Pete Walker explains this well.
Here is an example of the layered processes of an emotional flashback. A complex PTSD sufferer wakes up feeling depressed. Because childhood experience has conditioned her to believe that she is unworthy and unacceptable in this state, she quickly becomes anxious and ashamed. This in turn activates her Inner Critic to goad her with perfectionistic and endangering messages. The critic clamors: “No wonder no one likes you. Get your lazy, worthless ass going or you’ll end up as a wretched bag lady on the street”!
Retraumatized by her own inner voice, she then launches into her most habitual 4F behavior. She lashes out at the nearest person as she becomes irritable, controlling and pushy (Fight/ Narcissistic) – or she launches into busy productivity driven by negative, perfectionistic and catastrophic thinking (Flight/Obsessive-Compulsive)- or she flips on the TV and becomes dissociated, spaced out and sleepy (Freeze/ Dissociative)- or she focuses immediately on solving someone’s else’s problem and becomes servile, self-abnegating and ingratiating (Fawn/Codependent). Unfortunately this dynamic also commonly operates in reverse, creating perpetual motion cycles of internal trauma as 4F acting out also gives the critic endless material for self-hating criticism, which in turn amps up fear and shame and finally compounds the abandonment depression with a non-stop experience of self-abandonment.
Here is a diagram of these dynamics: Triggered ABANDONMENT DEPRESSION — FEAR&SHAME –INNER CRITIC Activation: (Perfectionism & Endangerment) — 4F’s: (Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn Response). Especially noteworthy here is how the inner critic can interact with fear and shame in a particular vicious and escalating cycle.
This article describes a treatment approach that decreases retraumatizing reactivity to the internal affects of the abandonment depression. It guides the client to meet abandonment feelings equanimously by staying somatically present to the physical sensations of depression and fear. This in turn promotes the ability to feel through abandonment experiences without launching into inner critic drasticizing and 4F acting out.
R.D. Laing once stated that: “The only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid unavoidable pain”. In my experience resisting unavoidable encounters with depression and fear accounts for more than the lion’s share of the PTSD client’s pain.
The etiology of a self-abandoning response to depression.
Chronic emotional abandonment is one of the worst things that can happen to a child. It naturally makes her feel and appear deadened and depressed. Functional parents respond to a child’s depression with concern and comfort; abandoning parents respond to it with anger, disgust and further abandonment, which in turn create the fear, shame and despair that become characteristic of the abandonment depression. A child who is never comforted when she is depressed has no model for developing a self-comforting response to her own depression. Without a nurturing connection with a caretaker, she may flounder for long periods of time in a depression that can devolve into The Failure to Thrive Syndrome.
In my experience failure to thrive is not an all-or-none phenomenon, but rather a continuum that begins with excessive depression and ends in the most severe cases with death. Many PTSD survivors “thrived” very poorly, and perhaps at times lingered near the end of the continuum where they were close to death, if not physically, then psychologically. When a child is consistently abandoned, her developing superego eventually assumes totalitarian control of her psyche and carcinogenically morphs into a toxic Inner Critic. She is then driven to desperately seek connection and acceptance through the numerous processes of perfectionism and endangerment described in my article “Shrinking The Inner Critic in Complex PTSD” (see link for this article: Shrinking the Inner Critic). Her inner critic also typically becomes emotional perfectionistic, as it imitates her parent’s contempt of her emotional pain about abandonment. The child learns to judge her dysphoric feelings as the cause of her abandonment.
Over time her affects are repressed, but not without contaminating her thinking processes. Unfelt fear, shame and depression are transmuted into thoughts and images so frightening, humiliating and despairing that they instantly trigger escapist 4F acting out. Eventually even the mildest hint of fear or depression, no matter how functional or appropriate, is automatically deemed as danger-ridden and overwhelming as the original abandonment. The capacity to self-nurturingly weather any experience of depression, no matter how mild, remains unrealized. The original experience of parental abandonment devolves into self-abandonment. The ability to stay supportively present to all of one’s own inner experience gradually disappears.
We can gradually deconstruct the self-abandoning habit of reacting to depression with fear and shame, inner critic “freak out”, and 4F acting out. The processes described in this article and my paper: “Managing Emotional Flashbacks in Complex PTSD”(see link for this article: 13 Steps for Managing Flashbacks) awaken the psyche’s innate, developmentally arrested capacity to respond amelioratively to depression and the fear and shame that attaches to it. It is a long difficult journey however, for even without attachment trauma, feelings of fear and depression are difficult to accept and weather.
The normalcy of depression
We live in a culture that judges fear as despicable, and depression as an unpatriotic violation of the “pursuit of happiness”. Taboos about depression even emanate from the psychological establishment, where some schools strip it of its status as a legitimate emotion – dismissing it simplistically as mere negative thinking, or as a dysfunctional state that results from the repression of less taboo emotions like sadness and anger.
I believe we must learn to distinguish depressed thinking – which can be eliminated – from depressed feelings – which must sometimes be felt. Occasional feelings of enervation and anhedonia are normal and existential – part of the admission price to life. Moreover, depression is sometimes an invaluable harbinger of the need to slow down, to drop interiorly into a place that at least allows us to restore and recharge, and at best unfolds into our deepest intuitiveness. One recurring gift that typically comes cloaked in depression is an invitation to grow that necessitates relinquishing a formerly treasured job or relationship that has now become obsolete or moribund.
Overreaction to depression essentially reinforces learned toxic shame. It reinforces the individual’s notion that, when depressed, he is unworthy, defective and unlovable. Sadly this typically drives him deeper into abandonment-exacerbating isolation. Deep level recovery from childhood trauma requires a normalization of depression, a renunciation of the habit of reflexively reacting to it. Central to this is the development of a capacity to stay in one’s body, to stay fully present to all internal experience, to stay acceptingly open to one’s emotional, visceral and somatic experiences without 4F acting out. Renouncing this kind of self-abandonment is a journey that often feels frustratingly Sisyphean. It is a labor of self-love and a self-nurturing process of the highest order, but it can feel like an ordeal replete with unspectacular redundancy – with countless, menial experiences of noticing, naming and disidentifying from the unhelpful internal overreactions that depression triggers in us.