I've talked about the 'burnout' and the 'collapse' traumatized people can experience as an adult, as a consequence of an abusive childhood. I realize I've made it seem like a very scary, painful and debilitating thing to happen, and I want to make clarifications about why it happens, and what can you do to mitigate the effects if you're worried it might happen to you.
One part of it, is that living a life while being traumatized, is much more exhausting than living a life as an emotionally healthy person. A big part of our life energy was spent surviving the childhood, and now, a big part of our energy is being spent pushing the trauma down; this is essential for our survival. A part of our mind is always struggling just to keep bad memories suppressed, to keep all of the fear, anger and grief where it can't actively reach us every second of our life, because we couldn't survive if we kept feeling all of our emotions at all times. It enables us to go thru our day-to-day life, and to keep our life ‘looking’ normal, but it does take a lot of energy, it's like suppressing a volcano from erupting, and our energy is exhausted by it.
This, however, means that actively processing trauma, bringing it up and feeling it, however awful and painful it might feel, will eventually free some of your energy up. I remember getting some of my energy back, bit by bit, as I managed to process my experiences and save them as a long-term memories, instead of the repressed ones.
Another part of it is the amount of tension and stress we go thru in our usual day. Being traumatized, a lot of things will act like triggers, and not all of them have to be the huge, dramatic triggers. Sometimes it's just, seeing a stranger on the street looking dangerous, and tensing up. Someone stands too close or asks you an uncomfortable question, and you're anxious, scared, and you spend the night upset and stressed. Being extra worried you won't be able to do something perfectly, and freezing up. Putting large amounts of energy and time into a project because your worth is now depending on it being perfect, you're always bending backwards to get your redemption. Not allowing yourself to take breaks, feeling stressed and guilty when you rest, not being able to find emotional support during hardships, taking on more than you can handle. Stress-worrying about every event where you have to be in contact with the abusers, or anyone else extorting power over you.
These are things that commonly happen to us, and they all result in stress and tension. This causes all of our muscles to tense up, our fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is always on high alert, we spend hours in the anxious state, not knowing how to calm down state, and during all these times, our body is using every bit of available energy for survival, because we're in a survival fright. That is, extremely draining, like fighting for our lives every second of our day. It's no wonder that afterwards all we want is to curl up in the bed, and forget about everything, just trying to find a place where we could get our body to relax a bit, to let us breathe. Constant tension in our muscles will result in chronic pain, which is another draining thing to go thru.
And trying to live a normal life will expose us to more of these, we are unlikely to be able to avoid the triggers while reaching for success in every area of life. We get exposed to people, to situations, to deadlines, stress, expectations, pressure, public image, authoritative figures, criticism, competition, imposter syndrome, fright that we're not as good as everyone else thinks we are. The stress of all this can be too much, even for a normal person. But for us, it's not only the regular amount of stress; the triggers turn stress into pure state of panic and survival fright. We don't only fear we will lose everything we've ever worked for, we fear that we'll be tortured and psychologically destroyed if we don't deliver expectations. We fear we'll be abandoned and left for dead, and that we deserved it.
This is why we need the collapse. Constantly putting ourselves thru all of this, is debilitating for us. Burning out, and isolating ourselves in our room in order to grieve, fear, panic, and cry, it's one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Crying is a powerful way to release stress, and it will release the pressure on our bodies and minds. Experiencing all of the emotions we're pushing down constantly, will hurt a lot, but it will give these feelings a way to exit our body, so we have less to carry around constantly. Isolating will grant us a protection from triggers. No longer exposing ourselves to triggers opens up the possibility of feeling safe, comfortable and self-protected, and that is a foundation we need in order to start building our lives. We cannot build our lives on anxiety-driven situations that make us filled with dread and panic, it has to be a place of comfort and safety.
The collapse isn't something that is absolutely inevitable, it happens because of the way our life is constructed via abuse. Growing up abused, you're programmed very intensely to live your life for others and to respond to the expectations of you. You're expected to reach success on your own time, without any help or support, while being extremely convenient to everyone else, and while being everyone's outlet for their anger, stress, and pain. You're taught to consider this normal, and to tough it out. You're conditioned to consider every single person in your life, but yourself. You know what everyone around you wants from you, how to adjust to their needs, but you are shut down immediately if you have a want or a need of your own. This inevitably leads to a life built on other person's needs. You're building your life based on what you know, and other people's expectations of you, is all you know about yourself.
