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Gentle Healing From Trauma– the Care and Feeding of the Nervous System

Imbalances in neurotransmitters are related to many symptoms of PTSD: anxiety, obsessions, irritability and rage responses, cravings for carbohydrates, alcohol, and other compulsions (shopping, gambling, and sex for example); insomnia, panic attacks and depression. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or as it sometimes feels, Ongoing Stress Disorder, effects us spiritually, emotionally, cognitively, physically and behaviorally. Of course, since we are whole persons, these aspects overlap to so some degree.

Fortunately, recent advances in brain science have created options for helping to heal trauma that are safe, non-invasive, natural and very effective. This column will provide readers of this site with information about two of these advances-amino acid therapy and neurofeedback training. As a therapist with over 35 years experience in general and with over 20 years experience helping traumatized people of all ages, I have found these two alternatives to be powerful tools in healing from trauma.

I have had my own experiences with trauma-the suicide of a family member, marital infidelity and a number of relationships with disordered men. PTSD is not an academic subject for me, and my experiences have shaped my approach to clients who come to me for help with problems related to emotional trauma.

One of the most useful ways I have found of thinking about emotional trauma is that it is a serious threat or ongoing threat to well-being that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Coping mechanisms just can’t do the trick, and so the person’s behavior, emotional, cognitive, and physical state show evidence of being overwhelmed.

The symptoms of PTSD, and even though they are serious and even debilitating, are just that, symptoms that something is very wrong. It is of course crucial to provide relief for the symptoms-such as insomnia, overeating, panic attacks, depression. It is also crucial to place these symptoms in a larger context so the cause(s) of the problem-being overwhelmed by a pathological relationship, for example–can also be addressed and changed.

One of the most far reaching inventions for PTSD I have seen is supplementation with amino acids and related substances. Since PTSD disrupts these fundamental physiological processes, it makes sense to provide a person with PTSD with building blocks so her body can recover, and in doing so, reduce or eliminate some of the symptoms that are directly or indirectly related to neurotransmitter imbalances created by being chronically overwhelmed.

In PTSD, the person’s physiologically, especially the nervous system is overwhelmed, and often moves into overdrive and then sometimes exhaustion. The stress response–fight/flight/freeze–can also go into overdrive and become a permanent rather than a temporary situation. This makes it particularly difficult to calm the nervous system down–it is as though the stress response has taken on a life of it’s own and is on overdrive.

It’s no wonder traumatized people self medicate with food, drugs (prescription and street), alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, shopping, and the like. The anxiety level seems to be set on “high” all the time, whether there is an external threat or not. For partners or former partners of disordered persons, of course the stress is often ongoing and severe, making it exceedingly difficult, and perhaps risky, for the person’s physiology to lower the threat response.

But the threat response, the fight/flight/freeze has its upsides as well as its downsides. From a positive perspective, this response insures that the person will react quickly to threats to safety and well-being. She or he may also overreact to situations that are not really threatening. But if this response is calmed down and essentially “reset” it will be there when needed. So being on red alert–hypervigilant–is not really healthy–we are not wired to be in overdrive all the time and when this occurs, the toll is high.

For example: Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that insure that the person responds to and recovers from all kinds of situations. There are fundamentally two kinds–excitatory, which help us get going, and inhibitory, which help us to calm down. Prolonged stress related to emotional trauma triggers the constant release of both kinds.

Over time, the body can not sustain this and becomes depleted and out of balance. Serotonin is one of the key inhibitory neurotransmitters, and it is almost always very low in traumatized individuals. Traditional antidepressants may recycle what little there is but do not help the person to produce any more.

Reduced serotonin levels can lead to insomnia, irritability, headaches, carbohydrate cravings and depression. High levels of excitatory neurotransmitters can lead to increased anxiety (as though there weren’t enough to begin with) and insomnia.

So we can see how it is that PTSD leads to physical overdrive, which leads to many problems, neurotransmitters imbalances being an important example.

The good news is that it is now possible to measure many of the key neurotransmitter levels (directly and indirectly). However, neurotransmitter testing is sufficiently far along to often be covered by many insurance companies, and the very specific amino acids that are suggested are usually easily available.

Just as a woman who is having heavy periods may take iron tablets for a time, hopefully until the cause of the excessive bleeding is determined, so can we take supplements that will help balance out neurotransmitters. Most of these supplements are amino acids-naturally occurring substances that the body uses as building blocks for most neurotransmitters.

While there is currently some controversy about this in the traditional medical community, it may well be related to the recent nature of these discoveries as well as the limitations and blind pots of the existing medical paradigms. Time will tell.

Another naturally occurring substance in our bodies is cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands in response to the fight/flight/freeze response. A discussion of cortisol imbalances will be presented in a forthcoming column; suffice it to say that if a cortisol imbalance exists and is not corrected, just as is true for neurotransmitter imbalances, recovery from emotional trauma will take that much longer to occur.

In my practice, I combine neurotransmitter testing with psychotherapy as well as neurofeedback training, which will be the subject of a future column. Using the amino acid supplements alone, which I am frequently asked to do outside of the client-therapist relationship, is not advisable for many reasons.

