Updated: May 20, 2021
Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC
Owner and Managing Director
Trauma Therapist and Consultant
In November 2011, I was in the audience for Brené Brown’s keynote presentation at the Illinois Counseling Association’s annual conference. She took the audience through a scenario of a joyful family, kids laughing in the back seat, parents gazing lovingly at each other, driving down a busy highway on a bright sunny day, on their way to grandma’s house. She asked us to imagine this idyllic scenario—the epitome of happiness—and then to guess what most people in the audience were actually thinking and feeling as we conjured up this scene.
You guessed it—multi-car pile-up, death and destruction, triumph turns to tragedy. Nothing gold can stay.
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience,” Brown says. “And if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.”
We have been assaulted by bad news as individuals, as a culture, and as a world for a long time now. We have been rendered helpless, powerless, and unable to control so many aspects of our lives and our livelihoods. It makes perfect sense and is human nature to want to fortify ourselves against further disaster, harm, and hurt. Our bodies and minds have become confused about what is actual danger and what is excruciatingly uncomfortable vulnerability.
People who have experienced significant and/or prolonged trauma can have an even harder time staying with joy and happiness. We turn to controlling, over-functioning, or numbing to protect ourselves from tragedy.
These are just some of the ways that joy gets tangled up with trauma:
Belief that joy is the luxury of the peaceful and healed mind, and is therefore out of reach
Joy can feel even more dangerous for those who have experienced repeated trauma and abuse (and for those who project their own fears onto us):
“Never let your guard down”
“Don’t rest on your laurels”
Recurrent abuse teaches us that we are never safe, that the rug could be pulled out at any time
We often cope with this fear by believing that the best defense is hyper-vigilance, which becomes both a mental and physiological response
Before March 2020, most of us dealt with trauma and fears that at least were somewhat familiar. Then came the pandemic, which repeatedly mimics the dynamic of getting the rug pulled out and reenacts the recurrent trauma of never feeling safe. The very real dangers we are living with reinforce this, augmented by the “gotcha” way bad news is often reported by the media.
“Great news! Vaccines are coming! The end is in sight! Terrible news! There are variants that are even more dangerous! The vaccines can kill you!”
This kind of assault isn’t just having the effect of making us feel fearful and vigilant. It is also a thief of our joy.
In my work as a trauma therapist, I often share the two things that stand out most to me about how people are impacted by relational trauma and complex PTSD:
Loss of the ability to trust yourself
Loss of the belief that everything is going to be OK
Both are deeply painful, but the latter can be the most threatening to joy and the greatest source of anxiety. We lose the belief that everything is going to be OK because it wasn’t, and it didn’t look like it was going to be, and that is a very difficult feeling to shed.
So where does that leave us? How do we increase our capacity for joy and happiness and find greater peace of mind when our brain starts “dress rehearsing tragedy”? Here are five ways to get started on that path:
Slow down and be present for the present—When painful vulnerability is upon us, our first reaction is almost always to speed up to escape the feeling and manage the discomfort. When we focus on slowing down, our minds get clearer and our bodies relax.
Notice if you’re confusing vulnerability with danger—Ask yourself if the circumstances are physically life-threatening or emotionally uncomfortable, or somewhere in between.
Adjust your response accordingly—Physical threats require action and intervention to maintain safety. Emotional vulnerability necessitates being present, compassionate, empathic, and grounded to move through it.
Increase your distress tolerance for joy—Notice if you’re “bracing” for disaster unnecessarily and try to develop an inner dialog that is calming and soothing, like you would if consoling a scared child. This might also lead you to a child mind of your own that is full of wonderment and has greater capacity for joy.
Build deep and profound trust that you are OK in this moment. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Just take it in.
Brown found in her research that people who have a capacity for joy are particularly good at taking it in. She says that “instead of using [joy] as a warning to start practicing disaster, they used it as a reminder to practice gratitude.”
As you work on increasing your distress tolerance for joy, start by practicing gratitude for your process. If joy was and is in short supply in your life, peacefully receiving it when it comes seems both more vulnerable than anything and more important than ever. Joy is one of the greatest gifts life has to offer and the counterbalance to our pain.
Even in this time of tremendous loss and change, opportunities for joy are everywhere, like sun poking through the clouds. When joy shows up in your life, ditch the sunscreen and let the warmth wash over you.