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RELEARNING

Posted Mar 29 2010 8:55am

 

One of our two dogs is a rescue dog. We got Gracie when she was about a year and a half old so that she could bond with and play with our other year and half year old dog, Bailey. Bailey didn’t like to be on his own outside—he wanted a playmate! And so Gracie entered our lives.

It was clear from the beginning that Gracie had experienced some challenges in her short life. She came to us tremendously underweight, with a huge cut on the side of her neck and with the worst case of worms that the vet had ever seen. It took a bit for her to bond with Bailey and our family. She was skittish, at times, clearly worried about what might happen to her in any new environment.

Yet she settled in and we learned to adjust to her peculiarities. She didn’t like the door on her crate to be shut. She didn’t like anyone to approach her too quickly. If you came up behind her and surprised her, she startled. It was clear that she had suffered some kind of trauma and was always wary of what might happen again.

After she had been in our family for awhile, she started to relax. She was joyful—wagging her tail all the time—and she would always lay on the couch with me. She’d warm my feet. Then one day a computer cord was hanging down by the back of the couch. She got caught in it. I reacted quickly. I reached towards her so she wouldn’t pull the computer off, but I apparently surprised her. After that, she would quickly scuttle away if I approached her and she didn’t want to sit on the couch with anyone.

Weeks went by. Our family worked hard to pet her and reassure her and gradually she started feeling comfortable again. She didn’t shy away. She started sitting on the couch with my kids—but not with me. And then finally, finally she sat on the couch with me. This was after about a month of working consistently to reassure her.

What does this mean? It seems fairly apparent that she suffered a traumatic experience before she came to live with us. Someone, somewhere did not treat her well. She was able to put that behind her and settle into our family. Yet when this scary threat happened—when she got tangled and I appeared to leap at her—this past trauma was retriggered. She started viewing us and our house with a distrustful stance as if not believing that she was really safe. It took weeks and weeks of us offering calm, comforting, and steady acceptance for her to slowly reaccept her safety.

Once traumas have occurred—it is very easy to retrigger the fearful emotions related to them. Consider why this might be. It would certainly be adaptive—a way of protection. If something threatened you before—then if there was even a hint of a threat—one needed to be able to react quickly so that more harm didn’t occur. At our home, Gracie has not been injured. Yet her reaction to that tangled cord was reflex. It retriggered all the fears from before.

So…

  • Consider and journal about a past challenge or traumatic experience. Are there aspects of that experience that still affect your daily interactions? For example, if someone was critical or made fun of another person when he/she tried to public speak, then the next public speaking event would be even more anxiety provoking. Not only would there be the fear of the current event, but also all the criticisms of past events.

Do you find that you avoid things because of past rebukes, insults, or harms? Journal about what happened and what your expectations are related to this. How is it hindering your life? How can you work to make yourself feel safer?  For Gracie—she had to rely on us to reassure her. We couldn’t discuss with her why she didn’t have to worry about being harmed. You, though, can work to understand what fears are being retriggered in certain situations. You can analyze new experiences and see how they can turn out differently this time—how you can make them turn out differently.

Don’t downplay the effect that past emotions have on the present. Yet they don’t have to rule your life! Gracie’s fears were retriggered, but with reassurance, she has been able to move past them. Work to understand your fears. What do you need to change in your life to make sure you’re safe? What fears are you holding onto that don’t still apply to your life? What are you able to and willing to let go? Work to understand so that you can find a new life that is not ruled by old fears.

Go….Write On!

Martha Peaslee Levine, MD

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