For starters, these supplements are not a magic bullet, and the use of them alone can reinforce the belief among Americans that if we just take the right pill, everything will be OK. As Sandra L. Brown, M.A.’s research and clinical work have demonstrated, there are many, many other aspects of healing from life with a disordered person and the predicable emotional trauma that is a part of the picture.

But the very good news is that amino acid supplements, after a specific test or tests to determine if and where imbalances lie, as well as neurofeedback training in conjunction with psychotherapy and other modalities such as yoga, massage, EMDR, offer a very gentle and extremely effective path for getting your life back on track-what a blessing.

In next month’s column I will discuss some of the functions of neurotransmitters, how they effect mood, behavior and other physicological processes, as well as some of the far reaching benefits of amino acid therapy I will also discuss the role of cortisol imbalances in PTSD and from there provide some clinical examples. Information about neurofeedback training and related topics will be in future columns.

While it will not be possible to answer individual or personal inquiries, I am interested in your questions as a way to provide clear information and opinions that meet the needs of the readers of this column, so please send me your comments and questions and I will incorporate as many as possible next month.

Your Cup Runneth Over and How to Put a Lid on It

Your cup runneth over therefore you are at risk…but because it runneth over you can survive.

There are some who see their cup as half full with the perspective that life is full of opportunity and hope.  There are some who see their cup as half empty with the perspective that life is a struggle and trouble abounds.  But…. what if your cup “runneth” over?  What if you have so much to give, so much to share that your cup spills into the lives of others?  Sounds good-all of these great qualities…sharing, giving, generosity, just spreading their power and joy to all whom you meet.  But here’s the catch-and there is always a catch – what if someone has an empty (or nearly empty) cup? What if someone came into your life and nuzzled (or pushed) their cup right up against yours? What if they NEED what you have to experience excitement, to feel powerful?  This “empty-cup” person will surely catch the spill over, they will surely gather up and collect all that they can.  Now, think about this from the opposite perspective: an empty cup moving through life SEEKING an over-flowing cup, finds it, takes from it (in fact, empties it) until they are full and you are empty…what results is inevitable harm.

Sandra’s research has taught us that you posses temperament traits to a higher than average degree than other women (there’s your cup-running over).  In fact, the research showed that in most of the traits you scored 85-97% higher than other women in these traits.  That means a lot.  It means that if someone is normally empathetic they clearly understand others perspectives.  But for you, empathy means feeling the feelings that others feel….and wanting to do something about it.  It means that you NEED to feel purposeful, responsible, loyal or trustworthy just to feel like yourself-not because you lack it.  This is not just WHO you are it is WHAT YOU DO.  The good news is that these qualities are the things that people want to and should have.  These are the temperament traits that create strong, conscientious, goal-directed, focused people.  These are the traits that allow you to be successful in both your personal and professional life.

So, here’s the bad news-they are also the traits that psychopaths need.  They are the traits that attract empty-cups.  They are the traits that let psychopaths know that you will play the game with them.  They are even the traits that keep you in the game…that keep you fighting for the relationship.

This may be new news to you.  I have worked with many women who have said to me “I needed something…that’s why I stayed with him.”  I get that…there is a feeling of something missing when you are in a relationship with a psychopath.  But it is not because you do NOT HAVE these things…it is because HE TOOK THEM from you.  Here’s the evidence – look at your life before the psychopath.  Look at your life outside of the psychopath.  What do you see?  I am guessing it is a pretty good life.  Without being too presumptuous let me guess that you have friends and family who love you and whom you love; you have a great career that you created based on what you love and what you are good at; you are sociable, friendly, giving and often find that others like to be around you.  This is you- either before him or when you are not in his presence.  This is true because this is who you are.  Shocking?- I hope not!  That thing you needed was not something he had-it could have been the fantasy relationship you created with him-but it is not something he brought to the table.

I am going to use this column to talk in detail about all of the traits identified in Sandra’s research as risk factors.  But be clear, they are also the things that will get you out and keep you out.  They are the things that have allowed you to create a great life before him and will allow you to re-build a great life after him.  We will examine each one looking at how it put you at risk and then examine ways in which you can use it to begin detachment from the relationship and create a healing path.  Finally, I will provide techniques for building each trait.  But before we begin that process I need you to PUT A LID ON IT!  If your cup is over-flowing it is time to put that lid on.  Here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Get the information.  Once you know better you have to do better.  Read the materials provided on this site and by Sandra to begin to understand the dynamics of these relationships and what your risk factors are.  Read Chapter 7 of Sandra’s Book “Women Who Love Psychopaths”, 2nd Edition.  We will talk more next time about how these traits have played out in your life and ways you can re-build them.
  2. Use your traits.  I know that your cup may “feel” empty but it really isn’t.  These are character traits that cannot change-they don’t go away.  But you get used to not using them so it feels like they are gone.  They are not-you probably do it at work, with other loved ones, with friends-they are there.  (Another great benefit to using them is that if you haven’t done it in a while it will confuse your psychopath and he won’t know how to react.)  Finally, the more you use them the more your cup will re-fill itself.  You will begin to re-gain your confidence and personal power and that brings detachment and healing from the relationship.
  3. Most importantly-Only use them when someone deserves it or earns them through time demonstrated and behavior.  These traits are precious.  Now you know how precious they are and if you are not careful you will end up in an endless cycle with an empty cup.  There is no need to throw trust, empathy, responsibility, or even helpfulness around to every person you meet.  You can take a moment, breath and evaluate each situation using time, reason and demonstrated behavior as determining factors.  Be good to yourself and treasure who you are…you owe it to yourself.

