and I have a lot of tools that help me to shift out of it so I can continue living my life and or recording podcasts.

So we're definitely going to dive deep into that and if you feel like you have struggled with people pleasing or perfectionism, if you're having a hard time slowing down or resting even when you're exhausted, if you have felt just really irritable, even when things shouldn't be bothering you, or if you find yourself just spending way too much time on social media or watching TV, having a hard time really motivating yourself to do other things, then I think you're going to find this episode really eye opening because so many of those are signs of a trauma response.

I'm really passionate about talking about this topic and increasing awareness because it was so eye opening for me when I learned about trauma responses. It just increased my self awareness and it really empowered me to be able to shift out of so many of the tendencies and patterns that were really at the root of what had led me to burnout in the first place. And the biggest thing that I think is important to know is that so many of us are walking around in trauma responses without realizing it. For me, these patterns and basically being stuck in survival mode, I had had for a very, very long time. And I think so much of it is that I decided to become a vet at age six. From very, very early on, I knew that getting into vet school was hard. I knew that I needed excellent grades in order to get there, and as the, as the oldest sibling, I also always wanted to be and was expected to be the role model, to be good, and so many of those tendencies really shifted me into a couple of the trauma responses that we're going to be talking about.

And the unfortunate thing is that the veterinary profession and even vet schools, they really are rewarding and selecting for a lot of the tendencies of trauma responses. And so when we look at the high burnout and suicide rate in the veterinary profession, it's not surprising. We are being selected for that tendency to really be self sacrificing and to put others before ourselves and really just not putting our oxygen masks on first. And that is why that was one of the things I just talked about in my latest talk in the Beat the Burnout series that I'm doing. So that is a free series of talks that I'm hosting for anyone in the veterinary community because the high burnout rate cannot be our norm. There is so much that we can do to be creating positive change starting now. And so, I am sharing skills and tips of changes that can start, in order to to creating a positive ripple effect in the veterinary community. So I'll also leave a link to that in the show notes.

But even if you're not in the veterinary profession, just across the board really I feel like the majority of people are stuck in a trauma response, and it's not talked about enough. And one of the things that I think is somewhat misleading, is just the term trauma responses. Because when you hear the word trauma, you think of a big T trauma, right? Like we think of accidents, death, abuse, really.profound traumas, and it absolutely can be that and also, it can be so much more. And sometimes it can be an accumulation of really subtle things that shift the body into that state.

So they can be little t traumas and a trauma can happen anytime the body experiences more stress than it can process in the moment. And just think about day to day life, right? It's not normal to be having that pop off valve for your stress and to be releasing stress throughout the day. And we live in a society where instead of processing stress and having routine stress relief techniques It's just completely normalized to be dealing with stress through numbing, whether that is alcohol or comfort food, or screen time, or pills. That has just become the norm, and it has kind of become just accepted that everybody's walking around stressed. And so, what happens is, remembering that our body is always trying to keep us safe and protected and loved. That is our body's one mission. Even when it doesn't feel like it's cooperating at the root, it really is doing something that it thinks is going to keep you safe. And so what happens is that when it experiences too much stress, the body starts to becomes stuck in a stress response. And that's when it turns into a trauma response. If you think about a gazelle that's running from a lion,right? They're in flight mode, and you want to flee, and then once they're safe, then their body can go back to normal, right? Or if something startles you, you feel that stress response - maybe you jump and you have that flight and then everything goes back to normal. That's that normal healthy use of a stress response. That's very helpful.

But if you become stuck in that response, that is when the body starts to feel like everything is threatened. It latches on to that reaction, whether that's fight, flight, fawn, or freeze. And that becomes its default. And it starts to perceive non threatening things in its environment as threats. So your brain starts to have this default pattern, this stress response, anytime that it perceives a threat, even if you're actually safe.

