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How I Finally Reframed Traumatic Events after Decades of Anxiety
- Michael Thompson
“This is gonna hurt!”
I stared at the man, rested my sweaty palms on my knees, and nodded my head to let him know I was ready to begin.
“Good. Now, I want you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think back to the first time you ever felt embarrassed because of your stutter. Don’t overthink it. Just find the moment. Once you’re there, let me know.”
Getting made fun of…
Getting made fun of…
My mind finally settled as I found 6-year-old me standing in front of my class at a new school struggling to get my name out.
“Got it,” I replied.
“Good. Now I want you to go from that moment and move through your life taking mental note of all the times you felt uncomfortable because of your stutter. Don’t spend too much time on something. Just find the moments and keep moving forward until you reach today. Let me know when you’re finished.”
My eyelids fluttered wildly. I searched for all the times I’ve fought like hell to forget.
Getting called on in class…
Meeting new people…
Getting made fun of…
“Done,” I said after a few minutes. “That hurt, but I was expecting worse.”
“Don’t worry, it’s coming,” the man said in a calm voice. “After you take another deep breath, I want you to do the same thing. But this time you’re going to move backwards. Start from this very moment and think about all the times you’ve felt embarrassed until you’ve found that little boy standing up in front of the class. Let me know when you’re done.”
Once again, the stressful images flashed before my eyes. Only this time, instead of only seeing myself struggle to speak in class and getting laughed at, I also saw my classmate’s jaws hit the ground as they saw me being body slammed against a cafeteria table.
“Done,” I said quietly.
“You were shifting a lot. Are you alright?” the man asked. “Did you notice anything new?”
“I can’t believe I forgot about this,” I said. “But my first week of high school the director of students came up to me during lunch and said, ‘Hi, MMMMMMMike’ with a shit-eating grin on his face. Everyone around us started laughing, including the other teachers. It was humiliating. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I gently slapped the guy. I barely even touched him but the next thing I knew I was being flung onto a table before being dragged by my neck out into the hallway. With the exception of trays falling to the ground and some asshole yelling, ‘Holy Shit!’ the place was dead silent. I can still see the expression on my best friend’s face as I was being pulled away. I was 13 years old. He had taken his glasses off and everything. He told me he used to be a Marine. I had to talk him down. I was convinced he was going to beat the shit out of me.”
“That’s gross,” the normally calm man shot back in a thick Irish accent.
“Yeah, it scared the shit out of me. I was petrified to go to school the next day. But when I arrived a group of girls were waiting for me at my locker. The story snowballed into me punching the guy in the nose. They told me I was cute. It was something straight out of a movie.”
“That’s unreal. What happened to the guy?”
“All the teachers around us said he didn’t make fun of my stutter. I had no idea how to handle that situation, so I dropped it. Four years later, when I graduated, he thanked me for not making a big deal about it. But now that I think about it, it probably explains why I don’t care much for authority.”
“That’s a great connection,” the man replied. “But please close your eyes again. We will come back to that later. We still have some work to do. Start with the little boy and move forwards until you arrive at this very moment. Let me know when you are finished.”
“Good, now go backwards.”
“Good, now go forwards.”
Our internal images shape the external life we lead
The exercise described above is called Subjective Emotive Brief Therapy. It was created by Dr. Pradeep K Chadha who is a colleague of my friend and coach Justin Caffrey. Unlike cognitive therapy, this emotion-based approach is based on the principle that by changing the impact of emotions on the body, one can change their thinking, perception, and behavior without doing anything else.
Over the last 4 months, each week for 60 minutes, Justin guides me through this exercise examining different aspects of my life that have caused stress and anxiety in the past. Much like a COVID test, it doesn’t hurt that bad initially. But 75 percent of the way through, it definitely starts to feel weird. By the end, your fingernails are digging into your knees.
Most days I wake up feeling anxious. After 42 years, I want that to stop. There are some things I’m tired of holding on to. On a professional level, I’d also like to give talks online without feeling like I’m constantly on the verge of having a panic attack. I’m good at helping other people to find their voice. It’s about time I felt comfortable in my own so I don’t feel so damn self-conscious all the time.
When it comes to accomplishing these goals, the exercise Justin takes me through has seriously helped. It allows me to take a step back and look at traumatic events from a distance. I get to see the before and after. It gives me perspective. I’ve been amazed at what I’ve been able to uncover from this simple, yet hard exercise. Being thrown across the cafeteria is just one of the stories I’ve been able to unpack and offload. I breathe easier. My shoulders aren’t as tense. I’m also beginning to process the losses I’ve experienced differently and problems my family had when I was a kid.
Over time, instead of feeling paralyzed, these experiences have lost power and I’ve learned how to spot positive anchors and reshape the images I see when I think of them. Instead of seeing that scared kid. I see someone who had the guts to go back to school the next day. I’m trying to build that habit. Truly taking the time to learn from the experiences to better learn how they’ve impacted me so I can reprogram the stories I tell myself. Few habits are more powerful than not necessarily smiling at trouble, but leaning into it in order to learn from it.
I’m doing this exercise with a man I explicitly trust. Justin is a trained professional. Please keep this in mind. We spent a few weeks talking about my life to identify the themes that I need to work through together. He asked a ton of questions. I journaled about the experiences. We built up the big moments in my life slowly.
I feel lighter.
I even gave a talk last week at Duke University without flipping out.
If interested, you can learn more about Justin and Pradeep’s work here and here.