So your life ends up in overworking yourself insanely in order to reach everyone's expectations, while never being able to examine what would make your life easy to live, comfortable to exist in, or even pleasurable for you yourself. You end up racing for goals that are not yours, that don't even progress your life in any direction that would be good or useful to you. You end up tangled in the obstacles of capitalism, stressing alone about why this isn't easy for you anymore, trying to reach success that would redeem you in the eyes in your abusers, or in your own eyes. You believe you need this redemption, that things would get better, or even just bearable, if you managed to succeed. You being traumatized doesn't even make it to the equation, you do not hold space for your emotions, you do not see yourself as a human being, worth of support and comfort. Anyone would get broken by this. Everyone, no matter how strong, needs comfort and reassurance in the times of stress. Even when things are going well, everyone needs support. Everyone needs acknowledgment and warmth and confirmation that they're doing well.
Living a life that isn’t set up for your well being, and does not provide you with satisfaction and pleasure, is exhausting. You have to keep it up in order not to offend or disappoint anyone (which is your biggest fear), but you're living your life in desperation, trying your best to complete tasks that are not here by your own will. You end up procrastinating and feeling dreadful, because now it feels like you're wasting your life, missing opportunities and ruining the ones you have. You feel empty because there's no support, nobody cares if you do well, but you'll be tortured if you fail. In those circumstances, not one thing you do is by your own will, it's coerced. This entire life is coerced. Every movement you make to appease, to convenience, is a move against your own will. And doing things against your own will, is traumatizing, and exhausting. Your instincts will eventually act up against it. Your willpower to do things will drain. You'll become paralyzed by the executive dysfunction because your body won't want to go thru with it anymore. Even though you're screaming at yourself that you have to, you have to, you have no choice. Your body will fight you. It will seek a collapse.
Collapse means that you're finally, finally taking your own traumatization into consideration. You're forced to acknowledge you own needs and your own limits; you can no longer tear yourself apart for a life that wasn't your choice. What you needed the entire time, was a life that was built on your own terms. A life that took your desires, needs and mental health status into consideration. Because you can build a life, regardless of how traumatized, torn down or terrified you are.
The collapse will slowly teach you that not being able to do things is not the end of the world. It will slowly show you that rest is something you can no longer reject, and it's not making you lazy, or a bad person. It will create a space for you where you do not answer to anyone's expectations. The shame of disappointment and resting will hurt at first, but it will fade as you learn to develop compassion for yourself, because now you have to. You have to see yourself as someone who's been fighting alone all this time, who is now broken but still alive, and so desperately wants to rest and be comforted, and be free of everything that has broken them.
And the life you build from it, it will not tolerate stress or pain. You will build it based on your own satisfaction. You will make it as safe and protected as possible, because you do not want to risk another collapse. You will abandon all of the activities that broke you in the past; some of these you will no longer be able to do anyway. Even if it's something you liked, but got linked with stress and abuse, it will become a taboo. You'll find things that bring you peace, and do those. You'll discover what eases your anxiety, and do that. You'll find people who find you worthy of support, and choose them. Your life will become yours, built on your own choices, using the knowledge you have about yourself. It will no longer be a never-ending cycle of stress and tension. And you'll be allowed to be tired, and take breaks, and have days where you're just resting in bed. Your body won't have it otherwise.
Now, I promised to tell you how to mitigate the collapse, and by now it must be obvious. It will be easy for me to write it down, but extremely difficult to do it in real life. Start abandoning the activities that bring you an immense amount of stress. Take anything that stresses you as a real-life danger to your mental health, and steer away from it. Decide that your health precedes anyone's expectations, and treat those expectations as destructive. Abandon all societal goalposts that don't bring you joy, dismiss everything they told you that you should be, or have achieved, by a certain age, these are toxic. Abandon the societal definition of success.
Find a place where you're safe to learn about yourself, what you enjoy, what calms you, what brings you peace. Seek out support even if you don't feel you're worthy, even if it doesn't feel like you have it bad enough yet. The only way to mitigate the collapse is to build a life that doesn't lead up to it. Abusive childhood very strongly sets us up for it, and makes sure we don't build self-compassion that is necessary in order to stop living a life that others have decided for us.
