mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

The connections between health, conflict avoidance and trauma

how childhood trauma can affect our physical health

For most of my life I have been afraid of conflict. I didn’t really understand why and I thought it was part of my nature.I accepted it and didn’t seek to change it. Because of this fear, for a lengthy part of my life I lost my voice. I kept quiet in conversations and didn’t dare to express my opinion. I developed acute social anxiety for years I didn’t meet new people. Due to a serendipitous change of events I got over my fear of meeting new people but I retained my fear of conflict. I was nice to people. I believed I was nice, I thought being nice was also part of my nature. One can be nice and still run into conflicts because some people are conflict driven. I remember all the times I got caught in them and the terror I felt in my bones and gut.

I felt a lot of shame. In modern society especially in the work place, if one is conflict adverse we can forget about any sort of career advancement. There is only one outcome: burnout. It seems obvious to me now but back then I simply burnt myself in repetitive loops wondering what have I done to deserve such terrible physical health. It is hard to have boundaries when we are conflict adverse. So we let people tell us what to do, work harder than anybody hoping to prove ourselves on merit (haha), avoid telling our bosses how we really feel about their decisions or anything we are disturbed about, let everyone else take all the power, keep quiet when there is unfair treatment. The people who advance in their career are good at conflict, perhaps even thriving on it. They love to speak up, ask for raises and/or promotions, challenge their bosses. The really good rare ones are good at conflict resolutions, and these people are good managers.

I can’t even resolve conflicts within myself, much less with other people. In my private life I keep quiet when people close to me make hurtful remarks, use me as a joke, invalidate my feelings or make me feel small. Sometimes I even laugh along with them. I never felt like I had the right to be otherwise, because I really believed what they said. I was weak, lazy and oversensitive. When you are a child and that is what the adults tell you, you believe them, because they hold the power and the authority. When you grow up, you believe them less, but without even realising it you have become the harshest critic to yourself because you have grown to internalise their voices.

I got recommended two books by people who have read my writing on my health issues:

book Goodreads
Healing Developmental Trauma
by Laurence Heller, Aline LaPierre completed: 17 Dec 2017

“It is now understood that one of the most significant consequences of early relational and shock trauma is the resulting lack of capacity for emotional and autonomic self-regulation. Shock and developmental trauma compromise our ability to regulate our emotions and disrupt autonomic functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and sleep.”

"How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship"

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This book gave me a lot of insight to my physical health problems. TLDR: young kids need to feel securely attached to a caregiver in order to learn self-regulation. In the early stage weare being regulated by their caregiver’s body through being held. Without learning self-regulation we grow up to have chronic health issues because of our inability to regulate seemingly simple body functions like breathing. Hence our bodies do not calm down after experiencing a threat, resulting in a perpetual state of heightened arousal and vigilance.

book Goodreads
Complex PTSD
by Pete Walker completed: 08 Jul 2018

Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feeling states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression. They also include unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts…In an emotional flashback you can regress instantly into feeling and thinking that you are as worthless and contemptible as your family perceived you. When you are stranded in a flashback, toxic shame devolves into the intensely painful alienation of the abandonment mélange — a roiling morass of shame, fear and depression…While the origin of Cptsd is most often associated with extended periods of physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood, my observations convince me that ongoing verbal and emotional abuse also causes itMany dysfunctional parents react contemptuously to a baby or toddler’s plaintive call for connection and attachment. Contempt is extremely traumatizing to a child, and at best, extremely noxious to an adult. 

"If you felt unwanted, unliked, rejected, hated and/or despised for a lengthy portion of your childhood, trauma may be deeply engrained in your mind, soul and body."

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I just want to put it out there that I no longer blame anyone for this in the present moment. There’s not many people I know in my generation who didn’t go through Asian (+ Singaporean) parenting and teaching. I believe most of us try to do the best given who we are (I do strongly oppose Asian-style parenting now though — why do we believe constant criticism makes us better??). My issues were probably exacerbated because of intergenerational trauma, hereditary genetic reasons, and the fact I was fostered as a baby and returned to my biological family at age 7.

But here’s what I took a long time to understand. Forgiveness and understanding do not usually have the power to rewire our brains and entire nervous systems to magically nurse our selves back to health. The brain does its own thing and does not submit itself to reason (if it did the world wouldn’t be as fucked up as it is now). The amygdala, the part of the brain that determines our flight or fright response, is old and primal. Its main focus is on survival and it doesn’t care how we do it. If it determines that flooding us with adrenalin is the best way to survive, it will keep on doing it. It is not smart enough to detect that we have moved on to safer environments. It has evolved to work as quickly as possible, which means the moment you feel danger it will trigger your flight or fright response, and it will commit your trauma to hard memory so the next time you can respond even quicker to danger. It also doesn’t differentiate the threat you feel between someone trying to kill you versus someone verbally trying to put you down.

This is also why I think the outcome of emotional abuse can often be as severe as physical abuse. A threat is a threat. For young children, they are wired to think that being emotionally abandoned is an actual danger to their survival and existence. I wrote in my last essay why do we get driven so much by the physical sensations of sadness? It turns out that our brains associate these feelings with life and death.

This week, everything seemed to click into place. I have been developing a sense of why I am who I am in the past few years through a ton of research, but now there is a clarity.

I am conflict adverse, have no boundaries and I hardly express my sadness because everytime I am in these situations, my body remembers all those times as a child I felt helpless, powerless and terrified. I am very afraid of feeling people’s anger because it reminds me of all the fear I had felt then and there was nothing I could do about it. I am extremely afraid of rejection because it triggers the feelings of my abandonment, so I learned not to display my sadness or displeasure so that people wouldn’t abandon or reject me.

“Emotional neglect also typically underlies most traumatizations that are more glaringly evident. Parents who routinely ignore or turn their backs on a child’s calls for attention, connection or help, abandon their child to unmanageable amounts of fear, and the child eventually gives up and succumbs to depressed, death-like feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

 — Complex PTSD

I am just replaying my terror and despair over and over again. I keep getting physically sick because I lack the ability to regulate or soothe myself. My body is in perpetual tension because it keeps being afraid and feeling afraid, lacking the rest and relaxation state to repair itself. It doesn’t take an intellectual leap to conclude that a body that is chronically stressed, tense and frequently believes it is in danger, will sooner or later succumb to dis-ease.