Tag Archives: trauma

Faux Feelings, Real Consequences

“This human tendency to look for outer causes for our moods is the greatest addiction on our planet.” –Richard Rudd

For depression levels: All

The headline in this morning’s paper blared, “Mock abduction exercise a success.” As I read the article over my tea and toast about the 10-agency exercise conducted yesterday to find a 14-year-old girl by the name of “Veronica Doe” who had been “kidnapped,” complete with eyewitnesses, neighborhood canvasses, and search dogs, I found tears coming to my eyes.

This morning's headline.

“8:04 a.m.: An Amber Alert has been sent out to local media,” reads the article’s dramatic timeline. “A backpack and sweater Doe left behind during the abduction are collected as evidence.” “9:13 a.m.: … [T]he community emergency response team and the search dog network are brought up to speed so they can start combing different areas in hopes of locating Doe.” “10:55 a.m.: Dogs are brought to the area. After being exposed to scent on shoe, the canine takes off down a park trail and locates Doe within seconds. Abductor is arrested. Doe is reunited with parents and taken in for medical examination.”

Why was I getting all teary-eyed and emotional? It was a mock kidnapping, for pity’s sake! The teen probably volunteered to play the role and had the time of her life. She was fine, her family was fine, and law enforcement agencies for miles around gained valuable experience in what to do if the real thing comes along.

Although I am not a neuroscientist, my educated guess is that reading about a girl being overpowered by an adult up to no good, ripped away from her family, and exposed to trauma triggered reactions in my primal or “reptilian” brain circuits of similar experiences in my own childhood. The reptilian brain isn’t rational when it comes to these things; it has embedded in its cells the conviction that undergoing certain types of experiences automatically means pain.

While my rational mind knew the kidnapping was staged, the feelings that came up in response to this mock kidnapping felt real. Tears came to my eyes, my heart rate sped up, and a ball of anxiety formed in the pit of my stomach. Emotionally, I felt vulnerable. If I had chosen to take these feelings seriously, such as telling myself the world is such a dangerous place, children aren’t safe, you can’t trust anybody, etc., then I could have initiated a downward spiral into depression.

Here’s the sequence of events that leads, oftentimes, to the start of a depressive episode or the exacerbation of a current one:

  1. Something happens that reminds me of something in my past.
  2. My reptilian brain thinks it’s a replay of the same situation, and it responds with chemical reactions that increase feelings of fear, anxiety, and dread.
  3. I tell a story about what has just happened that reinforces those negative reactions.
  4. Depression sets in or gets worse.
  5. I am incapacitated, unable to function.

The stories we choose to tell ourselves about what's happening can generate negative feelings that trigger depression.

You can see how such a reaction to a minor (or even a fake!) event can have real-world consequences. Perhaps you find yourself reacting with anger or distrust towards a loved one, refusing to try new things such as checking out a different career field, or isolating yourself because you assume you will always be alone and friendless. It’s been said, “All limitations are self-imposed” (attributed variously to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ernest Holmes—take your pick). Realizing that your neurochemical reactions and the stories you tell yourself about them may be in response to situations that are, in reality, negligible can restore your power and allow you to make more positive decisions about what’s going on in your life.

The Weekend Stretch

This weekend, pay attention to a situation that triggers you in some way. It could be a “rude” waiter at a restaurant, a close call while driving, an item on the TV news, or a conversation with a friend. Write the answers to the following questions in your journal:

  1. Is what’s happening something that actually applies to me now, in the present? Or is it simply a reminder of something from my past?
  2. What stories am I telling myself about what happened or what was said?
  3. Do I really want to give away my power to this?
  4. What’s a different, more empowering way to look at this? (Consider that maybe, just maybe, what happened has absolutely nothing to do with you!)
  5. What resources or coping and communication skills do I have at my disposal to deal with this situation constructively?

To take this exercise further, print out these questions and carry them with you, responding to them whenever you get triggered.

