Tag Archives: understanding trauma brain

Self Help: More Than Just a Good Book (Shenandoah Chefalo)

Positive changes in how we think and how we manage difficult situations can develop even without our full awareness; they can even surprise us, but in a good way. There’s a message here for us and for our children. Author and foster youth advocate, Shenandoah Chefalo, shares her thoughts on self help.
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Self Help: More Than Just a Good Book, Shenandoah ChefaloI have written before about how I was a self-help book addict. I read every book I could find, re-reading several of them and even going as far as getting them on audiobook so I could re-listen to them hundreds of times.

I did this because I absolutely believed in their base principles, and, frankly, I needed a constant reminder. I would listen — and would feel good for 10 to 30 minutes afterwards. But, then life would happen; I would forget everything I learned and I would be right back to old habits until the next time I was in my car. This went on for years.

I often felt more depressed the more I listened or tried to read the books. Why wasn’t I able to just do this? How come I wasn’t good enough to implement these ideas? They weren’t helping me, and I didn’t know what else to do. I abandoned the ideas and assumed I was doomed for a life of hardship.

A Different View

Then, I decided to write Garbage Bag Suitcase, and everything changed. I didn’t know how this book would completely flip my world upside down, but while researching for that book, I stumbled on a piece of research (the Adverse Childhood Experience Study) that changed the way I understood my relationship with my mind and body. That one study lead me to more reading, but not in the self-help section, this time in the science section. Specifically, these were topics on brain function.

Before I read this study, things happened to me and I felt as though I was an unlucky participant in the happenings. I couldn’t understand how I could “change my luck.” After I read the study, I started to see my life’s journey in a completely different way. What if everything I considered “bad” that had happened to me, happened for a completely positive reason? It was a stretch, and when I told a friend she basically laughed at me.

But I couldn’t escape the thought. Was it possible that my own neglectful childhood had caused me to see only bad things? Slowly, I started to see tiny shifts within my own life. I was rewiring what I considered to be my “trauma brain” but it was tedious.

The “Test”

Then, recently, several disappointing things happened in a row (minor things, really):

1: My book wasn’t chosen for an independent award I was hoping to receive.

2: I submitted the book for a writing/screenwriting competition, and it wasn’t recognized there either; and

3: I also received a negative review about the book that felt very personal.

 

All of these things happened within a few days of each other.

Garbage Bag Suitcase, Shenandoah ChefaloIn the past, any one of these things would have sent me into a deep depression for a day or longer. The trifecta would have made me nearly despondent.

But it didn’t. After each event, after the tinge of disappointment, I remember thinking to myself, “That’s OK, something better must be coming.” I didn’t intend for that to be my response, it just was.

Those old feelings of depression, sadness, emptiness, feelings that I wasn’t good enough, seemed to have just disappeared. This is what I understood from all the trauma research I had done. I had actually changed the pathways in my mind to a new way of thinking and feeling.

A New Way of Thinking

It was possible! And now that I have this new way of thinking, I find the information I learned in my previous self-help addiction is easier to implement then before. It wasn’t bad information; it just wasn’t enough information for a person who was still functioning in trauma brain.

The self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. When I was in trauma brain, I talked about “how it was” because none of it worked. Now that I have begun healing my trauma brain (I have a few more new pathways to develop), I understand that the information is valuable, but usually there is a lot of hard work to do before implementing the principles in any of the books.

Some of us have never known true happiness, so trying to “tune in” to that emotion and bring more of it to us is impossible until we find, create and reinforce new pathways in our brain. We can feel helpless and paralyzed. What we really need is the support of those around us to offer guidance on our journey of self-healing!

In the end, my self-help addiction helped me heal — maybe not in the way I initially thought. I hear lots of people talk about the Law of Attraction. They are almost afraid to have a negative thought for fear it will bring more negativity. What I learned is, to begin with, you have to heal yourself from your negative thoughts. That takes patience, love and grace for yourself above anything else.

If you are going to go down the path of healing your trauma brain, you will bump into lots of negative emotions that you have to learn to overcome. It isn’t easy.

Practice, patience, and remember that we all deserve absolute joy.

