Tag Archives: Trauma

How to deal with emotional overwhelm

‘Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry {to Dumbledore}.  ‘Is this real?  Or has this been happening inside my head?’ Of course it is happening inside your head,  Harry,  but why on earth should that mean it is not real?’

Quote from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Part 7; p 579 by J.K. Rowling
Photo credit:  Wikia 

What is real?

As I have been reading the Harry Potter series,  I came across the above quote near the end.  It is a question that swirls through my head on a regular basis.  Recently many memories are coming to the surface.  Neither real bad,  nor very pleasant.  They just are.

Just like Dumbledore I know that my thoughts, feelings,  understanding etc. from those memories are real.  And as such they are part of my truth.  It is my perception of that event when it happened.  Even though my parents perception of that same event completely differs,  my experience is still valid ánd real.

Then,  something occurs,  that emotionally overwhelms us,  we overreact and don’t understand what is going on.  To make life more complicated,  we can overreact because of two reasons:  because of how our bipolar mind works,  and/or because of past traumatic events.

What we have to realize,  is that an occurrence today will also tap into our emotions from the past and emotions trump.  It means that the two merge and cause our emotions to intensify and overwhelm us which in turn causes our response to be much stronger than the present situation warrants.

The challenge is this:  to respond to todays event with the appropriate action without being able to trust our emotions.   In other words,  to be aware that an event is a trigger to past events,  check ourselves and keep a reign on our emotions.

how to dealw with emotional overwhelm

How do we achieve that?

I find I have to step back sometimes when I feel overwhelmed.

Being aware of our bipolar and trauma triggers.  I can never stress it enough:  we need to be(come) students of our own life!!!

Once we know what is triggered,  it is important to attribute our feelings.  If it is the bipolar disorder brain or if it is an overreaction because of,  for instance, a certain trauma,  we label it accordingly.  Then we give it value:  do we want it or not?  Is it in our best interest?  Maybe we have to take note and work on it with a counselor or talk it over with a friend or support group.

The next step is to focus on the here and now and practise mindfulness.  Why the here and now?  Because a bipolar mood as well as unprocessed trauma will always drag us to the past or the future.  The past might be full of memories that trip us,  the future is full of ‘might-be’ and ‘ifs’ causing anxiety and fear.  It all feeds into our emotional system and as a result we get easily overwhelmed or hijacked by what we feel.

Real life example

As far as I can I have made peace with the total abandonment my mother subjected me to.  I am in a much better place than I have ever been.  Yet,  if something happens that triggers those feelings of abandonement… it is still a hard nut to crack!

Recently I met an old friend,  we used to have a deep friendship that stopped quite a number of years ago.  We made an appointment for coffee later that week.  

Afterwards,  my emotions were out of whack and I wondered what was going on.  I figured (amongst some other things that were happening) that the old emotions were surfacing of the time our friendship shipwrecked.  I was really angry.  More than the situation warranted.  

So I thought some more and realized I felt abandoned by her… and that triggers the abandonment issue with my mom which is very strong powerful stuff.  

I decided to use my anger in the here and now to keep a safe distance between her and me.  I also figured out what I wanted to say if the issue came up.  

When we met for coffee I was calm and I had a strategy in place to end the time together early if I felt I needed or wanted that.  It worked out fine – in that the issue came up,  I calmly explained my side and we will see what happens next.  

Afterwards I talked the situation over with my counselor. 

When we apply these steps,  like in my example above,  it is possible to deal with triggers and the emotional overwhelm it causes.

Step back, take stock, be mindful and live in the here and now!

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How are you coping?

Coping in relation to trauma and PTSD

Coping mechanism

When you are confronted with a traumatic event,  there are certain automatic responses taking place in your brain.  Some of them you are conscious of,  like the adrenaline that heightens your awareness and prepares your body for action,  others are happening on a unconscious level.

Either way,  the coping mechanisms used are adaptive,  and therefore useful in reducing stress,  or maladaptive and increasing your stress level.

