February 10, 2017

Why Emotional Avoidance and Numbing Won’t Help You Cope With Trauma

Why Emotional Avoidance and Numbing Wont Help You Cope With Trauma

During most traumatic events, we either don’t have the chance to protect ourselves or our efforts are ineffective or totally overwhelmed.

When we have not resolved the feeling of threat in our psyche and nervous systems, most of us will work hard to build a life of protection in which we can feel safe.

The exception to this is the few who instead take on the counterphobic strategy of denying the need for protection by repeatedly putting themselves in dangerous situations, trying to prove that they are not vulnerable, not afraid, and can’t be hurt.

For the vast majority who do seek protection, there are two common defensive strategies. One is numbing (see “Turned to Stone,” page 36), and the other is avoidance (see “Living in a Broom Closet,” page 43 and page 52 in symptoms of PTSD). Both of these are ways of creating a cocoon around ourselves, and both are reasonable attempts to stay safe.

The Cotton Cocoon (Avoidance)

The cotton cocoon is an attempt to create safety by avoiding exposure to any disturbing stimuli. Just as we might use cotton to buffer a wound, we use our cotton cocoon to buffer us from the disturbing images and information that saturate our modern world. Sometimes this avoidance is quite global; in the most extreme cases, people don’t want to leave their home. At other times, avoidance is related to specific factors associated with trauma.

Let’s say a woman was walking late at night and was raped by a group of three Caucasian men who had all been drinking.

The rape victim’s subsequent avoidance may fall anywhere along a range of possibilities from not going out to not walking alone to not walking alone at night; she may feel unsafe around all men, around Caucasian men, around Caucasian men who have been drinking alcohol, or around Caucasian men she doesn’t know who have been drinking.

How broad and generalized her reaction is will likely be the result of many factors related to her degree of shock, her history, her psychological structure, her recovery, her resources, and so on.

Our avoidance can be specific and calibrated to risk, or it can become a way of life.

When it becomes a way of life, it becomes a retreat from the world. We use this retreat to create a cocoon of safety that I call the cotton cocoon. This cocoon works well to buffer you from sharp jabs and can get rather cozy. You can get comfortable there and not really want to leave. If you believe (unconsciously) that this cocoon of avoidance is what has kept you safe, it will feel very threatening to let go of it.

The Stone Cocoon (Numbing)

Numbed-out people don’t need to retreat from the world as fully as those using the avoidance strategy, because they wear their protection closer in. They retreat not from the world but from their own experience. Retreating from inner experience may in some ways be more practical than retreating from the world. After all, you may not have the option of retreating from the world; you may have to go to work, buy groceries, see healthcare providers, and so on.

The defense of numbing creates what I call a cocoon of stone. The stone cocoon isn’t as thick as the cotton cocoon and doesn’t have as much space around it but doesn’t need it because it is harder to penetrate. What can break through stone? Using the above example, this woman may even witness a gang rape scene in a movie and barely react. She has gone so far inside that little can reach her.

The Strategies as Attempts to Regulate Arousal

We can also talk about these two protective mechanisms in terms of character types and physiology. Those of us who use the defense of avoidance (the cotton cocoon) do so because we feel sensitive. We feel the only way to protect ourselves is to avoid what may be difficult.

Often we are considered “thin-skinned” (see “Sensitivities” in chapter 3, page 28). It is as if everything affects us. Since we don’t have a “skin” of psychic protection between the world and our experience, we want to build a wall and keep at least some of the world out. This is related to a state of high arousal. It’s like having a hair trigger; it doesn’t take much to trip it. Not being able to calibrate our response, the too-sensitive type tries to calibrate exposure.

Those of us who are numbed out, on the other hand, don’t need to calibrate exposure so much, because we have turned the feeling switch off. We can walk around in this crazy world and not get freaked out because it doesn’t affect us as much as it does our sensitive counterparts. We are well protected by our stone cocoon.

Both of these strategies are attempts to regulate arousal. The too-sensitive person ends up disconnecting from the world in an attempt to regulate arousal, and the numbed-out person turns off feeling to regulate arousal.

Which Tools Do You Need?

In both cases the challenge is the same: to stay connected with yourself and tolerate a range of emotions. Both require a safe place to practice this. But the particular strategies that are helpful, which tools to pick up, may differ depending on which of these two patterns you rely on to regulate arousal.

If you feel too sensitive, slowing down your emotional process of working with your feelings and self-soothing will be particularly important. Most of the tools of the next chapter pertain to you.

A major challenge in healing work (and life) for the too-sensitive type is to avoid being overwhelmed by emotions (flooding).

Once you know you can achieve this and work through other fears that keep you constricted, you’ll be able to leave the cocoon of avoidance. The cocoon will feel too cramped by then, and you will have been transformed, like a butterfly.

If, on the other hand, you are numbed out and frozen, the task is a bit different. You will still want the skills in the next chapter, because when you shift from numb to feeling, you may need help regulating the feeling. Yet the first task for you is to want to feel again.

Working with a therapist to slowly reconnect with your body and emotions is one possible place to begin, as well as practices like journaling, which may help you reconnect with yourself. Or maybe life has something else in store for you, like falling in love.

Numbed out is not the natural human condition, and life has a way of trying to nudge us in the direction of healing.

It’s important to recognize that whatever strategies we have developed, we have done this to cope, and the strategies have served some purpose. Can you appreciate this? Also remember that none of us who’ve had the sense to develop cocoons leaves them quickly or easily. And perhaps this is how nature intended it. The cocoon is a protected place in which we can develop.


Exploring Your Cocoon

  • Set aside a few minutes to feel your cocoon. It’s best if you can bracket yourself from interruptions, be in a relaxing environment, and perhaps play some soothing background music. On the other hand, if you like to write in a coffee shop and take this as a creative exercise, you can do that, too.
  • Let yourself drop into a receptive state and feel your cocoon. What is it like? Is it dark or light? Does it feel soft? Is it comfortable and roomy? Dull and boring? Have your relatives moved in? Perhaps it’s difficult to breathe in there.
  • Take some time to let yourself imagine this cocoon. Let your unconscious get as playful as it likes, and bring in as many senses as you can. Also notice how you feel inside it. Do you feel safe, scared, deadened, restricted, or happy? How do you feel inside this cocoon today? You might even let an image or experience arise that reflects your readiness to leave the cocoon.
  • An additional exercise might be to make a list of the ways your cocoon has served you and a second list of the all the ways you’ve paid a price for this.

Clearly, there’s more than one way to talk about the way trauma shows up. We can talk in clinical terms, in social terms, or in imaginative, poetic terms. We can look at societal costs as well as personal costs. Some might even try to calculate economic costs. However you choose to talk about it, trauma is something we live with.

From the book Healing from Trauma by Jasmin Lee Cori. Reprinted with permission from Da Capo Lifelong Books, © 2008.

About the author

Jasmin Lee CoriJasmin Lee Cori is a licensed psychotherapist based in Boulder, Colorado. She wrote Healing From Trauma from her dual perspective as a therapist and trauma survivor. A gifted self-help writer, she brought similar clinical acumen and insight to her book for under-mothered adults, The Emotionally Absent Mother.

Her newest book, The Magic of Your True Nature, came out in Oct 2013, along with a new edition of Freefall to the Beloved. Her counseling includes working with a number of spiritual issues.

Enjoy her blog on emotional healing, transformation, and spirituality at www.jasmincori.com.

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