Mental Health Upside Down: Shamed vs Celebrated Trauma Responses

Celebrated Trauma Responses

Last week Sunday was World Mental Health Day 2021, raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. 

As I reflected on how the stigma around mental health impacted my own life and healing journey, I felt called today to share a part of my story. My hope is that someone may read this today and feel less alone in their struggle.

Often people associate mental health only with diagnosable disorders like depression, addictions, anxiety disorder etc. These are recognized and considered maladaptive trauma responses and sadly, often shamed. Today, I like to share some other, more insidious trauma responses which I see all the time in my practice. 

These are maladaptive responses I am also very familiar with myself.

I say “insidious” as these trauma responses not only often go unrecognized but also are seen as desirable by society. These behaviours are often praised and applaudedThey are common and “normalized” in the corporate world

These maladaptive responses are often worn as a badge of honour.

I used to be known as a person who “had it all” and always “having it all together”.

Resilient and successful (in terms of “societal norms”).

I graduated top of the class each year, had a promising career ahead of me, and I went abroad for amazing opportunities …  

I did have a fantastic first career, climbed the corporate ladder quickly to senior project management roles and I feel very blessed and honoured to have worked with so many brilliant people around the world in a few international organizations working for a cause that is still very dear to my heart.

AND … it was also the perfect (read “toxic”) environment to reinforce the maladaptive habituated trauma responses (that I already had from childhood) and lack of healthy boundaries that led to chronic somatic stress:

  • Always powering through, mind over body, sacrificing self-care.
  • Hyper-independence, unable to ask for help.
  • Chronic workaholism – being available almost 24/7.
  • Prioritizing work requests over my own need for wellbeing.
  • Being “double-booked” and overscheduled all the time, leading to a sense of “constantly catching up” …
  • Saying YES on countless occasions even when I felt a NO screaming in my body … so used to not considering my own needs until I didn’t even recognize them anymore …

These are very insidious ways of dealing with internal nervous system dysregulation, and they always come at a cost, even if not immediately visible. 

Of course, they are not diagnosed as our society does the opposite: 

Our culture highly applauds, celebrates, and reinforces such behaviour!! 

…. until we get sick, get burned out or other symptoms of dysfunction manifest.

Unexplored and unprocessed, trauma adaptations leading to accomplishments and success, always come at a cost.

Meanwhile, I was held captive

… by the need to take responsibility for everyone’s emotional well-being

… by the need to do people-pleasing, undermining my own happiness … ensuring no one would be disappointed and avoiding conflict … meanwhile sacrificing my own needs …  

… by the fear of not measuring up, no matter how great the accomplishments (#impostersyndrome)

… by the fear of making mistakes – compensated for by perfectionism and a relentless work ethic.

… by the need to have an elephant skin to ignore the daily harassment and microaggressions in the absence of any systemic support, normalizing the battles as a woman in a male-dominated work environment.

All while still pretending that all is well, and having it all together, all. the. time.

THE COST you may wonder?

The cost of chronic somatic stress can manifest in many ways, from our ability to experience joy and happiness, our relationships with ourselves and others, to our physical and mental health, contributing to chronic digestive upsets to more serious degenerative diseases.

The body always keeps the score (Bessel van der Kolk).

In my case, it had a huge impact on my relationships and contributed to my health crashing about 12 years ago.

I know that I am not alone, and I see some unique shade of this with clients all the time, no matter how shiny one’s life looks from the outside.

Our society would be so much more compassionate and sustainable if we start to acknowledge that we are all wounded in some way, and embrace our human-mess …

Noone ever asked when I was high performing on only 3-5 hours of sleep a night for decades: “what is happening?” 

I am here to tell you we should ask ourselves that question!!

We need to have this discussion in our own homes, our friends’ circles, at the organizational and systemic level. 

I am also here to tell you that it is absolutely possible to step off this roller coaster, and to heal the root causes contributing to chronic stress! It is the key to allowing the deepest sense of aliveness and joy to enter your life and live life as your fullest self.

My healing journey required me to deeply examine my definition of success, challenging ingrained patterns and conditioning and healing my nervous system from maladaptive coping strategies that kept me stuck. 

Dr. Gabor Mate, who has been an important teacher in my healing journey, says in the recently released documentary movie “The Wisdom of Trauma”:

“Disease is not a fixed entity, it’s a process. That process is not separate from a person’s life. How a disease behaves reflects what’s happening in the life of an individual.”

Fast forward,

I am having a deeply Soul-nourishing and much more balanced second career now, helping others release those old versions of themselves that they created to survive and step into a thriving and full aliveness.

Our body, our mind, our emotions, and our Soul are like a beautiful, attuned symphony

If one instrument is out of tune, the entire melody is impacted and thrown off.

Mental health cannot be seen as separate from our physical health. 

Mental health cannot be seen as separate from our environment, our children, our family, our friends and our jobs.

Therefore I prioritize my mental, emotional and spiritual health just as much as my physical health.

Not just on World Mental Health Day but every. single. day.

I may not have been here anymore to tell if I hadn’t learned to do this.

It doesn’t mean that life isn’t messy anymore.

It means that I am committed to tuning into my body, embracing all parts of myself and be present to what is … and course-correct all the time to be in alignment.

I am sharing this part of my story in hopes that some of you reading it may realize that you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you.

I am also sharing this as we need to have a discussion about the necessity to stop rewarding and celebrating insidious and maladaptive trauma responses, they come at a steep cost. 

And instead let’s work together to prioritize our well-being and mental health every day, not just on World Mental Health Day.

It is part of being human.

With Love,