Why Trauma Makes Resting So Difficult

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

I have one memory of rest that sticks out for me. It happened a month or so ago, in my apartment. I was sitting at my sewing machine, stitching a small, padded pouch for my friend’s rosary. Time softened and melted away, and I was blissfully unaware of anything except the steady whirring of the sewing machine motor and the feel of the cotton under my fingers as the machine pulled it forward. My roommate and close friend leaned against the back of the couch with a book propped open on her knee, and we enjoyed one another’s company in silence.   

The world we live in now makes the art of resting nearly impossible to practice. We live with so much pain that we would rather push ourselves to exhaustion than entertain the thought of facing it. Every second that we are not productive is a “waste of time.” We must maintain optimum performance at all times – even while sleeping! Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from chronic exhaustion?

“Pushing through,” as we have learned to do, more often leads to health issues than it does to an end goal that was ill-defined in the first place. It’s as if we are saying to ourselves, “I just have to make it through this, and then things will get better on their own.” When the pain that a person struggles with is trauma-related, the urge to flee becomes exponentially more intense. Eventually, the chronic exhaustion leads to frequent bouts of illness, insomnia, stress-related aches and pains, and even digestive and metabolic problems. I say this as a person who has experienced all of those.

 It is not natural to keep the body in a state of flee indefinitely. But we have trained ourselves to function at 100 percent, and only at 100 percent. We must eat, exercise, work, play, sleep, have sex, and even meditate at levels ever approaching perfection. The irony is that, in treating ourselves like machines, we forget that their mechanisms never run as flawlessly as we expect ourselves to. Factory equipment in the food industry needs to be regularly cleaned to prevent clogging. Computers crash if they are never allowed to shut down. Drilling machines are poured over with coolant to prevent them from overheating. And yet, this analogy does not extend very far. When machines break down, we replace them. To understand why running ourselves ragged has become the new normal, we need to look at three different factors: avoidance of pain, avoidance of fear, and the pursuit of happiness.

There are some things in life that it is possible to run away from. You can determine the success of running away from a cloud of angry bees when you stop, hands on your knees to catch your breath, and see that there are no bees behind you. Unfortunately, the brain has a similar response to emotional pain. It thinks, as long as I keep running, it will stop chasing me. The avoidance of pain, if it goes on for an extended time, becomes the avoidance of the fear of pain. Even the thought of dealing with painful suppressed emotions makes us jump up from the couch like we’ve been stung.  

The pursuit of happiness is not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem with the modern pursuit of happiness is that it is all-consuming. If you are not happy all the time, in every possible way, then something is “wrong.” Even if you are happy, you could be happier. This restlessness (because that is what it is) compels us to flee from negative emotions until we are so bone-tired that, by the time those emotions catch up to us, we have no strength left to deal with them. I’m going to say something surprising here. Happiness is not, and never should be, the end goal. Happiness is a byproduct of living life on purpose. There will still be pain and suffering. But choosing to grow in love for ourselves and those around us, choosing to love life itself – that is what leads to happiness.

Resting looks different for different people. It depends on what your body and mind need to replenish themselves. You might need to take a nap in a dark room. You might need to play a board game with a friend and laugh until your sides ache. Maybe walking in nature, what the Japanese call “forest bathing,” is what you need to refill your inner reserves.

I spent so long running from my emotions that stopping and resting in itself was a traumatic experience. I felt decades of anger, sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness come crashing in on me, and it felt like they were going to swallow me whole. But quite the opposite happened. I began to heal. If you decide that you are ready to be still and face what you’ve been running away from, please remember to reach out to someone – a friend, a therapist, a family member, an online support group – to help you through this. Large amounts of suppressed emotion can quickly become overwhelming, and you may need support to stay safe. Remember to take things slow. You didn’t accumulate this amount of pain overnight, and it won’t go away overnight either. Remember that healing isn’t linear, and that even if you feel like you’ve gone back to square one, you haven’t. Trauma has a way of convincing us that we’re hopelessly stuck and that the pain will last forever. Guess what? It doesn’t.

You deserve to heal, to rest and be energized, and to feel safe. And you are worth however long it takes to get there.

Resources:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service – 1-833-456-4566 (Available 24/7)

U.S. National Suicide Prevention LifeLine 1-800-273-TALK

http://www.cptsdfoundation.org

CPTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker

For more helpline resources, see the “I Need Help” page under “Depression”.

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