Understanding Change Part IV: Trauma and Change

For the past three days I have been focusing on the elements of any change process—the success factors for preparing for change, readiness for change and resistance to change, mostly in anticipation of the biggest ‘change week’ of the year: New Year’s.

I have focused primarily on the aspects of change that anyone would encounter and now want to add in some thoughts about change and how surviving trauma affects your connection to change.

Yesterday when I was talking about resistance to change I talked about how the behaviors or habits that we have that are hard to change are often a form of protection. The industry term for these protections is “defense” but it is simpler to think of it as something that makes you feel better or less anxious in the short term, though often you feel worse in the long term.

These habits exist for people who have lived through trauma and those who have not. Most people have habits and behaviors they are trying to change. That’s normal. What I have found is that for people who have lived through trauma, the habits are way more entrenched—and it can feel like more of a life and death struggle to give them up.

This is not because they are necessarily more destructive habits or that people who have lived through trauma have less motivation to change. Most of it lies in the experience of anxiety. The experience of trauma creates a level of terror and fear that can come back at a moments notice and the protections or defenses that trauma survivors create to get through the trauma become the talismans against that terror and fear. It is hard to untangle giving up the habit with the old terror:  at the neural level they are inextricably linked.

So when you have lived through trauma and you want to make changes, it can often feel like you are giving up the very thing that had you feel safe. YES, I know it doesn’t sound logical. And YES, I know that your present life isn’t filled with that terror. But your brain still links them, so change can be more tricky than for people who have not lived through trauma. Which is bad news because change is hard, period. And it's even harder for you.

What I have found is that trauma survivors are well served by smaller and more structured increments in change. They are well served by having better supports in place. Really, most people are. Small changes are absorbed better by our systems and we build self-efficacy for change through the repetition of successful actions. So regardless of what change program you are using as a survivor, or you are using with the survivors you are treating, three things are really important: be respectful of pace, be respectful of ‘dosage’ and be respectful of the role that the habit was playing.

Pace: Go slowly. Trust your pace of change. Imagine that your inner wisdom really knows how fast you can change and just trust it. Take time to talk about the pros and cons of change. Take time to prepare so that you are creating a stable environment for change. Take time to get the resources you need. Take time to make small changes, talk about them, absorb them and move to the next small piece. Trust lulls in the change process and trust moments of moving ahead.

Dosage: What is the smallest increment that you can change and try that. Then shift it only a bit. Remember that each experience of doing it differently is exposing you to experience both a bit of the old horror/anxiety and a bit of a new experience. Both of these can be overwhelming emotions—and so you want to be mindful of the pace you are moving and the amount you are taking on so that the experience is tolerable. There is an old adage in working in residential treatment that growth only happens at a point of struggle, but you want it to be challenging not overwhelming. Because if you get to the point of overwhelm you are more likely to relapse and go back to the old behavior because that old behavior made you feel better. Overwhelm doesn't lead to change. Overwhelm leads to relapse. So titrating the amount of challenge is key to success

Respect the Role the Habit Played: Yesterday when I was talking about the Immunity to Change work with resistance, I was essentially outlining their program which was designed to illuminate your hidden competing commitment—the thing that is more important to you than the stated behavior change you are trying to make. It is a great exercise and it can and likely will illuminate the survival behaviors that you used. I remember doing the exercise for the first time—and the behavior I was trying to change was to have a cleaner house, have less clutter in my work areas. And I eventually came to a place where I realized through the exercise that clutter was my way of remaining invisible. I used my messes to ‘hide.’ And hiding made me feel safe. Insight is great. But it isn’t what makes change. Practice make change. And I had to find ways of experiencing ‘being visible’ and ‘not hiding’ in small, incremental ways that I could tolerate. I had to respect that protection and not just bust it up all at once. I think that all of this is true for anyone who is trying to make change. But it is crucial for trauma survivors.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016