It's kind of like your brain becomes this super sensitive smoke detector - as if anytime you turn on the oven, it thinks that there's a fire and it sounds the alarm. And so if you're stuck in the flight response, then something as simple and safe as rest may seem really threatening to you. Or if you're in fawn mode and someone asks you to do something even though your schedule is full, the thought of actually saying no may feel really scary to you.

And so when you are just living life and your brain is perceiving normal life events as threatening, and you're stuck in that stress response, that's when things get really exhausting. Because it's helpful to have those stress responses in the short term, but that requires so much energy, and it's an uncomfortable place to be, and it can make you feel out of control, because these are unconscious patterns. They're automatic habits that your brain has created, so that before you can even think, you're doing it. That's why you may be so frustrated with yourself of like, why did I just say yes to that when I definitely don't want to do it? It's because your brain just automatically is going into that fawn mode before you can think.

So with any clients that come to me, there is always a trauma response connected with some of the habits that are making them not feel good physically or mentally. It could be fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. But all of those, when you think about unhealthy habits, how all of those unhealthy habits are are either signs that they're in that trauma response or a result of it.

Now the good news is that once you recognize the signs of a trauma response or that you're in survival mode, that is such a game changer because now you know what your body needs and you understand why you just always feel exhausted, why you can never rest, why it feels like there's always more to do, or why you're always irritable, or why you just can't get yourself to bed at night, or you just can't get yourself off of the couch. All at the root, your body doesn't feel safe. It needs to have that signal and to learn that those things are not actually threats. And the good news is that your brain is very capable of rewiring and learning new patterns.You just have to be recognizing what's happening and telling your brain that you are safe and you want to start creating new patterns and habits instead. 

So let's go over the signs of each of the four trauma responses so that you can start maybe noticing them in yourself or in those around you:

So, with the flight response, that is that attempt to outrun perceived danger,right? If you think about you're being chased by a lion, you want to run. And so, individuals stuck in the flight trauma response often identify as perfectionists. Other signs would be that:

  • rest feels very uncomfortable - you may feel guilty
  • it might just feel very uncomfortable when you sit down
  • you may not feel like things like yoga or meditation are for you
  • often have workaholic tendencies
  • just always busy
  • if you're not doing something, you may be worrying or planning about what you're going to do next
  • you may have a lot of anxiety or panic disorders
  • obsessive or compulsive tendencies
  • may be more susceptible to addiction with stimulating substances like caffeine

So with the fight response, that comes from the belief that power and control can create safety, love, or avoid abandonment.You want to be fighting to keep yourself safe. So people in the fight response often have:

  • high expectations of others and then are frustrated when they don't meet their expectations
  • may be bullies
  • may have controlling behavior
  • may be very argumentative, angry, or just easily frustrated
  • not having a lot of patience
  • that anger can also be directed towards yourself
  • there may be feelings of entitlement or narcissistic tendencies

With the freeze response, that's the belief that being alone is safest.You want to be staying quiet and isolated. That feels safe. And if the stress is so severe, then the person may be so overwhelmed that they physically can't move. Other signs can be:

  • dissociating or feeling disconnected or that out of body experience
  • perceiving yourself as being lazy (a reminder that anytime you feel lazy, it just means that there's some other aspect of your life, physically or mentally, that's draining your energy)
  • a lack of emotions
  • fear of trying new things
  • difficulty making decisions or getting started
  • taking action, sleeping a lot or day dreaming a lot
  • you may really find comfort in activities like TVs, computers, video games, and just overall maybe zoning out
  • tending to avoid as much human interaction as possible.

