@Tian Dayton PhD

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What are the Signs of Emotional Sobriety?
•  Ability to regulate strong emotions •  Ability to regulate mood •  Ability to maintain a perspective on life circumstances. •  Ability to regulate potentially harmful substances or behaviors •  Ability to live in the present •  Ability to regulate activity levels.

•  Ability to live with deep, intimate connection.

•  Resilience, the ability to roll with the punches

•  Ability to regulate behavior

What are Symptoms of a lack of emotional sobriety?

•  Inability to regulate strong feelings such as anger, rage, anxiety, sadness

•  Lack of ability to regulate mood

•  Lack of ability to regulate behavior

•  Not being able to gain a perspective on feelings when they are extreme

•  Lack of ability to regulate self medicating use of substances or behaviors.

•  Inability to live in the present, preoccupies with past unresolved wounds.

•  Lack of ability to regulate activity level. (chronically over or under active)

•  Inability to have deeply feeling intimate relationships.

•  Lack of resilience or the ability to roll with the punches

What are the Solutions: How Can I Come Into Balance?

•  Resolve early childhood wounds

•  Learn techniques of self soothing and make them a part of your life

•  Develop a strong relationship network

•  Maintain a healthy body, exercise, rest, nutrition, sensual pleasure

•  Find meaningful activities, work, hobbies, and passions

•  Process emotional ups and downs as they happen

•  Develop inner resources, quiet, meditation, spiritual pursuits

What is Emotional Sobriety?

•  Emotional sobriety is about finding and maintaining our emotional equilibrium, our feeling rheostat.

•  Emotional sobriety is tied up in our ability to self regulate . To bring ourselves into balance when we fall out of it.

•  Balance is that place where our thinking, feeling and behavior are reasonably congruent; where we operate in an integrated flow.

•  When our emotions are out of control, so is our thinking.

•  When we can’t bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships show it.

•  Emotions impact our thinking more than our thinking impacts our emotions. Our limbic system, which is where we experience and process emotion, actually sends more inputs to the thinking part of our brain, i.e. the cortex, than the opposite. (Damassio)

•  The essence of Emotional Sobriety is good self regulation. Self regulation means that we have mastered those skills that allow us to balance our moods, our nervous systems, our appetites, our sexual drive, our sleep. We have learned how to tolerate our intense emotions without acting out in dysfunctional ways, clamping down or foreclosing on our feeling world or self medicating.

•  Addiction and compulsive, unregulated behaviors reflect a lack of good self regulation.

•  To maintain our emotional equilibrium, we need to be able to use our thinking mind to decode and understand our feeling mind. That is, we need to feel our feelings and then use our thinking to make sense and meaning out of them.

How Do We Learn to Self Regulate?

•  Nature and Nurture: Each tiny interaction between parent/caretaker and child actually lays down the neural wiring that becomes part of our brain/body network.

•  As the parent interacts with the child, the child learns the skills of relating and regulation which are then laid down as neural wiring.

•  The child takes this new learning into his world of relationships, experiments with it, gets continued feedback and continues to lay down new wiring based on what he is seamlessly picking up from his environment and the relationships in it.

•  Early experiences knit long lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural network. (Lewis) And these neural patterns form the relational template from which we operate throughout life.

•  As children, if we get frightened or hurt, for example, we look to our mothers, fathers and close people to sooth us, to help us to feel better, to bring us back into balance.

•  We learn to “tolerate” our intense feelings when we’re young and as we get older, “holding environment”

•  When our skills of self regulation are well learned during childhood, they feel as if they come naturally, as if we always had them.

•  When they are not well learned, we may reach to sources outside of ourselves to restore the sense of calm and good feeling that we cannot achieve ourselves, namely drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling and so on.

•  The ACOA/ACOT syndrome can reflect problems with early attachments or relationships. Children who learn the skills of relating and regulation from unstable parents internalize unstable patterns.

What is the Limbic System?

The limbic system is the body/mind neural network that governs our emotions. Our moods, appetite and sleep cycles are some of the areas of functioning that fall under its jurisdiction.


The limbic system

•  “sets the mind’s emotional tone,

•  filters external events through internal states (creates emotional coloring),

•  tags events as internally important,

•  stores highly charged emotional memories,

•  modulates motivation,

•  controls appetite and sleep cycles,

•  promotes bonding

•  directly processes the sense of smell and modulates libido. (Amen)

Our emotions circulate throughout our bodies as brain/body mood chemicals that impact how we feel.

Problems in our limbic system may manifest as:

•  When we have problems in our deep limbic system they can manifest as moodiness, irritability,

•  clinical depression,

•  increased negative thinking,

•  negative perceptions of events,

•  decreased motivation,

•  floods of negative emotion,

•  appetite and sleep problems,

•  decreased or increase d sexual responsiveness or social isolation. (Amen)

•  an impaired ability to regulate levels of fear, anger and sadness,and may lead to chronic anxiety or depression.