Whatever you choose or is chosen for you,  those mechanisms are there to help you manage the anxiety produced by the traumatic event.  As I stated in a previous post,  no one can decide what constitutes a traumatic event for someone else.

About 400 to 600 coping mechanisms have been identified,  according to Wikipedia.  So,  why do you cope the way you do?

You are unique

Photo by me

Life is experienced differently since each of us is unique in every way.  You are not born as a blank piece of paper.  Generations have gone before

you,  having an impact on who you are.  You might have your father’s nose or your grandmother’s eyes.  You inherit certain traits,  not just in how you look,  but also in how you behave and react to life events.

For instance,  anger is a coping mechanism in my family of origin.  I deal with a lot of anger,  but having been exposed to the detrimental effect it can have,  I struggle in expressing my anger in a healthy way.  In the beginning of my healing journey I wasn’t even aware I had anger issues.  Can you say denial?

Upbringing & social environment

The way you have been raised has a huge influence in how you perceive trauma or stress.  Maybe you had to overcome the death of a parent.  Or the betrayal of trust.  Or you had a happy and care free childhood.  Maybe your parents believed in you and  raised you to be a strong person in his or her own right.  Or the whole family system was skewed and you had to take care of a parent,  instead of being taken care of.

Maybe you were bullied in school.  Or you were a little shy.  You were the popular guy or girl.  You were intelligent,  learned easily.  Or you struggled to do your homework and exams,  feeling dumb.  Or you were told over and over that you wouldn’t amount to anything.

I can go on and on.  The way your parents relate to you and vice versa influences all your relationships with major authorities.  Do you get that?  Do you really get that?

I was astounded to discover that after finally being able to leave my highly dysfunctional family behind,  I entered a social network with leadership that was actually identical to my relationship with my father!  And I walked into it with open eyes.  I had absolutely no clue what was going on,  since I was used to misuse/abuse of authority from my parents.  How could I recognize a healthy authority-dependence relationship when I had no idea what it actually looked like?

Coping skills

Besides being influenced by your environment and unconsciously learning from it,  there are also coping skills you can acquire.  First you need to be aware of how you respond to the stressor.  Then you consciously have to change your reaction to something (more) desirable.  This takes practice.  For example,  to reduce stress you train yourself to focus on your breathing instead of the stressor.  Or you learn how to practice mindfulness in order to stay in the moment and not be hijacked by the stressor.

In other words,  even though you might have inherited lots of coping mechanisms,  you don’t need to be stuck with them.  You decide the outcome you want,  then you work on the skills you need to reach your goal!

So,  how are you coping?

Further reading:

A list of coping mechanisms

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Overwhelming tiredness, know what I mean?


I was gonna write a book review (which I did start, yay me!) but I wasn’t  able to finish it in time for today’s post.

“Why?”,  you ask.

Welllll……. I am so tired today.

“Aw,  come on.  Get yourself going!”,  you might think.  (Please, can somebody tell me where the comma actually belongs?  It looks so stupid,  whichever way I place it.  TVM!)

For me,  every day seems to be a surprise party,  some days I have fun and other days the party is cancelled.

It is so darn frustrating as it interferes with my plans and appointments.  Me no likey!  I hate to cancel last-minute,  or worse,  go anyway and pull myself through on pure will power.  I know I suffer for it later.  Sometimes it is just worth it,  other times…

“Have you….. ?”,  before you go on I’ll explain.


I’ve been tested.  And no,  it is not something physical as such.

So,  what causes this overwhelming tiredness,  where I have to lay down,  cuz I just can’t stand anymore (pun intended 😉 );  where once down I don’t get up for several hours;  where I don’t have the energy to cook,  even when I am hungry;  where I am not able to concentrate,  read  or do anything but simply…  lay down?

My theory?

My body is overwhelmed by my emotional experience.

“Come again?”,  you say.

Well,  actually,  I hope that some of you know what I am talking about.

Last night I watched a movie on tv.  While before I wouldn’t shed a tear,  no matter how emotional the movie scene was,  since I am on my trauma healing journey,  I suddenly find tears running down my face.  It feels embarrassing,  even though I am on my own.  Who cares if I cry cuz of a movie?!  Apparently,  I do.