And then with the fawn response, that stems from the belief that in order to stay safe or to earn a relationship, you need to prioritize other needs before your own. And so, often people in the fawn response identify as people pleasers. Other signs would be:

  • lack of boundaries
  • not being able to say no
  • you may survey others thoughts, opinions, or feelings in order to determine how you feel about things
  • difficulty identifying how you feel
  • prioritizing everyone else before you
  • may even have difficulty having desire for fun and play
  • may not have a strong sense of who you are
  • low self esteem
  • it may be very exhausting being around new people or in new social situations
  • you may not feel very connected with others, even when you're around them, because it's hard to show up as your authentic self
  • you may have a lot of guilt, shame, self criticism, judgment

Those are some of the signs of the Fawn response. So, now that we have covered those, just taking a moment and thinking - hmm, do any of those responses sound familiar to you, and had you thought of those as potentially being connected to being in survival mode, or a sign that your body is feeling threatened or unsafe?

When I first learned about these, it was just so eye opening, because for me, both the flight and fawn responses ,you know, I talk a lot about that perfectionist tendency, having trouble slowing down, the people pleasing, and I felt very disconnected from knowing who I really was outside of those trauma responses. It was kind of confusing to me, because I had tied so much of my identity to those tendencies that thinking about who I was outside of those was confusing to me. And if you're experiencing any of that or any of these are sounding familiar, that is, it's good news because recognizing that one of the biggest things to prioritize is helping your body to feel safe and starting to turn to little habits that when you're noticing these signs, recognizing that that's just that your body thinking that something is scary or threatening and it's trying to keep you safe. Now you can start to decide if you want to continue these habits, or if you'd like to be able to rest more, or to have more compassion for others, or to have motivation to be, you know, connecting with others, or doing things, or to be sticking up for boundaries. These are all things that you absolutely can do, and a big piece is just starting to tell your body that you're safe.

So now that you have this perspective, take a minute and think about are there areas of your life where you have been feeling overwhelmed, like you have high stress. Are you turning to habits that aren't making you feel good? Are you feeling out of control? And at the root can you see any signs of a trauma response and how that could be contributing to those feelings?

This is where we see that all aspects of your health influence all aspects of your life, and all aspects of your life influence all aspects of your health. They are all connected. And If you take a look at this, you can see how it can start to create a vicious cycle, right? Like, say you are stuck in the flight response. So, you are just constantly busy because that feels good. That's one of the trickiest things and the catch 22 about trauma responses, is that turning to those tendencies feels safe. And so, when you're trying to break out of them, that can feel really threatening to your body. And so, especially in the flight response, the thing is that our society really rewards that kind of behavior, right? We are in hustle culture - constantly being busy or workaholic tendencies - they are often rewarded or there's this badge of honor that you are not taking vacation time or you're just always working so hard. But that's when you get into that mindset of being "too busy", right? Too busy to prioritize any of your basic necessities.That's when you are staying up way too late, so you're waking up exhausted. That's when you don't have time, quote unquote, to make healthy meals or even to order a healthy meal, or you don't have time to work out, or you are just so stressed that you're exhausted, right?

And if we think about the fight response, just that irritated, argumentative feeling the catch22 there is that often, what that person really needs is connection with others, and yet their response is to be turning to behaviors that's pushing them away. And then they have these unrealistic expectations of others, and it creates this vicious cycle of they don't feel good. But their default becomes a behavior that pushes others away. And with the fight response in particular, this is where as we look at our world, I do feel like it is becoming increasingly polarized and reactive. And, it's so important and helpful to notice that whenever people, you know, are being trolls online or argumentative, at the root, they are feeling threatened or unsafe in some way. And a way for us all to start having compassion and connecting and having productive conversations can be just recognizing that even when someone is being inappropriate and disrespectful what they need is to be seen as a human and they need to be finding safety. And it can just help, even if you're on the receiving end of that, just to get curious, to say, like, I wonder what's going on in their life right now, or I wonder what has happened to them in the past that has made it so that they are stuck in this response. To make it so that they are thinking that this is okay, or maybe they're feeling out of control, maybe they're thinking it's going to make them feel better. That can help, just to at least have that perspective that this is not about you, it's just that they are feeling threatened and unsafe. And that connection is so important to body, mind, and heart health, right? Connection, when they look at those longevity studies, genuine connection is so important to living a long and healthy life, and so that's so important of really being able to understand what our body's signs are telling us. If we notice that we're getting caught in these, argumentative or super irritable states, really softening towards ourselves. Not judging ourselves or others. Instead, just getting curious about what do we need? Why is this feeling unsafe? Why am I feeling threatened? And what do I need to create a safe space or to tell my body that I am okay.

