Dealing with psychological distress – A conference with Carolyn Springs

Suicidality and self harm mostly occur when an individual does not have the strategies to deal with psychological pain and distress and therefore this seems the only option. Recovery is about learning the skills for distress.

Neurological changes have been found in the brain when an individual enters the ‘suicidal mode’ which are identical to those in trauma.

Self soothing is key to managing psychological distress and pain, which many of us have not been taught for whatever reasons in childhood. Or maybe we do not seek help as others are seen as dangerous from abuse in the past. If we are unable to self-soothe it becomes harder and harder to think, so that even if we had the strategies they are difficult to remember at this point. This is when the impulsive urge to act and do something regardless of the consequence kicks in. Rather than acknowledging that it is a feeling that will pass, however horrendous it is, instead the feelings seem so unbearable and as if they will never leave you. It is at this point that one takes certain actions that however unhealthy (such as self harm, substance misuse) make logical sense as they push you into a dissociative state. Your brain confirms that you are under attack and therefore goes into emergency mode and tells you to shut down and opiods are released that numb ones perception of pain. This is the altered state of dissociation.

The problem is that while this temporarily makes us feel better, long term it accentuates the problem, because the brain then thinks that the world we live in is increasingly dangerous and therefore lowers the threshold at which this dissociative state sets in, the baseline is lowered. Finding alternative strategies for dealing with distress is what is needed to break the cycle.

These strategies will depend on each individual and can include safety plans, emotional thermometers, music that helps, smells or textures, an ice cube on the skin, or anything that triggers the senses, maybe a vigorous activity or yoga/meditation, maybe a hot bath, being around people or a walk alone, journaling, painting, having mantra cards to remind yourself that things get better, a list of friends to contact or things that make you feel better, so that when you are in the height of emotion you can remember and gain some perspective of how to survive the feeling. It is all about making psychological distress easier to bear and is a matter of experimenting with what works for you.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” (JFK)

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” (Michael Jordan the basketballer)

That which is worth striving for is rarely ever easy, but we need to keep persisting and eventually these new ways of being can become second nature.

Something that stayed with me from Carolyn Springs brilliant conference was her statement that- if one cannot play the piano, it does not mean they have a piano deficiency disorder, they just have not been taught the skills to play it and the same can be said for managing psychological distress.

I think that her free resources for trauma and dissociative survivors are really useful and can be found on PODS and also Carolyn Springs blog.





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