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Waiting for the other shoe to drop

Picture this, something good happens in your life. You are beginning to feel excited. Maybe it’s a new job, a healthy relationship, an exciting journey you are about to embark on, the possibilities are endless. Instead of basking in that newfound joy, the first thing you think as soon as you experience that initial happiness, is that something bad is going to happen. This phenomenon is often a result of anxious feelings, but it is also a trauma response. It is not uncommon for people to say to themselves, “don’t get too comfortable with this, it’s not going to last forever.” In these moments, sometimes we not only think about the ways in which this situation can go badly, but we start to experience, physically and psychologically, the impact of what it would be like if this experience were to go badly.  For many people who have experienced trauma, this response is confounding to them. On one level, there is self-criticism and judgment that they can’t enjoy this moment and be more relaxed about it. On the other hand, their rational mind knows that they are safe, but their nervous system reacts in a way that sends a message that they are not safe.


From what we know of trauma, a traumatic event occurs when what’s happening is too much for our brains and bodies to process. When this happens, we often go into auto-pilot mode and our survival instincts kick in. In that moment, we are responding to the event like the actual trauma is happening. We experience increased heart rate, hyper-vigilance, sometimes, even sweaty palms, and our nervous system prepares to act, fast. When this happens, our pre-frontal cortex which plays an imperative role in thinking and making rational decisions, goes a bit berserk. In the trauma world, we refer to this as an incomplete self-protection response like fighting or fleeing dangerous situations. We go into freeze mode, or our body and mind shut down.


The expression waiting for the other shoe was a common experience of tenement living in New York City apartments and other apartments across large cities in the US in the late 19th century. The apartments had very similar designs with the bedroom built directly above and underneath each other. It was not uncommon then to hear a neighbor taking off their shoes in the apartment above. As one shoe hit the ground, the expectation was that the other one would soon follow.


When you think of it from a neurological perspective, our brains are wired to repeat familiar patterns and to fill-in the incomplete gaps. If we use the analogy of the shoe, for those who have experienced trauma, they are also worried that around the corner, something bad and unpleasant is lurking and therefore, they are constantly in that mode of waiting for the other shoe to drop. This pattern of continuing to feel like bad things are happening can be exhausting.


One of the things to do in that moment is to remind yourself that you are safe. Think of the analogy of dipping your toe in the water. If you are afraid of water, in the beginning when you approach a body of water, you are not going to jump right in. However, if you slowly start by dipping your toe in the water and then easing yourself into it, you are forging a new relationship with the water. As each part of your body becomes immersed in the water, you too are becoming comfortable, and you feel safer.


When you are in novel situations that bring you joy, it’s important to remind yourself that in this moment, you are safe. This can be done by engaging in some grounding exercises where you can attune yourself to your surroundings and focus on something that is right in front of you. I like the five senses as a great grounding exercise. Acknowledge five things around you that you can see, fours things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.  Alternatively, if you have a partner or a loved one with whom you feel safe, you can have them a place a hand on your back and have them assure you that you are safe and help guide you through the five senses exercise.


Remind yourself is that you are an expert on you, and you can provide solid evidence to yourself that things in this present moment are good. Look around you and taste, smell, and feel what makes you feel alive, safe, and present in this moment. Sometimes when people feel disconnected from their bodies, I have them put something cold on their face (an amazing DBT technique) or maybe suck on a piece of hard candy or ice. This helps you feel more connected with yourself. In that moment, you can remind yourself this is the path that you are forging for yourself. This is where you want to go and even if it won’t last forever, this is exactly where you deserve to be.


Finally, even though it is hard, think of the possibility of what it would be like to embrace the future with hope. What does this new endeavor, life experience bring to you? What would be different in your life if you could be happy and experience joy when it happens, instead of moving to the established trauma response? I know it is easier said than done but be gentle with yourself as you try new and different ways of responding. You might feel a bit lighter, and you are creating different pathways to connection with yourself, others, and with the world around you. I am here with you as you embark on this new journey back to you.

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