And when we think about the fawn response and thinking about not being able to establish boundaries and how often that also can lead into that mindset of being too busy, right? You're over committing and if you are always putting others needs before your own, there's that self sacrificing. And that's when we're not seeing those basic necessities being met, right? That's when those basic necessities like, rest, water, real food, sunlight, movement, they start to be treated like a luxury that's dispensable instead of a priority - a critical foundation to having energy to show up as your best self and that of course just just continues to feed into this stressed out state that can also lead to a lot of resentment. You know, when you are just always over committing and not being able to speak up for the boundaries that you need, that does often lead to resentment and that's a big distinction is that you can absolutely be a kind and compassionate person, but notice how that's impacting your energy. If you are saying yes, and that's coming from a place of making your heart happy and that's giving you energy and helping you to feel connected, then that's great. If that is if that "being nice" is making you have resentment towards them, if that's draining your energy, then that's not nice for either of you, right? And that's when that starts to be a sign of a trauma response.

And then when we think about the freeze response and how that could contribute to not feeling good in your body, that can be a hard one to get out of because you are just feeling so overwhelmed by something in life that your body just is feeling like everything... that moving forward is seeming scary and threatening. And so the first thing is not to be beating yourself up if you keep finding yourself spending too much time watching TV, or sleeping too much, or just not being as productive as you want to be. Instead, again, just softening and recognizing that what you need first is to be gentle with yourself and to get curious about how you can start signaling to your body that you are safe and using anti anxiety tools. And this is why the Life Boost principle of ditching judgment and embracing curiosity is so key and having kindness towards yourself, right? Because when we judge these behaviors that's when it only feeds into that feeling of stress and feeling threatened. But if we can get curious, and now as you have this new awareness of, oh, this is a sign that my body is too stressed, now what do I need in order to feel supported and safe? That is key to being able to move forward in a way that feels really empowering.

And can you imagine how, if this just became common knowledge, if this was always at the forefront of everybody's mind, instantly recognizing these patterns for what they are, these trauma responses, can you imagine how that would change everything? How it would change the way that we treat ourselves? How it would change the way that we interact with each other?

What we really need to do is create a new norm, where as soon as we're noticing a sign of a trauma response, we're stopping, we're pausing, and we're noticing that that's what's happening. And at the next step, we are getting curious about what needs to happen in order to create a safer space for me or for those around me. Can you imagine what a positive impact that would have in the world?

And a really key thing to know is that all of these are just habits. They're habituated patterns that our brain has gotten used to. Anything thought, felt, or done with repetition turns into a habit. And the great thing is that our brains are very capable of creating new habits. You can think of these habits as just highways in your brain. It's like every time it goes down that path of one of these responses, it's like it's paving it more and more, making it easier just to go on cruise control down that path. But you can put up a roadblock on that path. And when you do that, you can start creating new paths. If you start going down that path of you're about to say yes to something that you want to say no to, you can put up a roadblock so you can start getting used to pausing and then thinking and saying no and sticking up for yourself.

And the way to do that, number one is just to be noticing that that's happening, observing when you're getting caught in those patterns. But then you can put up roadblocks using anti anxiety tools. And if you haven't already, you should absolutely get my free one minute anti anxiety tool. It is my secret weapon for creating positive change. And in that free resource, I'll link to it in the show notes, it's going to teach you my favorite anti anxiety tool and then six ways that you can use it to be creating positive change. I talk about how you can be using that to be stopping patterns and habits that you don't want and it's also sharing ways that you can be using it in the morning or in order to fall asleep and throughout the day in order to be shifting your body into a calmer state. That is not only going to tell your body that you're safe, it's also going to be serving as a roadblock so that you can start creating new habits that feel better. And if you're in the veterinary profession and you missed the first talk in the Beat the Burnout series, that is an hour long talk sharing anti anxiety tools that actually work, and the replay is still available, so I'll link to that in the show notes as well.