Peace to you-Jennifer


William James, an early writer on psychology from the late 1800’s wrote about happiness and reality. I think what he has to say applies a lot to the issues that women face in pathological relationships. Let’s see how…

The crux of James’ pragmatic approach to happiness was rooted in his belief about expectation and its effect on how we come to feel about whether we are happy or depressed. The shortcut to his analogy about beliefs and happiness is:

‘If your reality lives up to your expectations, you experience happiness. If it doesn’t, you are depressed.’

Women who enter into relationships with pathologicals who are notorious for their hidden lives and covert disorders are not dealing with his reality. In her defense, how could she be? She doesn’t even know what his reality is–his disorders, his hidden life, or his pathology that is yet to annihilate her. His charming presentation is anything but real but is effective because it simply hands back to her a mirrored image of all her desires. This mirroring back increases her sensation of attachment because it comfortably reflects herself. Humans feel most at home with the traits that are most like them. However in a pathological, the mirroring, the traits and the resulting connection are not authentic–it’s merely her reflected traits she is attracted to IN him. His mirrored traits are nothing more than a magician’s illusion.

But what impacts her most is not that it is a sham–it’s that she believes it IS real. William James said “The value of any truth is utterly dependent upon its use to the person who holds it.” The value of him being normal is critically important to her in the beginning of the relationship. She will be relationally dependent about his portrayal of himself as true and real. Why? The women we surveyed tested extremely high in relationship investment. What she puts in and gets out of her relationships is almost the single most important thing in her life. The value of the psychopath’s truth is dependent on how much she wants it to BE true. In essence, she sees what he portrays AND she sees what she is invested in: this relationship.

What this creates with a pathological however, is that the first brick laid in the building of this relationship is flawed with all the corrosiveness of his disorder but pressure washed with the glow of his impression management. His mask and skillfully skewed image is built on sand with nothing to build off of. Upon that first brick of reality (or in pathology’s case, unreality), her next brick, which is expectations, is laid.

Her concept of reality about him and the relationship, in the end, can never live up to her expectations she has for them as a couple. Her foundational belief upon which all of this is built is that he is who he says he is, and that he is normal. Her expectations are based on normalcy. Such as–the relationship is going to bring the love, attachment, and joy that she perceives she is experiencing. What woman doesn’t expect that there isn’t potential in the relationship initially? After all, his best performance is always his matinees! Expectations are of a shared life, building a business, buying a home, raising children, growing old together–normal life stuff. Except–the first brick of reality wasn’t what it seemed.

What are realistic relationship expectations for covert pathology? How DO you build a healthy relationship with a narcissist or psychopath?

Most women will never choose in-your-face-pathology for a partner. However, not consciously choosing pathology still does not deter what she ends up with. Her expectations for their relationship are eventually pitifully ignored if not sabotaged. Her time, youth, love, loyalty, finances, trust, and sexuality were all poured into an expectation of a life together. None of this, of course happens for long.

Instead, pathology produces what it always produces: infidelity, a thief of all things sincere, loathing, financial disaster, distrust, and robbery of sexuality and spirituality. As its psychological signature and imprint, it marks her with the all the signs of Aftermath symptoms. Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, obsessive thinking, stress disorders/PTSD, cognitive dissonance are her hallmark signs of having truly experienced a pathological love relationship.

In retrospect, it is easy to see in pathology how expectations have everything to do with the eventual outcome of unhappiness. When reality is skewed and he is not as he seems, and normal expectations for happy life are unfortunately with an abnormally disordered person, the outcome is misery.

Skewed reality + Unadjusted Expectations = Misery!

Pathological relationships always end in this way. It’s their trademark. While you can’t adjust what their impression management did to you initially, you can adjust what you come to expect from someone this disordered. When he lies, does it one more time, steals, cheats, hides his life—the only adjustment that can be made is ‘were you expecting normal behavior from an abnormal disorder?’ What part of him ‘doing it one more time’ is really a shock? The expectation (once you know his pathology) is what keeps you stuck in the cycle of your intrusive and obsessive thinking. If you dig down into what you are really thinking, you are expecting ‘this time’ the pathological will be different. He will be honest, he will tell the truth, he will pay the taxes, he won’t cheat, he’ll stop porn, he will stop splitting the children against you….

Your expectation of a permanently disordered and low-conscience abnormality is creating your continued depression. Adjust your expectation and you will adjust your future.

If your reality lives up to your expectations, you experience happiness. If it doesn’t, you are depressed.

Weekly Reality Check Audio