 

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute, an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com

 

Comfort in Chaos: Understanding Trauma Brain (Shenandoah Chefalo)

I make no bones about it: As a foster child, I don’t think I was an easy person to get along with. I certainly wasn’t trying to make bonds or connections with those around me. Of course, I knew nothing at the time about trauma brain.

Shenandoah Chefalo, Comfort in Chaos: Understanding Trauma BrainI went into foster care at the age of 13. My life prior to entering the system was one of immense dysfunction; I had practically raised myself. My mom was rarely around, and, when she was, it was usually to tell me that we were moving. We moved over 50 times and I went to more than 35 schools in my life before the age of 13.

Chaos had become my normal.

In learning to “cover” for my mom’s actions, and watching my mom talk her way out of almost any situation, I learned a valuable skill early on: lying. It was a skill that saved me numerous times from severe punishments.

Foster Care and Beyond

I thought foster care would be a positive solution to the life I was living. What I found was more of the same as loneliness, isolation and depression followed me into care. I had become disconnected from my feelings and simply accepted that I was unable to love … and was unlovable. I continued behaviors from the past and found no solace in the families that took me in.

I ultimately aged out of the system at 18 and was turned loose onto the world with no real connections to other people. When I hit the college campus, a feat I wouldn’t learn was remarkable until later, I made a pact with myself to never talk about my past with anyone. I was a good liar, and, because of that skill, I kept that promise to myself for more than 20 years.

Trauma Brain

I spent those years, hiding the past, keeping myself at arms length from any real relationships, and doing the one thing I was knew I was good at: lying. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found myself in what I now refer to as “trauma brain.” I would go to that comfortable place in my mind, a place of Fight, Flight, Freeze or Appease.

For me, there was comfort in chaos. When things in my life were going well, I looked for and caused chaos for myself so I could feel “comfortable.” Of course I  didn’t realize, at least not consciously, that I was doing it until I started to become increasingly unsettled with the life I was living. I had a good job, managed to get married and had a child, but I was only comfortable in the unknown.

I wanted to change.

For most of my life, I chalked up my behavior to the idea that I was just “crazy,” a concept I was comfortable with. I figured it was only a matter of time until I turned into my “crazy” mother. I was working in a law office at this time, and I would watch clients with similar tendencies. I had wondered about their past and when I started to ask, I was surprised by how many of them had been former foster kids, also. I had always assumed there had been very few kids like me. The numbers appearing in my office were off-putting, to say the least.

Garbage Bag Suitcase, Shenandoah ChefaloSelf-help Search

Flash forward. In an effort to find peace in my life, I initially turned to self-help books. I found a little relief, but often found myself going back to old habits. I started to realize that hiding my demons was only making me more depressed and more disconnected.

I tried everything: more books, journaling, yoga, meditation. and hiking. Physical exertion was having an impact, but it only lasted a few hours, then I was back in my mind, returning to old habits.

I finally realized that I had to tell my story. I wrote Garbage Bag Suitcase and began diving into an understanding of trauma and its effects on the brain.

The research began turning me onto new books. Suddenly I understood my “trauma brain” in a whole new way. I wasn’t “crazy;” my brain was just programed to constantly be in Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease mode, and this knowledge changed everything for me.

Like a Sledding Hill

I recently heard Dr. Cathy Fialon explain trauma brain as a sledding hill. When you go sledding the path becomes worn, so you gain greater speed. The well-worn path is easy and comfortable. However, if you take your sled over a few feet to a part of the hill that hasn’t been used, it becomes more difficult to slide down; you can’t gain momentum and you often start and stop a lot. It takes time, she explained, to break in this new path and make it again enjoyable for sledding.

I understood exactly what she meant. My learned reactions as a child had become the well-worn sledding hill. It was easy for me to go down that road, regardless of the effects. But when I started working on myself (i.e. taking my sled to a new hill) it was difficult. Don’t get me wrong, while I’m still working on breaking in my new path, every once in awhile I like to take a spin on the old one.

That is “trauma brain” retraining ourselves, and oftentimes those we care about, how to break in a new way of thinking. I am thrilled to say I have a new career that allows me to help others recognize their trauma brain and the trauma brain of those around them, and to help themselves and others heal in a brand new way.

After all, we all deserve to try out a new place to sled. ###

 

Speakers Group MemberShenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth and an advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute, an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com