Strong emotions can short-circuit our thinking brain almost every time – they happen in an instant and before our thinking brain knows what is happening. That is part of the reason why much of our training is meant to teach us to react instinctively and ignore any emotional stuff. But, guess what – those things still get filed away to be dealt with later – our emotional brains remember. When people get home and come out of adrenaline mode and think it’s time to relax, this stuff can come back like a tsunami and it freaks people out. Emotions are too strong and happen unpredictably. The old way of trying to help traumatized people was to teach them to think their way through but this has finally been replaced by a focus on attachment and emotional dysregulation. Fancy words, but put simply, what we learned growing up about managing strong emotions has a direct impact on how we respond to them as adults. If we learned that parents and other caregivers were not available or could not be trusted to help us or listen to us when we were hurt or afraid, as an adult overwhelmed by what we did or saw overseas, then we are more likely to stuff it away and tough it through – just like we always had to do before.
Problem this time, is that it keeps coming back to bite you – getting triggered emotionally by all kinds of stuff and feeling like you are losing your mind. Your training and the old ways to manage do not work no matter how hard you try but the idea of lowering your guard and truly trusting somebody is foreign – even the thought of it can panic people. How to figure out how to talk about your stuff, including the secrets – the stuff that no one else on the planet knows about you? This is not blaming people for their deployment reactions; it does mean that if you are going to trust helpers, the stuff that is getting in the way from the past also has to be addressed. By talking with another person about what you went through growing up and what you learned from it can truly open the door to freedom from the past and help you find hope today and looking forward. The past does not have to govern the present and future but it does require courage and a willingness to give people a second chance.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.