Also, don't feel bad if you don't have a choice but to live like that until you collapse. I couldn't stop it. A lot of us aren't at freedom to decide to stop, and we're not even convinced that things are going bad until our bodies decide it for us. I wasn't able to build my life for myself until I ran away from home, that's where I experienced the most severe collapse, when it was finally safe to do so. I don't regret it. The collapse was natural. It made me self-protective where my parents never did. It forced me to acknowledge my limitations where nobody would ever accept that they're real. It's also not an ideal thing to happen, because you can learn to be self-protective in a kind way, you can acknowledge your limitations with the help of support and self-compassion. This is more of an extreme you-don't-have-a-choice kind of way, which isn't pleasant, and happens only when there is no other way.
Don't be afraid of the collapse. If it happens, it's not your fault. You have not built a life that would lead you to a collapse, and you're not 'actively working towards it'. All of us are just trying our best to survive, to go thru as little pain as possible, and you're doing it too. If you happen to collapse, be gentle to yourself, and reject anyone who isn't gentle towards you. You deserve the rest, and you deserve the safety.
Submission from an anonymous source:
"I am in therapy right now and it's mostly about abusive parents, and I want to raise you a topic. I don't know if you covered it yet, but i want to throw it in your direction. It's that when you grew up in conditions that were unsafe, people you couldn't trust, that makes so many of your actions motivated by that fear, the fear that people will hurt you. You might feel like every conversation is a battleground, or could turn into a battleground any second. you might want to surrender, verbally -- tell the other that they are absolutely right in everything. Or flee. or fight back. I struggle with this, because in this case i put myself in the mental space of a victim, even when there is no perpetrator. i fabricate one, I put the role on someone it shouldn't be. and dismantling this overwhelming fear is gargantuan task."
I feel this person described really well how it feels. Your 'fight, flight, freeze or fawn' response can be triggered even in conversations, if verbal abuse was a part of your trauma. People's opinions and demands of you can feel like you're being suffocated back into the place where you have no voice, your reality isn't real, and other people are allowed to define you; this is traumatic. Projecting danger everywhere will be normal and regular activity for your brain, because its adjusted to high amounts of danger everywhere, and just assuming safety is not an option. This can and will go away with time, and your brain slowly realizing what are the new rules for danger. Also, it's not always fabricating. Sometimes you will sense something dangerous or upsetting, and just make it much more distressing and scary than it should be, that could be catastrophizing in motion, or you being so far on the edge that even a slight distress is the drop that overflows the cup, and is considered lethal.
If someone can speak more on to the topic or relate to this, please comment/reply! We should have a conversation on how terrifying and triggering the world is after suffering abuse.
I have a question about writing flight fight freeze responses: would it make sense if a character froze when reacting to a certain trigger, then later another time maybe fought instead and reacted differently to the same trigger? Thanks in advance :))))
Yeah, nothing on that response is set in stone. The same person might have a different fight flight freeze fawn response to the same trigger depending on other changes, both internal or external, to the moment it occurs. They might have a hair-trigger between fight or flight, freeze or fawn, etc for totally unknown reasons, where sometimes one happens or sometimes a different thing happens.
Or, if they’ve been working on trying to figure out how to handle that issue, you might find that someone who used to flee is able to fight now, or perhaps that after multiple exposures they freeze, etc.
People are conflicted, conflicting creatures. No two humans are the same but also, no one human is always the same either. Our responses to trauma are rarely so neat and tidy as to look the exact same each time it happens.
I view anger as a very volatile emotion that walks the line of toxicity
It really depends on how someone reacts when they're angry. How they show their anger. How they manage and deal with it.
A lot of ways people get their anger out is by being loud and forceful with their actions such as yelling, slamming, stomping, throwing, etc.
I have a fear response attached to these anger responses.
I've never been hurt by anyone stomping, throwing, slamming, or yelling... At least in a physical sense. My mind has categorized these actions as toxic and harmful, as a fear based manipulation tool.
When I have this fear response I freeze. Instead of fight or flight, I freeze. I view it hiding, but my therapist says there are five(?) stress responses, not two, and that mine is freeze. It's my camouflage, my playing dead tactics. I either go quiet and stay still, or remove myself from the situation as much as possible whether that means physically or mentally.
I don't think I'll ever be able to get over this. How I handle my anger is very different from how most people would. I seclude myself. I would never want to make anyone feel the way other have made me feel, just by being angry.