“I didn’t sleep well last night … actually, I don’t sleep well most nights”. Ashleigh* apologises for her tardiness as she walks through the door to my office for her psychotherapy session. I notice the dark circles under her eyes.
In her late 40s, she has endured more traumatic events than most people twice her age. Growing up with an alcoholic father, Ashleigh had a strained relationship with him that has continued into adulthood. While she had a good relationship with her mother, she lost her to cancer when she was 17-years-old.
The years that followed were a blur, she tells me. “I struggled to cope and give myself time to grieve her death. It happened all very fast – she was diagnosed with cancer only five months before she died.”
Then 15 years ago, when Ashleigh was in her early 30s, she was in a horrific highway crash that resulted in the death of her boyfriend at the time. “Two of the most important people to me were taken when I was young,” she says, struggling to speak. “I haven’t ever really recovered or dealt with that trauma.”
Recognise toxic patterns causing distress
Now a mother of one herself, Ashleigh has recently separated from her husband.
“Shortly after the birth of my child, our relationship became toxic and I found myself turning to alcohol to deal with situations that were similar to my own upbringing with my father. As the months went by, I was drinking sometimes up to two bottles of wine a day.”
I remind Ashleigh that the first step in breaking any pattern is to recognise it, which she did. Trauma can leave a deep impact on our lives and, if not dealt with properly, it can develop into toxic patterns that affect our relationships, work, and overall wellbeing. Breaking these patterns is not an easy task, but it is essential to move forward and live a healthy life.
I encourage Ashleigh to begin a 12-step program and to take some time each day to reflect on her behaviour, thoughts, and emotions to see if she recognises recurring patterns. Identifying the pattern that is causing distress and understanding how it is linked to your trauma is essential to recovery.
After a few sessions, I learn that Ashleigh is afraid of her child growing up in a situation that mirrors her own childhood. The loss of two people she confided in has left Ashleigh feeling alone and anxious about those closest to her.
“I think I’m always fearful of losing the people I love most – it has left me in an emotionally heightened state permanently. This has contributed to the breakdown of my relationship.”
Trauma can be triggered by certain events, people, or situations. It is important to understand what triggers your toxic pattern so that you can avoid or manage it.
We also need to be aware of our own maladaptive patterns of behaviours. These behaviours are often developed in childhood as a result of abusive and traumatic experiences. As we grow into adulthood, they stop us from embracing new circumstances or managing difficult ones. They present in our adult life after a major life change, illness, or traumatic event.
These events can propel us or trigger us into feelings we buried through earlier traumatic life experiences. To cope, Ashleigh adopted the same coping mechanism as her father. But as we unravel more of Ashleigh’s trauma, we discover other maladaptive patterns.
An example of how we use maladaptive behaviours to protect ourselves might be not getting the jobs we wanted, or perhaps getting a number of ‘nos’ to our request for interviews. While we consciously and cognitively understand it may be a competitive market, we may internally blame ourselves believing we are ‘not good enough’, ‘not smart enough’, ‘not worthy’. It can escalate to a point where we do need professional help to unpack how we have become unhappy with our life.
Ashleigh now understands that life rarely goes as expected for anyone. When faced with an obstacle, we can adapt or not. In the moment, it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.
Adaptive behaviour is making the choice to solve a problem or minimise an unwanted outcome. You might do something you don’t necessarily want to do or find a way to work around it. You’re adjusting to circumstances. When unchecked, maladaptive behaviours can become a self-destructive pattern. Help is needed to navigate our way through these difficult times.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
I remind Ashleigh that several traumatic events like those she has experienced can shape our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. For Ashleigh, the world became a place of death and isolation. In therapy, I try to get Ashleigh to challenge these beliefs and reframe the world in a more positive light.
It is also important to listen to how you speak to yourself.
Ashleigh is harder on herself than anyone else is and it has been an important step for her to replace her negative self-talk with positive affirming statements – to begin to become her own best friend and not continue to abandon herself.
Ashleigh now recognises when she is becoming overwhelmed and calms herself with music and art. Mindfulness can help you stay present and aware of your thoughts and emotions. It can also help you identify when you are falling into your toxic pattern and allow you to take a step back and choose a different response. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, deep breathing, or simply paying attention to your surroundings.
Trauma can take a toll on our mental and physical health. It is important to take care of yourself by getting enough rest, eating well, and engaging in activities that bring you joy. Self-care can also involve setting healthy boundaries, saying no to things that drain your energy, and prioritising your needs.
Breaking toxic patterns can be challenging, but a therapist or counsellor can help identify the root cause of the pattern, provide tools to manage triggers, and guide you through the process of breaking the pattern. Above all else, it’s important to be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress along the way. With time and effort, you can break free from toxic patterns and live a healthier, happier life.
*Name has been changed for privacy and the client’s story is an amalgam of several cases