A brief guide for HSP’s living with trauma-shame-addiction

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

While I love Frankl’s emblematic quote, I wish the pause were as easy to access as perhaps he eloquently suggests. I seem to be constantly striving, both personally and professionally, for that space. It’s one of those “simple-not-easy” skills.

As someone who specialises in treating trauma-shame-addiction, I believe accessing this pause is an essential skill for recovery. And for those of us  who identify with the naturally occurring traits of being Highly Sensitive, I wonder if it’s somehow harder for us? I think perhaps it is.

Perhaps we should begin with addiction and get a sense of its origins. A working definition is that addiction is created when someone uses a substance or behaviour to shift discomfort and, despite experiencing direct negative consequences, continues. The uneasiness usually originates in our earliest days and for some people will be as a result of trauma. The disease model of addiction is used less these days, instead an acknowledgement that both nature and nurture influence the presence or absence of addiction. While a substance or behaviour can temporarily self-medicate dis-ease, it develops into a vicious cycle: being triggered, craving relief, using, feeling better, then ultimately experiencing shame and self-loathing which is in itself triggering. The cycle continues and is the perfect setup for shame, so I describe “trauma-shame-addiction” as a tightly woven fabric – they are separate yet completely intertwined.

I believe there is a correlation between high sensitivity and addiction. HSP’s are somehow already wired to be highly sensitive at birth. Our nervous system formed in a particular way, allowing greater access to stimuli, both internal and external. In describing how it is to be an HSP I’ve sometimes used the analogy of walking around without the protective layer of skin most enjoy. The wind burns, aromas are more intense, sounds are intrusive, words and actions injure. So it’s no wonder wounds/traumas are harder to bear, they just hurt more for us than the average. And for some, what better way than to self-medicate? Alcohol or other drugs, painkillers, sugar, sex, shopping, gambling and so on are great numbing tools. Not recommended yet easily accessible.  And the problem is that any time a process involves: feel bad, take or do something, feel better – then that’s a set up for physical and psychological dependence. In practicing our preferred choice of numbing, we entrench it in our already sensitive system, so it becomes harder to give up. When abstaining from something which so effectively dulls the pain, we experience that withdrawal intensely.

Inherently, shame plants itself in this mix. The cycle of feel bad, self-medicate, act out, feel regret, declare “never again,” feel the pain of withdrawal, a set up to numb again….this is the perfect place for shame to flourish. The rhythm repeats itself and you’ve guessed, is felt more intensely by HSP’s. I’ll be honest, it’s not easy to interrupt this vicious cycle yet there is hope: the latest neuroscience research suggests the brain has a plasticity which enables change, allowing even entrenched neural pathways to be re-routed.

You’ve probably heard that well-used phrase “what fires together wires together” courtesy Donald Hebb, a Canadian Neuropsychologist. The catchy phrase describes how neural pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition. As a somatic practitioner, I call this a “practice.” We’re practicing something all the time, both intentionally (such as tackling negative self-talk) and also below consciousness (like shallow breathing, or forgetting to drink water). And what we practice we get really good at.  Herein lies both the good news and the bad news. We can stay stuck in the ongoing reactive practice of self-medicating, or we can, with profound intention and commitment, shift to deliberately responsive behaviour. From the vicious cycle to a virtuous one.

Let me bring these threads together. It’s only in the space of the pause that we have the possibility of response rather than reaction. To exit the vicious cycle of addiction, we must interrupt the grip of being triggered. All sorts of things can be triggering: a person, an advert, witnessing a particular behaviour or use of the preferred substance, a situation, and, perhaps most significantly for Highly Sensitives, a feeling, including shame. With heightened experience of our internal landscape of feelings and sensations, our gift becomes potentially both an impediment and an advantage. Recognising that we’re in a triggered state helps: we notice more quickly and pause the vicious cycle in its tracks.  In that intentional pause, we can generate resilience and safety. Simple-not-easy. How to do this? We train the body to:

  • Become aware of being in a triggered state (fight, flight, freeze, fold)
  • Take a breath and a pause
  • Ground the body, allowing access to our innate resilience
  • Respond with attention and intention

When the grounded pause is embodied, we can more quickly return to the present moment and our resourcefulness. Let me give you some examples.

Something or someone triggers Dan into a deer-in-the-headlights freeze. He’s been practicing the grounded pause for a few weeks in the hope he’ll be less triggered. Not yet. It takes 300 repetitions just to get something in to muscle memory (3000 for embodiment). He’s begun, he’s on his way, but it’s only in retrospect he remembers he doesn’t have access – yet – to the grounded pause. He will if he keeps practicing.

Dai is triggered, although at a fairly low level (no pounding heart). He’s been diligently practicing the grounded pause. Today, this time, he’s able to take a breath and slow things down. He still doesn’t respond quite the way he’d like to, yet it’s an improvement on times past, he feels encouraged.

Dora anticipates a meeting with an unavoidably triggering person or situation. She prepares. Once again, for the umpteenth time, she feels her feet on the ground, relaxes her belly, takes a deep breath and imagines herself facing things head-on. She visualises the moment of being triggered and grounds herself again. When the moment comes, she’ll already be in a calmer state, more easily able to access her resilience. Her confidence is boosted.

If you’d hoped for a magic wand to “fix” the vicious cycle of addiction, I’m sorry to disappoint. There is no quick-fix. The body learns at its own pace, slowly, deliberately and this can sometimes feel glacial, especially when we are so attuned to the nuances of sensation and experience. Learning how to ground ourselves in the face of overwhelm will, over time, allow greater choice in that moment of intensity. An opportunity to step back, observe with objectivity, be more at choice, feel empowered.

If you’d like a four-minute audio guide to grounding, you’re welcome to email a request. And if you’d like to read more about my HSP journey with healing trauma/shame/addiction, you may enjoy my book Love & Imperfection: A Therapist’s Story available via my website or Amazon.

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