Uncoupling Stress & Past Trauma

I have a job that is engaging and meaningful but that can also be stressful. I love the work and want it to be useful and excellent–but the conditions we work in (multiple complex research projects at the same time, with different teams, overlapping deadlines, unpredictable clients, an ever-changing policy landscape, and a constant need to write proposals for future work  while we are trying to do a good job on our current work) can make it hard to do the work the way I know it should be done. Not to mention the colleagues who don’t deliver their piece of the work on time or on budget.

So lots of people have this kind of stress in their work lives, I know. We all have too much work to do in too short a time.

What’s been happening to me, I realize, is that I have been connecting the feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at work to feeling overwhelmed (and many other things) as a child and teen. Those unresolved traumatic experiences still carry a lot of the childish thinking that goes with trauma: I am bad, it’s my fault, no one will ever love me, I am broken, I am ashamed, I am dirty. So it’s possible to go from “this client wants their report two weeks early” to feeling waves of unexplained self-loathing. It happens faster and easier when I am working too much for a long period of time and see no end in sight, as happened to me last summer. I was so exhausted and so depressed that I took a three-month leave of absence in the fall.

So I’ve been back at work for nearly three months now, and I’ve worked every weekend this month, and many 12 hour days, on an enormous proposal we’ll be submitting in early April. I’m pretty worn out. And in recent weeks, I’ve had an upsurge in the “I’m so bad, I’m so disgusting” thinking.

And then something clicked. It started with realizing that the internal response I need to the “I’m so disgusting” thoughts is not “oh no, you aren’t, you are fine, you did this good thing, remember? You aren’t so bad.” I’ve tried that before but it doesn’t bring any relief.

The helpful response is actually, “Wow, you are really upset right now!”

This turned out to be an important aha moment for me. It led me to see that the negative thoughts (and accompanying feelings of self-loathing) came from I time when I was upset AND felt disgusting or dirty or used. Those feelings and thoughts became tightly entangled for me, so tightly that when I’m upset about anything, it all comes back mixed in together. The feelings of “dirty” and “disgusting” are really remnants of another time that have little to do with my current stress. And maybe (?) I can get just enough distance to ask myself, is this upset about something from the past that I need to address? Or maybe it has another meaning entirely?

To my surprise, since I had this aha on Tuesday, I have felt better. That’s held even though the big proposal is still a mess and my colleague is making it harder to do a good job. Writing this proposal is time-consuming and stressful. But it’s not traumatic. I’m a professional adult (who is not fundamentally broken or disgusting) working in a stressful situation, and that’s worlds away from being a traumatized child.






      • Yes! Working my way through! Q – reading other people like me (who knew!) has helped me so much. I am 73, and have spent a third of my life in therapy. Only now am I accepting my Parts!
        Oh, and BTW – the rest of the world knows me as a successful professional.
        Thank you for asking. TS

        Liked by 2 people

      • I know, reading other people’s blogs has been immensely eye-opening and has **really** helped me over this past year.

        Isn’t it funny, the successful professional part and the tortured traumatized parts living in the same body? At work people think I am calm, mostly easy-going, someone who helps others stay calm and see the big picture…

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks for sharing this – that’s such a valuable realisation. I really relate to intensely negative self-judgements that rapidly spiral and that are probably not all connected to present day situations. Working so intensely without weekends is insanely stressful – I’m glad that you’re feeling calmer


    • I’m glad too, though I still want a weekend!

      I wish I knew why we can hear something over and over, and it doesn’t help, and then suddenly it clicks. Is the phase of the moon? The 800th time we’ve heard it? What we ate for breakfast? What is the secret that makes things suddenly make sense in a way that brings us relief? I honestly don’t know, but I hope you will find that moment too, hopefully soon. You don’t deserve such harsh judgment.

      Liked by 2 people

    • There are so many different ways work can be stressful. It might not even be the same reason all the time. The hard part for us (okay, well there are lots of hard parts) is the connection between feelings of stress, any stress, and the self-loathing or helplessness and resignation we may have felt as girls. For me, it can definitely land me in the same depressed spot again, even though I am not helpless anymore.

      It’s hard work for me to hang on to this insight, however.

      I hope things are doing better at work??


  2. This is so awesome! What a revelation for you! I feel like you and I both are in the same situation (different details) lately and I’m glad that you had the aha moment you needed!


    • I felt like it was a huge step forward at the time, and then I’ve been kind of disappointed in myself this week when I’ve had such a hard time hanging on to any sense of balance and control. But of course, we can’t just see something once and have it firmly embedded in our emotional functioning. It will take on-going, intentional practice to change the way I think and behave. Practice, practice, practice…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This. This kind of realization is why we do therapy, right? Because seeing these differences between then and now, being able to pause and see this and react differently, this is what allows us to actually live our lives. I’m so happy you were able to see this and feel calmer.


    • I was so happy about this last week, and I’ve been so bummed this week that it’s not been enough to see the connection. As I said to bp709 above, there’s a lot of practice needed before this realization in fully integrated into my psyche. Today I’m telling myself: breathe, breathe, and know you are where you need to be today.


  4. Lots to think about here. In times of stress we go back to where we were so it makes sense I agree that arguing with those thoughts/feelings is counterproductive. Thanks for this post. I have lots to think of.


    • Right, arguing with those thoughts hasn’t gotten me anywhere–sometimes they just get more insistent, because I am ignoring them. I do think that recognizing them as a sign that I am upset, offering some empathy, and then maybe adding in some positive thoughts as a counterbalance to the incessant negativity is going to be the combination I need. If I can just remember to do it! In bad moments, it can be very challenging to remember what to do.


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