•  substance or behavioral disorders,

•  problems in regulating alcohol, eating, sexual or spending habits

All of this is what impacts our emotional sobriety.


How is emotional sobriety undermined?

Emotional trauma can have a negative impact on early development. It can both interfere with our ability to use our thinking brains to decode our emotions and it can create problems in our limbic systems. Our limbic systems get set on “high” we are over sensitized to stress and hence, we over react to it.

Our bodies don’t really distinguish between physical danger and emotional stress.

The natural fear response associated with our fight/flight apparatus will cause the body to react to physical or emotional “crisis,” by pumping out sufficient quantities of what are known as “stress” chemicals, like adrenaline, to get our hearts pumping, muscles tightening and breath shortening, in preparation for a fast exit, or a fight.

But for those where the family itself has become the preverbal “saber toothed tiger”, for whom escape is not really the issue, these chemicals boil up inside and can cause physical and emotional problems. And family members may find themselves in a confusing and painful bind, ie.,wanting to flee from or attack, those very people who represent home and hearth.If this highly stressful relational environment persists over time, it can produce what is called cumulative trauma .

Because the limbic system governs such fundamental functions as mood, emotional tone, appetite and sleep cycles, when it becomes deregulated it can affect family members in far ranging ways.

Problems in regulating our emotional inner world, can manifest as:

Homes that aren’t calm, that are in, what we might, call chronic chaos, undermine our body’s ability to maintain a regulated state. Over time, we lose the ability to tolerate intense emotion so that we can think about what we’re experiencing on a feeling level. At the most extreme level thought and emotion become disengaged. When this happens, our thinking selves and our feeling selves become out of balance, split off from each other. This undermines our ability to use our thinking to understand what we’re experiencing on a feeling and sensory level. At the most basic level, we lose touch with ourselves.

WHy Children Can’t Understand What’s Happening to Them

•  There are three significant points of brain development that greatly influence how a child processes stress. They are reflected in the development of the amaygdala , the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

•  At birth, the child’s amygdala , which is part of our fight/flight/freeze or survival brain, is fully formed. Because it is fully formed, infants and children are capable of a full blown stress response from birth on. (Uram)

•  However, the hippocampus or the part of the brain that interprets sensory input as to whether or not it is a threat, is not fully functional until between four and five years of age.(Uram)

•  And the prefrontal cortex , which is where we have the ability to think and reason, is not fully developed until around age eleven. (van der Kolk).Because of these three factors, when small children get frightened and go into fight/flight/freeze, they have no way of interpreting the level of threat nor of using reason to modulate or understand what is happening around them. They can not use their sensing or thinking to help to regulate their level of fear.

•  Small children have no way of assessing whether or not they need to be scared, nor how scared they need to be. Kids look to a caring adult to woo them back to a sense of calm and equilibrium when they get scared. They depend on what scientists call “an external modulator”, namely the parent, to restore their sense of inner calm because they lack the developmental maturation to calm themselves or to understand the source of their fear.

PTSD: When Escape is Not Possible

•  Whether or not escape is possible (van der Kolk) The ability to escape is central to whether or not we develop PTSD. When we can’t get away from a traumatizing circumstance, when we can’t “escape” we’re more likely to develop long term effects in what is now called a post traumatic stress reaction. This is partially related to the freeze response and it’s affect on the body/mind system.( van der Kolk)

•  The meaning the child made out of painful events. Children are “magical thinkers” their reasoning is immature and not always grounded in reality. It is based on their developmental level. They need the adults around them to help them make sense and meaning of painful circumstances. Without this, they come up with their own meaning based on their level of development at the time the problem occurred.

•  The basic genetic makeup of the child (Krystal) What biological strengths and vulnerabilities the child is born with.

•  The length and severity of the stressor, how long did stressful events persist and how serious were they ? (Krystal)

•  The age of the child at the time stressful events were occurring, young children are more vulnerable to being affected by stress than older ones.

•  The quality of attachment with the mother/parent (Schore), A secure attachment with a parent can act as a buffer to stressful events.

•  Whether the child has access to sources of support, one bonded relationship in their young life is shown to be he single most important factor in having resilience, and (Werner) a secure attachment with the mother, is the strongest predictor of success in adulthood of any other factor.

The Importance of Repair

•  Repair can cause neuronal growth as new pathways integrating both problems and the solving of problems get laid down

•  Repair also allows our shame response, (Shore?) to become part of personal growth. We learn from our mistakes. Something went wrong and we learn ways of setting it right, of mending what was broken or restoring a lost sense of connection. This process, that occurs in the context of a relationship, creates new neural wiring just as any learning does.

•  This type of interaction gives the child meaning that makes sense to him so that he can let go of his fear, so that he doesn’t have to hold a low level of anticipation and fear and remain hypervigilant, waiting for the next problem to show itself.

What is Relationship Trauma?

