Unlocking the Tower

By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW

Emotional response patterns are the automatic, unconscious ways that we respond to uncomfortable feelings, usually hurt or loss.  In my work with trauma survivors I have noticed an interesting phenomenon:  the first hurdle or guard which blocks conscious feelings of hurt and loss is often anger. 

Like the lion who roars from the splinter in his paw, the anger is trying to release the pain, but unfortunately the roaring only gets rid of the help.  People stuck in anger come across to others as frightening and cruel, but inside they are usually hurting and bewildered.   Their anger is a solid-looking steel plate of armor to hide a stricken heart. 

Get beyond the anger and you’ll find the second guard, exhaustion:  this pain will go on forever, the exhaustion says.  It’s too much work to change and you’ll never succeed anyhow.  Why not give up now?  People stuck in exhaustion often have medical diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and/or Fibromyalgia.  Like the sirens who seduced Odysseus on his journey home, the exhaustion wants you to just lay down and stay a while… a very long while. 

Some people spend their whole lives swinging between anger and exhaustion because they might dip their toes into the therapy pool, but they won’t stick with it long enough to change. 

Get beyond the anger and the exhaustion and then you are finally reaching gold.  Heavy, valuable, and just as malleable as the 24 carat variety, direct feeling of loss and pain is the source of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. 

Unfortunately a lot of these painful feelings originated at a young age and so our defense mechanisms, like Rapunzel’s well-meaning but overly protective mother, sticks them in a tower for their own safety, and stations those two workaholic guards Anger and Exhaustion at the door.  But then Rapunzel grows up, and the very tower which started out a refuge becomes a prison.   

If you are confronting your own anger or exhaustion and you feel like giving up, make an appointment with a qualified therapist in your area.  (Note:  Growing extremely long hair and dangling it out the window for a bonny prince to climb is unlikely to work.) 

I believe this journey from reactivity/avoidance to acceptance and awareness is the best trip you’ll ever take.

I am teaching a course for attorneys on trauma in July.  Visit my website www.therapistseattle.net for more information

Waste Not–Then Again, Maybe We Should…


I just returned from New York, where I witnessed the intersection of pathology, culture and politics in Song Dong’s art installation Waste Not, at the Modern Art Museum. 

“Waste Not” is the English translation of a cultural mandate under the Chinese communist regime when supplies were scarce and people were terrified.  Surviving scarcity required vigilance, and because of the cultural-economic-social stew, saving became both a moral and practical imperative. 

Where does fear go when it is no longer useful?   This is a favorite-flavored gum for a therapist to chew.  Waste Not is a testament to the staying power of fear, how it costs real comfort, and outlasts logic. 

Mr. Dong imported his deceased mother’s worldly possessions and arranged them in neat groups:  Bits of string, partially used bars of soap, bottle caps, shopping bags, rusty exhaust pipes, empty disposable water bottles and broken pots were saved along with shoes, clothes, and carefully bundled old newspapers.  In the center of this massive cornucopia of debris stood the tiny wooden frame of his mother’s house, a space smaller than my therapy office.


The fear-based hording phenomenon makes me think about the common western lifestyle of “inadvertent collecting.”  This does not result from personal experience of tangible insufficiency.  Unlike our parents and grandparents, most adults today did not survive the depression.  Most of us did not live through World War II, when victory gardens provided a real alternative to hunger. 

Yet we have households so filled with stuff that we can’t find the things we need and then wind up buying more of the same.  Stores like Costco sell six packs of 28 ounce Comet.  Now, I challenge even the most OCD person in the world to go through ten pounds of Comet in a year! 

Storage facilities have become big business.  Personal organizers are an up and coming profession.  Mall parking lots crammed with cars are a testament to the American appetite to acquire.   Seeing Song Dong’s exhibit I realize this appetite to acquire surpasses nationality and is universal, only it is American wealth that supports the acquisition of snow mobiles, I-Pods and flat screen televisions, as opposed to more humble items. 

In the end, anything we own and do not enjoy or use is worthless.  I regularly scour our home for seldom used appliances, outgrown clothes, dull books, and toys that have fallen into disfavor to donate to Goodwill.   But it’s not enough to stop the tide of stuff that comes in the door.  Every birthday party brings that infernal bag of “party-favors” that my children covet and collect.  Every holiday is celebrated with tokens of affection. 

Waste Not reminds me I want to do more to let go of clutter and embrace space.  Like root-bound plants jammed together in a pot, without room we cannot grow.