But at the start of the episode,I mentioned that I was finding myself falling into more perfectionism tendencies, and I am at a point where I have just this whole year,up until this point, I was learning a lot, and it was awesome, and I'm so glad that I did, but I was starting to notice signs in my body that I was kinda like feeling a little bit maxed out. And then in addition to that,I made the decision to take the next couple of months off  from vet shifts and for the first time I'm able to just focus on Life Boost and my coaching and creating positive change in the veterinary world in other ways other than working in hospitals and that is something new to me. And I am used to being really busy, and I'm used to having that steady, reliable income of doing those vet shifts versus with coaching it is more unpredictable and with that entrepreneurship and so that just brings up a lot of, I've talked about like my money mindset before, and just putting myself out there more. And so it's just a sign like I am expanding my nervous system's capacity. And that is good. This is growth that feels great. And at the same time, all of these signs of when I notice, like perfectionism or people pleasing bubbling up, now that's just really valuable information.

So turning to another one of the Life Boost principles is embracing your inner researcher, right? Just observing and collecting data about your actions so that you can learn more about you. And now that you have all these signs to be watching for, signs of the trauma responses, that's just more valuable data. Because when I notice that I'm starting to get caught in these cycles,Then I know, okay, it's time to really be prioritizing some things that help me to feel safe. Or maybe it's time to be calling out some of these thoughts that are making me get caught in that perfectionism. Noticing my inner critic and just calling that out so that I can move past that in a way that feels good so that I can protect my energy.

And if you would like to dive even deeper into trauma responses and rewiring your brain and really just getting to the root of why things are feeling stressful or overwhelming or why you haven't been able to stick with certain healthy habits and you're just wanting to feel good in your body and mind, then my one year Life Boost Mentorship Program is amazing. I have created it so that it is for anyone who's feeling overwhelmed, it is going to help you to feel empowered and energized in a very doable way. If you can just invest like 10 to 15minutes per day, so if you think about how much time you spend on social media every day, or, you know, just any amount of time that you spend doing something that doesn't actually make you feel really great, if you could just invest that amount of time on checking in with one of the lessons or doing one of the exercises in this mentorship program, you will experience huge change. You will just be continuing to identify all of those invisible chains, those unconscious chains, those unconscious habits, thoughts, and tendencies that have been weighing you down, and you will be freeing yourself from them, and I cannot tell you how liberating that feels and how much energy you unlock as you just start to really partner with your body, mind, and heart. And I've even made it so that this program, you have weekly group coaching, there's a community forum where you can ask questions or share successes at any time, and then there are also lots of courses, but you just have one lesson at a time and you can access that even on your phone. There's an app. So I've made it so doable for you and I'll leave a link to that so you can learn more in the show notes, but also if you have interest in that, I would love to meet with you for an hour. We can schedule one of those clarity coaching calls so that we can talk specifically what you're experiencing so I can get to know you and we can make sure that we're finding the next step that feels best for you. Alright?

So, I hope you found this episode helpful, please reach out - I'd love to hear from you. So if you enjoyed this episode, or if one of the trauma responses, if you had a little bit of a lightbulb moment, realizing that that sounded like you, send me a message and let me know. I love to hear from you. And if you also believe that our world would be a better place if we all were thinking about trauma responses and recognizing that and getting curious about how we can be creating a safer space, less stress for us and for those around us, then please share this with those that you know so that we can help to create a new norm where this is more at the forefront of everybody's minds.

Cheers to your inevitable health, happiness, and success!

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