Let’s start with instincts. We don’t have the same kind of instincts that animals have. We have some we are born with, like sucking for milk and preferring to look at human faces; but, for the most part, we learn our instincts. Rather, we learn things and then they become as if they are instinctual. By instinctual I mean automatic, unconscious, and beyond the reach of reason, almost beyond the reach of change. Walking is this way. You don’t have to think about how to put one foot in front of another, you do it without thinking. It wasn’t always this easy. At one time you had to do it very deliberately, but, as soon as you learned, you didn’t have to think about it.
There are some distinct advantages to not having to think about something. Every hitting coach in baseball has told their players to stop thinking about hitting the ball. If you had to think about it, you never would be able to do it. Accordingly, our instincts are much better at things like motor control and making split second decisions than our conscious thought ever can be. Research tells us that instincts are better guides at making complex decisions, as well; the kind that have to do with multiple complicated factors, like deciding who to marry and what job to take. That’s why therapists ask their clients to consider what their gut is telling them. The gut can often make a better decision than days or weeks of careful deliberation.
Unfortunately, not everything that we learn should be made automatic. Bad habits are so hard to break precisely because they have become instinctual. Then there are plenty of behaviors that we learn because they make sense at the time, but, become maladaptive when conditions change. Instincts are valuable in that they simplify and quicken our responses, but they come at the cost of flexibility.
I went for tennis lessons once. The coach wanted to watch me serve. I showed her. She shook her head and said we had a lot of work to do. I was tossing the ball too far back, holding my racket wrong, not reaching high enough, and on and on and on. I was doing all these things automatically. She wanted me to focus on them, correct them, and practice the right way ten thousand times. Once I did that, I will have formed a new, better instinct. She may be right about the ten thousand times. It takes lots of repetitions to create a new habit, to form an instinct. I practiced about twenty times, then I got tired and quit.
There are some behaviors, though, that don’t require so many repetitions. Touch a hot stove once and you will instinctively pull back if you come near one again. Searing pain facilitates learning. Here’s the thing, though. You’d be careful near the hot stove, but it wouldn’t keep you up at night. That’s because most hot stoves just sit there and don’t hurt you until you touch them. What if a hot stove jumped out at you and beat you black and blue, or crept into your bedroom at night when you were sleeping and raped you, or shot lead at you from a mile away? You’d be a lot more scared of them then. You’d always be watching out for them. You’d be imagining them when they weren’t there. You’d be replaying in your head all your encounters with stoves. You’d stick to Sushi and raw vegetables.
Imagine that you went for a walk down the street one day and a hot stove chased you. You ran and got away with your life, although it gave you a good swipe and burned your ass. You might not want to go down that street again. If you did, your heart would be pounding. You might even stay out of the kitchen. You’d walk out of the room if someone put on the cooking channel. You’d dream of stoves. Every night one would chase you down that street. You’d wake up just as you felt its glowing red grill your back. Every little sizzle you hear would set you on edge and make you jumpy. You wouldn’t be able to see a spatula without thinking of stoves. It’s instinctual. You have PTSD, otherwise known as Post Traumatic Stove Disorder.
It’s really called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it can drive you barking mad. But, by itself, it’s a perfectly normal reaction to extreme circumstances. If you had a fire in your house, you’d be a lot more mindful of fire in the future. You’d put a smoke alarm in every room. You’d keep the batteries fresh. The trouble is, they’d go off every time you cook dinner, and every time they’d go off you’d be reminded again of the fire you once had. People with PTSD have their alarm system set really, really high. They figure it keeps them safe. It does do that, but at a cost. It drives them crazy.
It’s not good to be on edge all the time. It causes high blood pressure, strokes, heart problems, ulcers, and a hundred other physical ailments that take some time to develop but will earn you an early death. In an effort to control this chronic stress, people who have been traumatized often turn to things to control it. They may get drunk a lot, take up drugs, smoke cigarettes, eat too much; all in an attempt to calm down. To distract themselves, they may pick fights, drive fast, have promiscuous sex, run risks; just to change the subject and think about something else.
Because they are so mindful of dangers around them, they may believe that they will not live long and plan, or fail to plan, accordingly. They will not bother to develop healthy habits or be prudent about long term risks. They’ll burn the candle on both ends. They’ll live on the edge. Because of these assumptions and the choices that come from them, they’ll be likely to be re-traumatized. They will go to places where bad things happen and do things that have bad outcomes. Evil will happen to them again and again and again.
The problem is that they are only doing what comes naturally. To recover, we have to do what is unnatural, and hard. It’s like this. When you walk in the woods, you walk on a path, right? A path is created by others who have walked there before, starting with rodents, perhaps, then moving up to deer and larger creatures. Maybe you walked there before and contributed to the path yourself. Anyway, no one crashes through the underbrush or hacks their way through a thicket when there’s a perfectly good path to walk on. They’ll take the easy way.
Our instincts are like this path through the woods. Most of the time it makes sense to use them, but some of the time they go the wrong way. Recovering from trauma involves acknowledging that something happened to you that influences you still, being mindful of the unhealthy things you do in response, and bushwacking a new trail, ten thousand times.