I received this compelling request yesterday from a woman who found me online.

I am nearly 11 months sober and doing the work around healing old wounds. I got married this past summer and am pretty happy except that one thing is keeping me really stuck. Trust issues. It seems to be getting bigger and more destructive. I am trying to find a way to heal this and the one question that nags me is how do you tell the difference between fear and intuition? This is plaguing me. Fear of my husband having something going on. I have gut feelings of it but they are also repetitive of feelings I have had in all my past relationships. But just the knowing of this doesn’t seem to break the pattern of being triggered by certain things and it is not only threatening my marriage but my sobriety as well .  I want to heal and I want to trust and I want to understand the difference between my intuitive gut feelings and fear. I’m hoping deeply that you respond or in some way can offer some kind of assistance. 

First, good for you for your 11 months of sobriety.  I hope you have support, such as 12 Steps programs and a sponsor.

In early recovery, newcomers sometimes hear from old-timers, “Don’t trust your impulses. Don’t even take a shower without calling your sponsor first!” This is due to the experience that those with deep wounds and traumas who have gotten into addictive cycles to cope will almost never be able to extricate themselves from the addiction on their own, without experienced help and spiritual help.  The AA Big Book says, “Our own best thinking got us here”, meaning that it was the erroneous thinking, the rationalizations, denial, and justifications that kept us in a downward addictive spiral.

But surely this is not the whole story. Aren’t we all trying to learn to trust ourselves, our own feelings and inner guidance ever more deeply? Surely we don’t have to indefinitely surrender our will to a sponsor or a group? Wouldn’t that be wrong, somehow?

Yes, it would be wrong.

Ultimately, your own deep feelings, intuition, and inner guidance, experienced through your body, truly are your most trustworthy guide on how to live your life….what is important to your happiness, what to avoid. The problem is this. Our primitive, instinctual brain, often known as the reptilian brain, is responsible for saving us in the face of threat. One of the ways it does this is a bit like a modern computer operating system. If your computer crashes, it has recorded the state of all the computer’s settings just before the crash, even with lots of details totally unrelated to the crash, just in case.  This can be useful to a technician trying to fix the problem. Similarly, your “reptilian brain” records everything happening at the time of the threat as associated with the trauma.

Let’s say you are driving along peacefully in light rain when a red pickup truck approaching from the right runs a light and slams into you. Your primitive brain records “raining”, “red truck”, “approaching from the right”, and “intersection” all as associated with the trauma. This will tend to “wire” you afterwards so that you may experience unease or even panic with any of these triggers, and the cause of your anxiety will likely be completely unconscious.  You never made a conscious decision to avoid red trucks or any of these circumstances. Logically, consciously, you know that the only cause of the accident was not the red truck, but the other driver running the stop light. But that primitive part of you is doing its thing to save you from future threats.

Another example: I had a female client who was uncomfortable around men with beards. It took some time and healing work for her to realize that she had as a child been abused by a man with a beard and that, as a group, men with beards were no more of a threat than men without beards. It was just the way she had gotten wired, due to her trauma.

Oftentimes people with lots of trauma and therefore, lots of triggers, become increasingly overwhelmed by and numb to all their feelings. Now they not only can’t trust them….they can’t even feel them at all.

In somatic healing work, we help our clients learn to listen to and to trust their sensations and feelings, but the problem with that is all these old trauma triggers, which “contaminate” the feelings. You might say, they add “static” to the signal, making it hard to get a clear and trustworthy message. They are “sounding the alarm”, but, in many cases, there’s no present day cause for alarm at all. To be on guard all the time like that with no present day cause can definitely mess up your life and relationships.

What is the answer?

Recovery of the capacity to know what feelings to trust versus what is the “static” or noise is hard work and takes time. There’s no quick technique which will resolve this dilemma. However, such recovery is your birthright and is entirely possible. And there’s probably nothing else more important and worthwhile.

Here are some suggestions and strategies to set you on a path to recovery of such “inner trust”.

  1. Practice becoming more aware of and present to your body, including conscious relaxation.  This might include some form of meditation, such as breath awareness, paying attention to the sensations of drinking a glass of water or eating, spending time paying attention to an uncomfortable tightness in your solar plexus, and so forth.  Over time, this will contribute to your awareness of important feelings which might guide you.
  2. Cultivate friendships with people doing similar healing work or find a support group where you can discuss your inner experience and the situations where you notice certain feelings. The idea is not necessarily to get advice, but to bounce experiences off each other as a way to become more aware and to validate your own feelings. Doing that, you’ll likely notice more when you get triggered, what is real threat, and what is a false alarm. It is crucial to bring this into full conscious awareness. Little change can happen as long as it is all unconscious.
  3. Take pauses. Reactivity from the primitive brain is ONLY useful if you are actually in a life-threatening situation and actually need to flee or fight.  For everything else (about 99.999% of the time), learn to recognize when you are having strong “reactive” feelings and take a pause. Breathe. Go for a walk. Listen to calming music. Meditate. Sooth yourself.  Once your nervous system discharges the adrenaline from the “fight-flight” response, you’ll see things more clearly and with less compulsion to act and you’ll make much better decisions.
  4. Related to #3, when you are in a state of strong feelings (anger, mistrust, fear, suspicion, etc), do not judge, criticize, or “go off on” your spouse, partner, friend, or co-workers. It might seem 100% justified and righteous at the time, but, you’ll likely come to regret your words and may have a difficult time repairing the damage done.
  5. If you are in a trusting, intimate partnership, I suggest you vulnerably share your inner experience and feelings, avoiding any suggestion of blame. The point is not to blame or confront. It is to help you process through your feelings. If you do not have such a “safe” relationship, better to do this work with a therapist or good friend.
  6. “Befriending the feeling” means focusing inner awareness on the sensations in the body, with patience and gentleness, and with as little thinking as possible. This is most easily learned with the help of a therapist. This is not complicated, but it can seem difficult because most of us had to deny or suppress so many of our feelings as children. As we pay attention to such sensations and feelings over time, with kindness, we will notice that they change, almost always in a positive direction. This step of bringing increased presence and awareness to our body and feelings is perhaps the most important step towards healing of the old wounds and the resulting “trauma field” in our nervous systems.
  7. Allow plenty of time.  The deeper meaning of uncomfortable feelings almost always becomes more clear over days or weeks. If we resist the urge to come to a premature conclusion about what such an inner feeling or experience means, we will keep learning and getting more clear.
  8. What if it’s not just our triggers or unresolved fears and there really is something wrong, such as a partner who is untrustworthy? If we actually are being abused, used, or betrayed in some way in the present day, we do, of course, need to recognize that and take appropriate action. If the facts aren’t clear though, it is rare that we must come to such a conclusion quickly or without time to take these suggestions I have outlined. If you are active with the 12 Steps or in another recovery support community, use these groups to gain more clarity on the truth…when your feelings are giving you important information about current day realities, versus when they are sounding a false alarm based on past trauma. I’m not encouraging anyone to ignore their inner warning signs of danger or betrayal, but waiting an extra period of days or weeks to calm yourself, do your own healing work, build support, and gain clarity will rarely make the situation worse.
  9. If it becomes clear that you are experiencing overt, physical, or frightening abuse, get out and get safe. The time to do your own deep healing work on old trauma needs to be postponed until you are relatively safe.

Do you have private questions about the body-mind connection or about recovering from trauma, loss, or abuse? Click here to leave me a private message.




Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release trauma, abuse, and loss. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at www.releasingthepast.com.

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