Can Healing be Overwhelming?

Written by an iTherapy Provider

Can Healing be Overwhelming?

Healing is a process, and it can sometimes be overwhelming. When we think of healing, there may be an idea of a smooth, linear transition of healing though more likely healing looks likes twists, curves and even back steps with a lot of growing pains. It can also be overwhelming when working through tough issues with a therapist or starting new practices such as self-compassion, body focus work, and mindfulness. Why is it sometimes overwhelming? When trauma is involved, processing old traumas can be overloading. However, a lot of times it is because as humans we can use numbing (food, watching TV, on our phones, substances, shutdown/disassociation) as a coping strategy so feelings can hit us in the face when we have spent a life time, shutting them down or even just over a few years. Chris Germer coined the term “backdraft” to explain why when someone is starting a self-compassion practice, s/he can feel flooded and overwhelmed. [“Backdraft” is a firefighter term to describe what happens when oxygen floods the room from the outside when the door is opened onto a fire which causes a rapid or explosive burning of superheated gasses in a fire]. As he talks about actually giving yourself loving kindness, for some people this can be very unfamiliar, and it might be the first time they have given themselves love and kindness which feels overwhelming. I think of healing emotional wounds similar to a physical wound in our bodies. Sometimes it will scab up quickly and there is the appearance that everything is fine and healed but underneath there is a wound that is getting worse and growing just under the surface, getting deeper and wider. It might be painful if bumped or touched but the outer appearance may look just fine. Just like with the wound, the scab needs to be removed for real healing to take place. This can be painful and overwhelming, and the healing process can be long and painful too with multiple debridement needed (removal of damage tissue, still on the wound metaphor) through the process. I think emotional healing can be this way too. We can go through parts where it can feel like too much. There are times that we do need to take it slower and allow oursystem to manage all the new feelings without going into sympathetic reaction (flight/fight/shutdown) which is part of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and we need to learn how to just sit with our discomfort and then continue to move through it. It can be confusing but it’s part of transformation. Though if we bury it, there can be the appearance everything is fine but like that wound it will eventually move up to the surface again, open up and overload us. Slow and steady is the pace that many need to go in the healing process. Sometimes we will do it in steps, with breaks and sometimes move through it continuously.

I also think that it can be difficult for people to distinguish between discomfort and being unsafe. If you have had a lot of traumas, chronic stress, or unresolved issues, your nervous system may be perceiving any discomfort as danger. And if you spent a lifetime of numbing, you may also perceive discomfort (or any feelings) as dangerous as well which could trigger an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) reaction. It is one reason I like self-compassion practices which helps you learn to mindfully sit with discomfort without trying to push it away or resist. If we live in chronic stress, and or have had a lot of traumas, our ANS could be triggering sympathetic nervous system reactions constantly and there are a lot of reasons this is not a good thing. Our ANS was meant to keep us safe from threat and danger but was never meant to be constantly active. Many people will need the help of a therapist to work through these issues or if you have a very dysregulated system (ANS) you may also benefit from help in learning to regulate your system. Diaphragmatic breathing is a tool that can be useful (there are others) to help calm the nervous system. This is a type of breathing, which you breathe into your diaphragm. (You should see or feel your ribs/belly expanding when you breathe in). It is important to take a deep breath, but the real magic is in the exhale. Breathe through your nose and then, through pursed lips exhale, slow and long (should be longer than the inhale). Try and do it for at least 2 to 3 times. It is good to practice regularly throughout the day until it is more of a habit. What we practice becomes a habit and routine. What the exhale is doing is activating our parasympathetic system which is calming the amygdala (the smoke detector of our brain) which is the part of the brain that is always scanning for threat and danger. Like an oversensitive smoke detector in your kitchen that goes off every time someone uses the toaster, our brain’s smoke detector can also get overly reactive). This type of practice can help with calming the amygdala so it not overly reactive.

It is very important to learn to be comfortable with discomfort, so our ANS does not go into threat mode because you missed the green light. I have noticed that many people these days are struggling with understanding the difference between feeling discomfort and when something is actually a threat or dangerous. This is extremely important because it also allows us to learn new things. Sometimes new ideas or concepts can feel uncomfortable (because they are unfamiliar to us) but that does not mean we are under attack. It will allow us to be open and less threatened to new ideas. When emotions and feelings are brought up, we can feel discomfort, and this can be unfamiliar and scary but it does not have to overwhelm us. The more we are able to just be with our discomfort the more resilient we will be to deal with more extreme and even distressing emotions. Everything we don’t deal with stays with us. When we shut ourselves off from hard, difficult emotions we also shut ourselves off from all emotions. As we learn to process our struggles, and understand our emotions, it will help move us to true healing and with that, we can find other emotions and feelings such as joy, love, peace, and happiness.

Original Post Aug 13, 2021 on Karen Gentilman’s website Illumination Counseling Service.

Karen Gentilman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in the State of Idaho, working for 30 years with many different medical conditions both acute and chronic conditions, the last 20 years in neurological rehabilitation including brain injury, strokes and spinal cord injuries. She takes a trauma-informed, integrated and holistic approach with utilizing multiple modalities which is individually based while striving to provide compassionate therapeutic environment. Call (208) 266-4642 or email KarenGentilman@IlluminationCounselingService.com  to set up a FREE 15-minute consultation. Visit Karen Gentilman’s profile page.

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