This is your brain on fear

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When I was a kid there were these cheesy public service ads on TV featuring a frying pan with eggs sizzling and the tag line, “this is your brain on drugs.”  This dramatic commercial failed to convince many young people to abstain from drug experimentation as they witnessed friends smoke pot and then NOT become comatose zombies (or edible breakfast products).

Drugs do in fact kill brain cells (as well as causing all manner of pesky health and legal problems) and I do not recommend them.  Let’s all strive to keep as many brain cells as we can; There are so very many fascinating things to learn over the course of a lifetime, why limit our capacities with needless neuron death?    

Speaking (okay typing) of brains, have you ever stopped to think about this ridiculously giant brain we humans have?  Neurological research estimates that we use three to five percent of our brain’s potential—Einstein is said to have used a good seven percent.  Kind of turns that old saw about giving “one hundred percent” on its–can’t resist the pun—head, eh?   Instead try encouraging yourself, your kids and your employees to, “give six percent!”   Let them look at you like you are crazy.  Because now you know:  It only sounds like an underachiever’s motto.

As toddlers we average 100 billion brain cells, but by the time we reach maturity (for some this is more of an “if” than a “when”) we have 10 billion brain cells left.  This means that over time we experience a 90% reduction in neural potential!  Yikes! 

Not to worry folks:  you still have ten billion brain cells, each wired to ten thousand of their closest neighbors.  What happened to the other ninety billion?  They were pruned.  Much like an arborist will study a tree and lop off its least useful branches; our brains act like self-regulating plants and prune or remove brain cells in areas that are not productive. 

Why does the freakishly giant human brain do this?  For the same reason you do not take piano, Chinese, calligraphy, boxing, french cooking, pottery, belly dancing, underwater basket weaving and public speaking classes all in the same week:  The development of competence requires focus.  As you develop excellence in any area of life, the neurons, or brain cells corresponding to that particular area of skill fire and wire together in a dense complex net that allows recognition, meaning, and response. 

Imagine for a moment the brain of Michael Phelps,  the Olympic swimmer who practically needed a truck to haul away his gold medals.  Let’s compare and contrast his brain and mine (this is purely hypothetical and no post-mortem forensic brain analysis was performed for the creation of this blog): Put me in front of a swimming pool and I’ll look around for my children, locate the lifeguard and then find a dry spot on the bleachers to read a book on the sidelines while they swim.  My brain goes: swimming-kids-ensure safety-read a book.  Put Michael Phelps in front of a swimming pool and he registers the distance between the walls, estimates the strokes he will have to swim, the point at which he will need to begin his underwater flip, who else is in the water and what their presence means to his competition, meanwhile the muscles on his back tense in correspondence with his anticipatory thinking.  His right-hemisphere neural network is highly developed for swimming. 

How does this relate to trauma?  Glad you asked!   Trauma acts as a “system override” on your brain: it tells your brain,

                “Emergency!  Emergency!  Put all your attention here!” 

When we are experiencing a trauma our gastrointestinal juices literally dry up in order to make maximum energy available to our limbs for running away or fighting.  Our muscles tense in preparation for flight or fight.  Our red blood cells create excess platelets so that if we are cut during fighting we are less likely to bleed to death! 

Guess what the brain is NOT doing during a trauma?  Thinking.  More specifically, it is not making sense of the situation, thinking about the other person’s humanity and feelings, finding a middle path between our own wants and needs and the wants and needs of the other person. 

Instead the brain is saying,

                “I will die if I don’t get my way!”                                   

And once upon a time, this was true and therefore vitally important to believe.  You would die if you didn’t get food and it was the middle of the winter and the last caribou your clan hunted was picked to the bone and the spring greens were not yet growing.  If there was someone in the clam holding back some grub and you didn’t get any, you would starve to death.  This sense of urgency and self importance that accompanies stress was once a vital ingredient that kept our ancestors alive in desperate times.

Now go look in the mirror.  Do you have a pronounced frontal lobe?  Do your knuckles meet your knees while walking?  Does your forehead stick out over your eyes like an upper cabinet?  If so, please report to your nearest natural history museum.  If not, try this instead:  Pay attention to your feelings of desperation and urgency when you have an unmet want or need.  Notice it and use some self-talk to tone it down.

                “I would like but I do not need…”  is a mighty fine place to shift your self-talk in a non-primal direction.  As soon as you remove the urgency from your mind some of those ten billion ready and waiting brain cells can come back on-line again and help you navigate whatever challenge you are facing.   

And if all else fails, take a tip from that old anti-drug commercial of my youth:  go fry yourself up some eggs and a side of bacon.  Protein does in fact soothe feelings of desperation as it reminds our primitive and survival-obsessing brains that we are going to live.