PTSD & Constriction: Keeping Yourself Safe After Trauma

PTSD and constriction go hand in hand as a fool proof way for keeping yourself safe after trauma. A couple of years ago one of my clients, Jill (not her real name), was raped at gunpoint in Los Angeles. Since then she has shrunk her life down to the size of a pea. She says,

“I barely ever go out. I don’t answer the phone, hardly return email and have dropped out of school. I spend most of my time on the couch watching movies. The smaller my world is the better. I know it may not be healthy, but life just feels safer this way.”

I know what Jill means. After my trauma it seemed safer just to crawl into a hole, too. At the time I was still living at home, so my parents didn’t let me do that. I had to wait until I went away to college to really burrow into a safe, small space in which I felt safer because I could control what happened, how it happened and who was involved when it came to my experience in any given day. I ended up with very few friends and an anxiety-driven lifestyle into which no fresh air ever came.

ptsd symptomsHave you noticed that you cut out parts of your life so that it’s small and controllable? In her amazing book TRAUMA AND RECOVERY, Judith Herman defines constriction as “the numbing response of surrender.” It is, actually, a very reasonable response to trauma. At a time when you feel vulnerable it makes perfect sense to lessen that vulnerability by turning your life into something airtight and comfortable and, most of all, controlled by you. Trauma represents a moment (or more) when you were disastrously out of control. The survival response that gets put in place afterward will do just about anything to be in control again.

But feeling safe and in control, while necessary, can come from negative or positive actions. Becoming agoraphobic, for example, offers terrific control but limits the possibilities for who you are and how you live. Alternatively, finding healthy ways for being in control helps to restore your feeling of self-efficacy (personal power) while keeping you safe in a lifestyle that allows you to grow, live and succeed in moving past your past.

If constriction is normal as a response to symptoms of posttraumatic stress then healing means releasing the restrictions — in a safe way. In my work with Jill we moved through a process of reclaiming a sense of safety for how she could protect herself. She chose to take a self-defense class, plus become a kickboxing instructor. It was important to Jill to feel powerful in her body and able to fend off attacks. Plus, she wanted to discipline her mind so that it would function more in the present moment, and more efficiently under stress. 

When she had accomplished these things, Jill was ready to fully cut herself loose from her constriction lifestyle. It was time to open her world to the wide variety of living. While taking self-defense and kickboxing classes she had lifted the “stay at home” ban just enough to go to the class and immediately come home. Now, she was considering going back to school and re-engaging in a social life. Suddenly, Jill hit a wall. Approaching this process made her feel panicky and resistant. She began coming up with a slew of limiting beliefs that set up boundaries and blocks to her life expansion.

“It just feels all wrong,” she reported. “Going back to school is for other people, not me. I never liked it anyway. I’d rather find a job I can do from home online. I never wanted to really join the workforce in a conventional way, anyway.”

 While Jill said that, it wasn’t exactly true. At school she had been studying communications and prepping herself for a career in television production. Her dream had been to produce a news show. Had her dream changed, or was she now just too afraid to go after it? With a little exploration and a lot of self-assessment Jill admitted, she still wanted to be in news broadcasting; she just didn’t want to have to leave her house every day to do it. Everything in PTSD recovery is about taking small steps to get to the big successes. Before doing anything Jill and I had to figure out the details of what was holding her back, plus how to remove the blocks so that she could move forward. The questions we had to look at became: 1. In coming out of hiding and returning to the outside world what are you afraid of? Get really specific in (all) your answer(s). 2. What would safety look like? 3. What would have to happen so that such safety becomes a reality?

It took time for Jill to admit what she was really afraid of. It had to do with the fear of not being able to predict the next danger, or trust herself to respond to it quickly enough. It also took time for Jill to drill down to flesh out a full picture of what safety meant to her and how she would feel experiencing it. When she finished this inner research together we strategized how to make that safety the reality in which she lived. Again, a slow process but one that yielded not only safety but control, the two things Jill had been after all along. Today she is back in school and on track to graduate with a degree that will allow her to follow her original dream.

Do you make your world small so that you can control it as much as possible? Share your thoughts about how you do this — or undo it — in the comments.






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