My Coping Habit as My Identity
Coping habits are varied and layered. They include an emotional part– a default emotion like anger, sadness or fear– and often include a habit that is acted out such as smoking, drinking, eating, excessive organizing, or overwork.
As a result of Post-Traumatic Stress, emotions tend to be layered. At the core of the overwhelming trauma there will be a dominant emotion. When there is no resolution of that dominant emotion, you will, over time, develop a secondary “coping” emotion as a means of dealing with the overpowering core/root of the emotion.
PTSD, Complex Trauma and the Different Layers of Dissociation
To put this in perspective:
- Marie, who has lost her son in a motorcycle accident, has as a core emotion – loss, grief, bereavement (sadness). Because she is unable to contain her sadness, she starts having reactive thoughts such as “Why him? It is not fair!” and a certain edginess in dealing with anything, which is part of an anger response she uses to try to reestablish healthy boundaries and deal with her overwhelming sadness.
- Jane, who has been raped and abused, has a core emotion, fear, which is masked by rage and anger.
- In terms of developmental issues, when no space has been given to develop as an individual, there is, at the core, a sense of deep anger. This anger, due to fear (coping emotion) of consequences, is often repressed.
It is important to recognize and acknowledge the “layered” emotions; the core emotion, and the emotion that develops to deal with the traumatic overwhelming response. To work towards resolution is to be able to start containing and releasing the core emotion, as it is that which is fueling the habitual “coping” emotion and reenactment.
Anxiety disorders, for example, often have their core rooted in developmental issues and suppressed anger. It is necessary for you to start to own the anger and be able to assert boundaries so that anxiety and self-esteem issues can be addressed and changed.
The trouble is that when a coping habit has persisted for a period of time, it becomes part of one’s identity structure. Even if you work through the post-traumatic stress that has created the coping mechanism, the default mechanisms might still be in place.
(Binge) eating, thoughts of “I am not good enough” or “I am never going to be normal,” controlling behavior or anxiety can persist, even if there is an awareness that core emotions have been worked through.
How to Treat PTSD and the Crossroads of the Recovery Process
This is one of the crossroads in the therapeutic process. As long as the coping emotion and the habit persist, the danger is thinking that more work has to be done on the post-traumatic stress issue and to unnecessarily keep digging up or revisiting past history. This can be frustrating for both therapist and client.
Recognizing the coping emotion, and bringing into awareness that the persistent coping emotion and coping habit are part of an identity structure, prevents confusion between past history and emotional reconstruction. Furthermore, in order to look at the identity structure, you must also address the sense of control (and safety) that the coping habits have had to deal with in the traumatic overspill, and to do a reality check to see if the need to control is still valid. This is a big one– to let go of control.
Once the latter is realized, the work must then begin to wean you away from control and attachment. Setting new intentions, designing a new lifestyle, a change of environment and creating a socially supportive network of friends can be necessary to curtail your mental references to past hurts. Additionally, as you adapt to a new routine, a certain amount of restraint during the initial phase might have to be put in place.
Lastly, persistent “coping” emotions and related thoughts must be negated in order for you to be able to move away and move on. Negation is to be aware of the “coping” emotion as a necessity of the past rather than of the present or the future, and not to give it further importance; neither suppress nor reject it. It is this negating process that eventually will make the coping emotion a thing of the past, rather than something that continues in the present.