Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When the File Cabinet Drawer Won't Open

Q: My daughter, Gina, is 15 years old (adopted at 2 ½ with the first years of her life being very traumatic). She gets so frustrated with herself when she can't remember the instructions her soccer coach gives her (and her coach gets very frustrated with her as well). When Gina gets stressed out, she simply cannot process the information or store the information in her brain properly. I think if my daughter were to understand herself better, she could cope better during moments of stress. Would you be willing to write a letter to her directly that would explain what is going on because I know she could listen to it from you, instead of me (her mom!). Thank you.
Dear Gina:
Early childhood experiences (when you're a baby and/or toddler) of trauma can affect you much later on in life (like when you're 15 years old or older) in many different areas. One of the most prominent areas is in your ability to handle stressful situations. When you face stress from teachers, coaches, your parent(s), and other adults who have expectations of you, it can be as if your brain turns into a cobweb. The ability to process and store new information is reduced and hindered.

Here are few facts to remember to help you understand yourself:

  1. When you are stressed out, your brain cannot store new information.
  2. Your brain's ability to process information (old or new) is compromised (limited) when you're stressed.
  3. Stress causes confused and distorted thinking. You just can't think clearly.
  4. It becomes very difficult to recall information you learned recently. It is as if you're standing in front of a file cabinet and there are documents in the file cabinet, but you can't access them because the file cabinet is locked.
  5. When stressed, your brain goes back to old patterns. It is like a plane that is being operated by a pilot (you) when suddenly the "autopilot" switch gets turned on and you have no control. You go into autopilot and every decision is based on old information and old patterns.
  6. Rigid thinking becomes the dominant thinking. You are not able to be flexible. Answers have to be "yes" or "no," there is no "maybe." Things are either "wonderful" or "horrible," there is no "it's just okay." Things have to be done "now" not "later." In other words, there is a great sense of urgency...NOW!
  7. Your brain cannot process language when stressed. Adult instructions are confusing and they sound more like the Charlie Brown teacher. The problem is that most adults don't realize this so they only get frustrated with you and they think you are ignoring them, when you're not.
  8. When stressed out, your body can get overwhelmed and take over in very reactive ways: freezing up, shutting down, hitting others, screaming, yelling, throwing objects, throwing up, getting sick, and more.
To keep this from stopping you from being the best you want to be, there are some things that can be done, but they do take work. Here are some suggestions:
  1. When feeling stressed, work to get yourself regulated. Make a list of what works for you. Some of these might be deep breaths, mantras (like saying to yourself, "I'm okay and I've always been okay."), pictures of your family (anything visual), or a special item like a rock or a charm (something that you can touch). Be creative and make a list to help you remember when you get stressed next time.
  2. When you are starting to get stressed and the person with you is getting frustrated, simply say, "I need a few minutes to process this. Thank you."
  3. Before going to an event that could be stressful (like a soccer game or taking a test), take a few moments to stop and relax beforehand. Walk into the event as calm and regulated as possible to start.
  4. If there is anyway for the person who is helping you or teaching you to draw out the instructions, instead of just verbally telling you, this would be extremely helpful. Your brain can most likely take in visual information better than verbal information.
  5. Ahead of time, let people know you have a, "High Sensitivity to Stress." This simply means you get easily stressed out and you may need a few more breaks to get re-regulated.
  6. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Practice. Practice. Practice. It might take your brain longer than some of your friends to retain the information. This does NOT mean you're stupid. This only means your brain needs more time to put things "in the file cabinet" (your brain).
  7. When you do get stressed, be sure to allow yourself to process through all the big feelings once you're in a safe place (like at home with a parent). You have to safely let go of all the stress so it doesn't get locked up in your body. Sometimes just a good cry is what you need and it can be a wonderful release!
  8. Simply being aware of how your brain works along with being mindful can be a big step in changing all of this.
  9. This is the most important tip: You have to love yourself and stop judging yourself as a "bad" person or a "dumb" person or a "worthless" person (or any other negative beliefs you may have going on in your head). This issue of how your brain processes and retains information is not about who you are as a person. You're living a journey of trauma recovery and it is a gift in many ways...it is keeping you intuitive, aware, connected, emotionally intelligent, and much more! Acceptance of who you are is the key.
Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

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