Have an empowering weekend!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

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Filed under Making Tracks, Perception Pivot, The Weekend Stretch

The Truth About Depression

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Although childhood abuse and trauma may be causing our depression, we don't have to remain victims to them.

“…[D]epression is usually best understood not as a mental illness, but rather as a normal response to abnormal life experiences (traumas), most of which go unrecognized because of their concealment by shame, social nicety, and taboo.” – Vincent J. Felitti, M.D.

What if your depression were normal?

I can hear your mind skidding to a halt: “Whoa! Seriously? You mean I’m not this weird social pariah of a mentally ill person? You mean my doctor is wrong? And my old boss—the one who fired me? Society at large? And everyone else in my life?”

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. You are normal. Your friends who have depression are normal. And so am I.

The truth about depression is this: According to Dr. Charles Whitfield’s analysis of nearly 300 studies of the effects of childhood trauma on adults, 60% to 70% of cases of “clinical” depression can be directly attributed to trauma experienced in childhood.[i] Dr. Bruce Perry states, “[A] range of emotional problems is common in [maltreated] children, including depressive and anxiety symptoms.”[ii] The types of traumas include the following “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs):

1)    “Lived with problem drinker, alcoholic, or street-drug user;

2)    Were sexually abused (overt abuse only);

3)    Lived with mentally ill person;

4)    Saw mother treated violently;

5)    Were emotionally abused;

6)    Were physically abused;

7)    A household member went to prison.”[iii]

Individuals who experienced four or more of these ACEs while growing up are 4.6 times more likely to have experienced depression for at least two weeks out of the past year than people with fewer than four ACEs.[iv] How many of the ACEs above apply to you? In my own case, if one substitutes the word “others” for “mother” in ACE #4, then six out of the seven types of trauma applied to me as a child, a couple of them consistently over a 14-year period.

What does this mean for you? It means, first of all, that you are normal. It would be strange if you didn’t have depression after having experienced multiple types of trauma as a child.

Second, it means that your depression may be due more to external events that occurred during the early years of your life and less to genetic factors. In addition to deliberate or inadvertent abuse, external traumatic events can include things like car accidents or severe illness, loss of a parent or other close family member due to death, and other events not directly attributable to abuse but which have an adverse impact anyway.

Third, it means that your depression is not your fault. You have depression due to factors that were outside your control as a child, not due to a weakness in your adult self.

As a veteran of 12-Step recovery, I have sat through hundreds of 12-Step meetings over the years, in a variety of fellowships. Everyone in those rooms, to a person, had experienced multiple “adverse childhood experiences” of varying degrees of severity, from incest to rageaholic fathers, from being locked in closets to abandonment, from being forced to take care of an alcoholic parent to being told they were worthless, an idiot, not good enough. Not surprisingly, there is a high rate of depression among people in 12-Step programs.

Why is it important to understand that, more likely than not, your depression is due to trauma you experienced in childhood? Because, by acknowledging the causes of your depression, you stop feeling like an alien weirdo who doesn’t belong on the planet and start taking back your power. You do this by refusing to internalize your depression and make it “about you,” thus lessening the stigma of depression for yourself and other depression sufferers. You further take back your power by doing everything you can to heal the trauma underlying your depression. Instead of passively sitting back and accepting that you will have depression for the rest of your life, you can get back to the business of living.

Just because your depression is not your fault does not mean you get to wallow in it and blame others—your parents or whomever. Well, you could wallow and blame—but then you’d continue to remain a victim to the trauma you suffered as a child. Do you really want that? When you take complete responsibility for healing your depression, you get to design an authentic life filled with purpose, connection, and everyday happiness.

That’s good news!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.


[i] Charles L. Whitfield, M.D., The Truth About Depression: Choices for Healing (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 2003) p. 14.

[iii] Whitfield, p. 4.

[iv] Whitfield, p. 6.

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