Flashbacks of negative experiences can play in your mind in a similar way to the movie scenes that repeat on a DVD menu when you don’t make a selection. Not only can this keep you awake for hours at night, it can send you headlong into depression.
If you were traumatised or abused as a child – especially by family members – you probably had no soothing adult voice to alleviate your emotional pain and fear. Amplified in angry silences, in guilt, and in adults’ displeasure with each other and life, that pain and fear could now be hard-wired into your brain. New traumas and quarrels and other people’s indifference to your pain can amplify and entrench it further. Then when the horror movies of past trauma or abuse start playing inside your head, it is often difficult to find a switch to turn them off.
Like me as a child, you may have been forbidden to talk about what happened to you, or to express the pain and grief of what you experienced by crying or becoming angry. And probably like me as well, you were a child who could be seen, but not heard. Perhaps you were not even seen, and spent hours shut in your room with only thoughts to keep you company about how bad and wrong you were – so bad in fact that you didn’t deserve your parents’ love.
Even now in my sixties, the traumas and unhappiness I experienced as a child still invade my dreams like an intruder to wake me at night with a pounding heart. I have chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by the experiences that terrorized my childhood. It has permanently altered the flight/fight buttons inside my brain and they flick on at the slightest reminder of past trauma and abuse. When they won’t turn off, not only does it lock me into a prison of anxiety that robs joy from my waking hours, it can also send me tumbling towards the black hole of depression. It took me years to learn how to catch myself with a safety net before I hit the bottom.
This safety net is called appreciation.
Whenever negative thoughts send me spiralling down, I ask myself, “What can I appreciate about this day in my life?” Is it the little fantail that chirped cheerily to me from a tree just off the deck? Or was it the unexpected melody from a thrush I hadn’t heard before? Is it the rain that has allowed me time to write and reflect without feeling guilty about holing up inside? Or was it the short break I had where I picked up my guitar and played a song I hadn’t sung in years, making me feel grateful that I could still play it?
That guitar was the friend I took on my travels halfway around the world. Sometimes I played it on a beach at sunset, enjoying a quiet time alone. Occasionally people joined me for a sing-along filled with joyful camaraderie. Then one day a young man brought pizza to share at a deserted summer camp while I was editing some writing by a lake. He told me how his life had fallen apart when he had been on drugs, the money he had gone through, the excuses he made for his behaviour, a baby the mother wouldn’t let him see.
We watched the sun spread glitter over the lake in the late afternoon light and I played my guitar and sang Let it Be. It bought tears to his eyes. Later we made marbled patterns on paper with chalk. I watched the delight and surprise on his face as we lifted each sheet of paper from the water to reveal its unique pattern. Before he left he told me that making art together had given him a higher high than drugs. “I didn’t know you could get so high on happiness,” he said.
I am smiling as I type this. You see how this little exercise in appreciation took me on a pleasant trip though happy memories. This is what breaks the pattern of freefall into the darkness of negativity, despair, and depression. Just as one negative thought will seek out other negative thoughts and compound them, focusing on appreciation seeks out the happy memories that are also stored inside our brains – those ones that can light up our face with a smile. Therefore the choice is ours about who we will invite into our minds as ‘guests’.
Whenever dark clouds start rolling over my horizon I now remind myself to focus on appreciating one thing in the moment, in the day, in the year, in my life and let the happy memories take me on a joy ride. My heart stops pounding. My hunched up shoulders relax. And I begin to breathe life deeply into my gut. The sun peeks through the clouds. I watch the wind play with the curtains and listen to the cicadas sing their raspy songs in the afternoon heat. Peace knocks at the door and enters. I heave a sigh of relief at the appearance of this most welcome guest.
By changing my perspective like this, I can see that alongside the painful and sad experiences of my life are many happy and joyful events for which I can learn to be grateful. By appreciating the gifts each new day brings, life is no longer a whirlwind of trauma that sucks me into despair. Each special moment brings lightness and joy to my soul and I weave them all firmly into my safety net to catch me should I fall again.
Working at making happiness a permanent and constant part of our lives is perhaps one of life’s greatest challenges. Many people seek happiness through the acquisition of money or fame or power or the ‘perfect’ relationship. But for me, happiness has come through the courage and commitment to rise above the negativity of fear by appreciating the many gifts that special moments bring.
What special moments and memories do you have to weave into your safety net?