The kind of emotional and psychological trauma that occurs within the context of a relationship, usually a primary relationship such as those within the home.

One important thing to understand here is that even well intended parents can cause significant emotional and psychological pain for their children. As we discussed in our previous chapter, the child’s limited brain development and their total dependency on their parent, can make them very vulnerable to being hurt.

I use the term relationship trauma to describe the set of symptoms that directly result from experiencing the types of abusive and demeaning relational dynamics that mobilize our fight/flight responses on a persistent enough basis, so that emotional and psychological damage occurs.

Characteristics of Trauma and/or Relationship Trauma

Following is a list of some of the traits or characteristics someone who has grown up with addiction and trauma may exhibit.

•  Problems with Self- regulation and emotional sobriety We go from 0 – 10 and 10 – 0 without intermediate stages, no shades of gray.

•  Emotional Constriction Numbness and shutdown as a defense against overwhelming pain. Restricted range of affect or lack of authentic expression of emotion.

•  Learned Helplessness When we feel we can do nothing to affect or change the situation we’re in, we may develop what’s called, learned helplessness. Learned helplessness means that we form a pattern of helplessness, we give up,

•  Loss of Trust and Faith (van der Kolk) When our personal world and the relationships within it become too unpredictable and unreliable we may experience a loss of trust and faith in relationships and in life’s ability to repair and renew itself.

•  Hypervigilance (van der Kolk) When we are hyper vigilant we carry a low level of anxiety around with us. We may scan our environment and relationships for signs of potential danger or repeated relationship insults and ruptures. We may over read signs from others, even a raised eyebrow or a look in someone’s eyes can cause us to want to spring into a defensive posture. We “wait for the other shoe to drop”, we “walk on eggs shells,”

•  Easily Triggered/Hyper-reactive This population can be very hyper-reactive, they can over responding to relational stress, blowing conflicts that could be managed out of proportion into unmanageability, particularly if they are feeling vulnerable. Their brains/body has become over sensitized to stress, they over react to it.

•  Depression The limbic system regulates mood. When we are deregulated in our emotional system we may have trouble regulating feelings such as anger, sadness and fear, all of which may contribute to depression . And high levels of coritosol which are associated with the fight/flight response arealso found in high amounts in people who report feeling depressed.

•  Distorted Reasoning When our family unit is spinning out of control, we will tell ourselves whatever is necessary to allow ourselves to stay connected. This kind of reasoning can be immature and distorted. It can also produce core beliefs about life and relationships upon which we build more distorted reasoning and that we live out throughout our lives.

•  Loss of Ability to Take in caring and support from others (van der Kolk) The numbing response along with the emotional constriction that are part of the trauma response may lead to a loss of ability to take in caring and support from others. Additionally, as mistrust grows, so does our willingness to accept love and support

•  High Risk Behaviors (van der Kolk) The clients that I see who are engaged in chronic high risk behaviors seem to be trying to do a couple of things. One, they seem to be trying to jump start a numbed out inner world, to feel something. Or they appear to be acting out intense emotional and psychological pain. Another dynamic that appears to be operating is that they are trying to alter their mood, that the hi risk behavior serves to get them “high” by stimulating a rush of “feel good” body chemicals. Speeding, sexual acting out, spending, fighting, drugging or other behaviors done in a way that puts one at risk are some examples of high risk behaviors.

•  Survival Guilt The person who “gets out” of an unhealthy family system while others remain mired within it may experience what is referred to as ‘survivor’s guilt.” Tendency to Isolate People who have felt traumatized may have a tendency to isolate themselves. They may have trouble reaching out for help, they have a pattern of feeling hurt and vulnerable-reaching out for help- getting ignored or put down.

•  Development of Rigid Psychological Defenses People who are consistently being wounded emotionally and are not able to address it openly and honestly may develop rigid psychological defenses to manage their fear and pain. Dissociation, denial, splitting, repression, minimization, intellectualization, projection are some examples.

•  Cycles of Reenactment The reenactment dynamic is one of the core features of how trauma from one generation gets passed down through subsequent generations. We tend to recreate those circumstances in our lives that feel unresolved or unconscious.

•  Relationship Issues Relationships are where relationship trauma takes place. They tend also to be where the effects of relationship trauma reemerge. Some of the ways in which they reemerge are in being easily triggered, bringing old patterns into new relationships (reenactment patterns), transferences onto partners or children, transferences onto friends or authority figures, being hyper vigilant hence creating an emotional atmosphere of anxiety and suspicion or being easily triggered hence creating instability within the relationship and unnecessary pain.

•  Traumatic Bonding Traumatic bonds, may develop between parent and child or siblings in alcoholic homes, for example, may be left to care for each other and older siblings may have too much power over their younger siblings.

•  Desire to Self Medicate These are misguided attempts to quiet and control a turbulent, troubled inner world through the use of drugs and alcohol or behavioral addictions.

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