Trauma Lessons (from the Dog)

Those of you who have spent time with puppies know how mischievous they can be. My Labrador is certainly no exception! She would chew on anything that fit in her mouth and try to befriend every living thing she saw.

dishwasherAs you can see in the picture, one of her favorite hobbies was to interrupt my chores by dropping her toys into the dishwasher and licking the plates as I loaded them onto the racks (don’t worry, she was never interested in the clean dishes).

One evening as she was sneaking her head into the dishwasher while my back was turned, her collar and ID tags got caught on the bottom rack. Imagine her surprise when, as she tried to pull away from the dishwasher, the entire bottom rack, dishes, and silverware moved with her! In her panic she tried running backwards, and all of those dirty dishes were scattered between the kitchen and living room. What started out as fear in my heart (there were knives on that rack!) quickly turned to giggles as I realized how silly the 30 second battle had been. But then I saw my sweet puppy’s face as she cowered on the couch, afraid to put a paw on the ground anywhere near the cruel dishes. In true counselor fashion, I left the mess exactly where it was and went to comfort my pup. She squeezed her 50-pound body onto my lap and tried to hide from what terrified her.

The dishwasher has broken since then and I’ve resorted to washing things by hand, but to this day our dog wants nothing to do with dirty dishes. That change certainly helps me finish the chore more quickly, but it also reminds me of the lasting impacts of trauma. You’ve probably not been scarred by having your ID tags become stuck on a dishwasher rack, but we have all experienced something that causes our brains to produce a stress response. It can be helpful to consider some effects of the trauma we have experienced:

  1. We miss out on things we used to enjoy. When I do dishes these days, my dog no longer brings me toys to throw. She doesn’t get to try to sneak samples of what we ate for dinner. She is missing out on the play and exploration that used to bring her a lot of joy. Odds are, trauma in your life has led you to miss out on activities and experiences that would have brought you great pleasure. Perhaps you’ve quit playing a sport, stopped going to church, or avoided certain places. It can bring sadness to consider all the things we’ve missed!
  2. We miss out on intimacy. Instead of spending time with me in the kitchen while I do dishes, our dog now goes and sits in another room, waiting silently (which says a lot for a 1 year old lab) for the task to be finished. In addition to missing out on the activity, she is missing out on time with someone she really loves. Similarly, people bond through activity and conversation. If trauma has led you to avoid things you used to enjoy, you’re probably missing out on the folks associated with those things, too. Not only have you missed out on the activity, but you’ve also missed out on the connections, community, and interpersonal intimacy that go along with it.
  3. We overgeneralize the fear. Our dog still pauses when she hears plates and silverware rattle together, so she typically goes into a cautious state when I’m putting away clean dishes or reorganizing cupboards (you know, the GladWare cupboard that almost never looks the way it does in the commercials). What started as fear from one experience of getting her collar stuck has turned into a generalized fear response when she even hears the words, “I’m going to do the dishes.” Human brains are obviously more advanced than a dog’s, but the basic stress response is similar: our brains send signals throughout our bodies which prepare us (to fight, flee, or freeze) against the perceived enemy. Sadly, the same anxiety that leads us to miss out on things we loved and people we could grow closer to can also lead us to miss out on new experiences and connections.
  4. We lack confidence/power. My dog could obviously do a lot of damage if she really wanted to. She could break plates, chew on silverware, conquer what traumatized her. But her brain’s response has sent her a different message: she is small, and the scary dishwasher is powerful and dangerous. Similarly, when we are experiencing heightened anxiety, we may start to believe the lies that the perceived enemy is too big and too powerful while we are too small and too powerless.
  5. There is hope! As much as I love doing the dishes in peace, it is good for my dog if I give her a frozen treat to enjoy in the kitchen while I do the dishes. That way, she is able to engage in a safe way, and her brain will start to associate happy things with rattling dishes and silverware. Even if she never sticks her head in a dishwasher again, she can still experience love and safety in a context which used to bring fear and stress. The truth is, we do have power to influence many situations around us; there are things we can do to relax and allow ourselves to experience the things that trauma has convinced us to avoid. Sometimes that means including a safe person, setting new boundaries, or changing the way we think about certain situations.

As you think of a trauma in your past, what have you missed out on? What are some things you can do to empower yourself against the fear that the past traumas have created in your mind? Do you have a trusted friend, counselor, or mentor who can walk with you through that process?

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