Why Timing May Be Everything

Many of us are overwhelmed with what has changed, the loss that seems to extend in every direction. Through the hard (but necessary) process of working through grief and loss, we most certainly will find more strength, resilience, and will no doubt be reminded about our capacity to overcome tremendous challenge. But the “work” is a tender process. There is a time to work through our traumas, but there is also a time to put it aside in order to keep us from becoming completely overwhelmed.

Mary, 34, came to therapy due to feeling ongoing activation surrounding prior abuse she had received by her step-father growing up. Her mother, addicted to painkillers and alcohol, was rarely out of bed long enough to even notice what was happening to her seven year old daughter. Today, Mary was married to a succesful lawyer, had two young children, and managed to find time to both exercise and volunteer at her children’s preschool. And then the pandemic happened.

Mary described feeling overwhelmed most of the time. She discussed a constant flood of memories that she thought she had processed through many years ago. She had confronted both her mother and step-father, had gone to therapy, and knew the importance of ongoing self-care. She had boundaries, a positive attitude, healthy coping skills, and felt a deep sense of purpose and connection to those around her. Based on what she had done to heal, she found herself completely caught off guard by the strong emotions that had resurfaced through the quarantine.

She discussed crying easily, and feeling a constant heavy she couldn’t quite find the words to describe. She also discussed moments where she felt as if she was in a cloud, dissociative, and disconnected from not just herself, but also the others around her. We discussed how she felt like a child again, trapped, unsafe, and victimized. We spoke about activation as a normal process, including how when triggered, we could feel as if we were back at the beginning of our healing journey, as if we were back there. Symptoms can become even more intrusive when dealing with current stressors. She listened intently as I described what happens through the process of overwhelm, and also listened when I offered reassurances that she would never go back to the beginning. She discussed needing to push throughwhat was happening, along with a determination to dive back into the “work.” Instead, I encouraged her to go in a different direction.

There are times when we need to process raw material, the grief that keeps us chained to a moment in time, but there are also times when we need to put it on the shelf. I have found that for many of my clients, this is not a black and white process. Healing requires the ability to stay open to wherever we are in the process, to pace ourselves, and to also stay intentional. But there are times when we have to slow it all down, processing trauma in bite size pieces rather then all at once. For Mary, the work entailed finding balance, the moments where she could acknowledge what was coming up for her, while also giving herself permission to put it away when she started to slip, feeling either overwhelmed or detached.

If you are struggling with feeling anything similar to Mary, know that balance is possible. At somepoint in time you will be able to process what you need to, taking it off the shelf in order to do the work that is needed for you to heal. But this may not be the time. When grief feels particularly raw, or when we have new loss on top of old, it may make more sense to contain what feels particularly big until we are better prepared to deal with whatever is coming up. Here are some exercises to help with containment when you need it:

Distract Yourself in Healthy Ways

Learn to distract yourself in healthy ways when things start to feel overwhelming, but don’t wait until it is too late. Notice if you are feeling irritable, experiencing an uncomfortable body sensation, or thoughts that are negative or demeaning. These are the moments you need to get outside, exercise, call a friend, or do something to feel creative, purposeful, or both.

There is a Difference Between Containment and Avoidance

Avoidance can entail unhealthy distraction skills such as drinking, drugs, pornography, or out of control spending. There is a big difference between putting it on the shelf, and saying there is nothing to put on the shelf. “I’m fine” are always suspect words when said in the midst of a storm that has yet to pass. Acknowledge your feelings, thenput them on the shelf. You will take them back down when you can and when you are ready. Your feelings are still valid even if you need a break. Act accordingly.

Find the Ground Beneath Your Feet

If you are feeling out of your body, numb, or simply disconnected, it may be helpful to do some grounding exercises. Get curious about anything around you including your surroundings. What are five things you are hearing outside your home? What you five things you are hearing inside your home? Engage all of your senses in this exercise.

The Best Way to Eat an Elephant

I have a friend who reminded me (at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed) that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Doing one thing at a time helped break it all down into more manageable pieces. Do one thing, then do the next.

In reality, there may be times when containment does not feel possible. At these moments, do your best to deal with one thought, feeling, or body sensation at a time. Don’t take it all down at once, otherwise you risk being crushed by it. Staying intentional about when to work on it, and when to put it away, requires ongoing awareness and intention. Being kind to yourself through the process, may just end up being one of the most powerful things you can do.

Clear Reflections

What has changed for you?

What is something that feels bite sizethat you can work on in this moment? What is the problem? What are five possible solutions?

What do you need to put on the shelf?

How do you know when it is time to put it away? What happens that starts to feel like you are becoming either overwhelmed or underwhelmed? What is the moment you need to act, and do what works?

What are your healthy distract skills?

Be kind to yourself.

Speak Your Mind

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