We spend much of our lives on auto- pilot. Are you generally aware of what is going on around you or are you self absorbed and unaware? Are you able to read a book in the middle of a ball game or a busy airport? Do you have the power to just “go away” somewhere within yourself? It is normal to not notice every little thing going on. Many of us do not notice changes and we do not make good witnesses to sudden events which surprise us. Others are hyper-vigilant, and notice everything that goes on around them. They are constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger.
I have long been interested in the function of habituation and sensory adaptation. It is my belief that these processes are both blessing and curse. Remember when you first learned to tie your shoes? It took intense concentration and practice. My oldest child sat on the couch and cried for nearly an hour when I finally said if you don’t tie your shoe you can’t get off the couch. Then when he accepted the truth (not to mention the unfairness) of that command, he tied his shoes. (Remember, being fair is not in the job description for dads.) Today, at forty, he can tie them, chew gum, and watch TV while he talks on the phone, all at the same time. The reason he can do this, is habituation and practice. My younger son, who is fifteen, just wears Velcro fasteners, or slip-ons of some kind. The point here is that when you first attempt to acquire a skill, you have to think about it, rehearse it, and practice it. It takes consciousness, concentration, and focus. As you improve your ability to perform the skill it habituates, requiring less and less focus and attention. It becomes automatic. This ranges from things as simple as tying a shoe to things as complex as a belief system to which you have become indoctrinated.
If you have to think about someone, notice them, and evaluate them as individuals, that takes time, energy, and attention. IF you can just label them as part of a category you can stereotype them and classify them automatically as part of a group about which you already have an opinion. This automated (habituated) process can refer to occupations (teachers, doctors, cops, priests) to genders or sexual orientations, races, or religions. This ability to generalize saves us time and energy. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to notice, we don’t have to choose. We can just react in our conditioned way with our conditioned beliefs.
This human skill is useful and necessary. It is cheaper in terms of energy and time consumed if you can generalize. If you have to perform a total evaluation every time you go deal with same thing, it costs a lot. I learn each time that I touch the hot stove I will get burned, I can then generalize that if I touch the fireplace with fire, I will also get burned. We automate these conclusions to save energy for new or different things. Things we have to figure out and solve because they are new to us take time, so being able to generalize is an efficient process.
What about people who do not have the ability to do this? Those who are hyper-vigilant, who constantly scan and have difficulty relaxing? Who are they, why are they the way they are? Most of the people I have met with this pattern are trauma survivors of some kind. Most likely when they were young, they encountered some very frightening and traumatizing experience. They learned that they were in danger and they must constantly scan the event horizon for signs of new danger. In order to minimize the cost of the danger, they had to be aware and alert at all times. They often do not sleep soundly and have trouble relaxing because their minds are on full alert all the time. This is exhausting. But, it is another sign of the adaptive nature of human beings. Many people can learn to be focused and alert on demand (like soldiers in combat) but as soon as the danger passes, they revert to auto pilot and reestablish the ability to drift along. The trauma survivor has a great difficulty going off duty. They cannot calm down and stop being acutely aware of their surroundings.
Watch people driving around or walking in the mall. They may be singing to themselves or having conversations with themselves. They may have a dull blank, unconnected look in their eyes and show no emotion on their face. Their concentration is elsewhere, usually inward, and they seem to be a million miles away. They count on their unconscious system to notice and alert them when required attending becomes necessary. They would be aware of the police siren, someone just calling their name, the phone ringing, or the crashing sound of breaking glass.
Some people who have experienced trauma learn to be dissociative, this is a process of learning to go away. In other words, “the lights are on, but no one is home.” This is one way trauma survivors learn to survive. When they cannot physically escape some pain or some danger, they just go away inside themselves. They dissociate from themselves and their awareness of the event which is happening. Usually they learn this skill as a way to endure repetitive assaults, though it can be one trial learning if the stimulus is harsh enough. They generalize or globalize this skill and learn to go away whenever anything unpleasant or uncomfortable begins to happen. They can still function, such as making change, carrying on a conversation, or driving a car. They are physically, but not emotionally present. They have escaped into some other place, or identity.
When therapists encounter the dissociative process, we begin to gently point it out to the client. In this situation, I might suggest that we think the client is on autopilot and not really experiencing the discussion or the event we are dealing with. I observe that their physical reactions do not match the story they are sharing. Perhaps, the story is sad but they do not look sad or the story is frightening, but they do not show the emotion of fear, or the story should evoke anger, but they do not seem angry. As the therapist, it is a bit subjectively like listening to the radio. The vibrancy of a present person is absent from the conversation. It is as if the client and you do not exist. They are just automatically talking but the words do not convey meaning. The client is usually unaware of this as it is happening.
One of the skills for beginning to confront the dissociative process is to identify that the client has gone away and ask them if they are aware of it. Usually they will say no. The therapist reflects back specific behavioral cues which change during this process and identifies them to the client. Normally, the client will say, “No, that did not happen. You are wrong.” The therapist might say, “OK, help me learn about you. It has been my experience that when someone appears to go away during a conversation it means that they have touched on something that is difficult for them. But you tell me that when you do it, it does not mean this. I accept that. I want to understand how you think. When I perceive this as happening, can I ask about it and point it out? That way I can learn to hear you accurately and experience you accurately. My ultimately goal is to hear and experience you with validity.”
The client will usually hear this in a non-threatening way and agree. As the therapist continues gently and softly pointing out specific behaviors, (not accusatively, aha I caught you now!) the client begins to recognize that they are, indeed, changing into or out of contact with a conversation or experience. Once they have begun to notice, they often say “I just did it, didn’t I?” The therapist may ask, what was the last thing you heard, felt, or remember, before you went away? What we are doing is looking for the triggers that identify the trauma. Then the client can begin to heal from the trauma and learn to be safe even while they are connected, as opposed to hiding. The hyper-acute vigilance begins to diminish, because the client learns to reality test. The goal is to be in contact with reality. This means to be able to assess real and present risks and dangers, to feel, and to be in the present moment. Eventually, the client can go on auto-pilot, and not escape into dissociative process, but rather to become more efficient in energy consumption. We want the client to be more like those who have not suffered from trauma. The client can be alert on demand or need, but not constantly over alert nor constantly disengaged as their only way to be safe.
Gradually by using these skills for identifying the dissociative process and teaching the client to stay in reality and to consciously know risk and danger, the client can heal from trauma. Watching this happen is a beautiful thing. It is joyful to be part of helping someone heal from something so devastating and debilitating.