It takes some getting used to,  but it makes me happy as it is a sign that my emotions are coming alive.

The down side?

The next day I suffer an overwhelming tiredness…

I partied for my birthday with 5 other people,  I really enjoyed myself.  Really!  It comes with learning to live more and more in the moment,  being mindful.  Since happiness happens now,  I do experience ‘happy’,  and love it!

The result?

Two days of a sorta knocked out overwhelming tiredness causing sleepiness resulting in being glued to the couch doing literally nothing.

You know,  I can describe it a bit like this.  Ever been sitting on your legs too long?  Me too.  Ever tried to get up and walk?  Me too.  If it is real bad,  your leg(s) won’t hold you,  you feel all pins and needles and numb.  The longer you sat on them,  the longer it takes for them to ‘wake up’ again, the more painful it is.

The pins,  needles and numbness is terrible,  but having the use of your legs back is awesome!

Well,  that sort of happened to my emotions.  They were pretty frozen,  now they are thawing,  which is an interesting, messy process.

I hate it,  cuz I lose time.

I love it,  cuz I’m getting feelings back in my soul.

Anyone know what I mean?

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Trauma: what is it?

Trauma according to the dictionary is

  1. an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects.  This is also called psychological or emotional trauma.
  2. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.  Typically an injury.

Trauma,  according to Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW,   is an event that is life threatening or psychologically devastating to the point where your capacities to cope are overwhelmed.  Following trauma you may relive the traumatic event,  fragmented memories related to the trauma arise unexpectedly,  emotional,  and behavioral dysregulation occurs.

Trauma causes your body to fill with adrenaline,  preparing it for fight or flight.  If neither are possible,  you will freeze.  In any case,  the memory and the effects of the trauma are stored in your body.  This is important to know in order to resolve the issue.

Trauma has three main characteristics:

  1. it comes with an intense negative emotion.
  2. you feel alone.
  3. you feel trapped.

Trauma causes your mind and body to be in shock. You have to process what happened,  work your way through your emotions,  accept the consequences and move on.

The length of time needed to process the event depends on the individual – we are all unique and different.  Thus there is no set time.  Just like there is no rule for what constitutes an event to be traumatic or not.  It is not the event,  but how you experience it that decides if it is a trauma.  Meaning it is subjective.

Therefore we can never judge someone else’s trauma and tell them to “get over it”.

With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),  you remain in psychological shock. Your memory of what happened and your feelings about it are disconnected. In order to move on, it’s important to face and feel your memories and emotions.  source

It is also possible to sustain trauma while not even knowing it.  (I know,  totally unfair!)  This is known as subtle trauma.  An example is childhood trauma,  especially under the age of 3.  When the events are severely traumatic,  your emotions and memories go ‘underground’,  they disconnect.  PTSD is born.

When this occurs you fall into a vicious cycle.  PTSD produces anxiety.  Trying to manage your anxiety generates more anxiety which increases the need to try to manage it and so on.  Nasty business!

How do I know?
Unfortunately,  I am dealing with a lot of childhood and adolescent trauma.  Like abandonment & neglect,  emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse.  I think that covers it.  Hence,  I suffer from PTSD (ew).  Right, change that to:  I am overcoming PTSD.  (Phew, that sounds better!) 

I am not telling you so you feel very sorry for me.  Don’t.  (Well… a little is ok.  Maybe.)  Life is life and none of us come through it unscathed.  Plenty of peeps have suffered more,  plenty have suffered less.  Let’s be clear that this is absolute NOT the issue here.

If you have followed my blog even for a bit,  you know I am interested in how to live my life to the fullest and encouraging others to do so as well.  Working my way through my trauma’s will significantly improve my life and most likely my bipolar.  I decided to share it with you so you know you are NOT alone and there is a way out.  In that the traumatic event will sit in a place in your life where it will not disturb your daily life anymore.

Let’s go for it,  shall we?

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For further reading:

What is Trauma? by  Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Symptoms,  Treatment and Self-help


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