Surfing the waves of emotions

After being in therapy for C-PTSD on and off for over a decade, and making very little progress, I have finally discovered what was missing. I thought for a long time that it was my lack of childhood memories, but it turns out that it was actually due to my not having learnt a key foundational skill – that of surfing waves of emotion. To explain how I learned it, while working with an experienced “surfer”/therapist, I first need to explain a little bit about the brain.

One of the primary responsibilities of our brain is to keep us safe, to ensure our survival for as long as possible. To do this it predicts what might be needed to keep us safe in each moment. The predictions are generally based on what happened in our past, which can lead to quite a lot of predictive error when our current reality is very different to the reality of our past. The brain has various ways to alert us to what it is perceiving as dangerous. Anxiety and physical pain and many other physical symptoms can be generated by the brain in an attempt to alert us to remove ourselves from what it interprets as dangerous. It’s not rational. It’s emotional! While there are certain situations where fear is warranted, as it moves us without thinking to protect ourselves, the state of anxiety gets activated when the brain is perceiving danger that isn’t actually unfolding in our present moment. As with fear, physical pain is often warranted. If you break your leg you need to not put weight on it until it has healed. However just as with anxiety, physical pain can be a “Danger! Danger!” signal based on an error – a misperception of danger.

This is particularly so with both anxiety and physical pain when someone has traumatic memories from their past that have not been processed (often dissociated and suppressed). In this case, when there is any stored data of the memory part of the brain – the hippocampus which is next to the amygdala (essentially our “smoke detector”) – goes off and sets off a cascade of reactions in the body to prepare us to rapidly move away from the perceived danger. When trauma healing is done effectively, this reduces because with effective trauma processing, the memory is processed via the hippocampus in the brain. The result is that the amygdala knows the memory is in the past and it no longer perceives danger with future reminders of it.

I would imagine that anyone with C-PTSD who is reading this won’t need an example of anxiety or a trauma reaction based on a misperception of danger, but you may not be as familiar with predictive errors by the brain involving physical pain. Alan Gordon, author of The Way Out – A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain tells a graphic story that illustrates this. A construction worker who was using a nail gun accidentally shot a nail through his boot and experienced intense pain right up until they removed his boot in the emergency room and discovered that the nail had miraculously gone between two of his toes and caused no damage at all!

Intellectually knowing about predictive errors and how the brain can send false danger signals based on inaccurately perceiving danger where there is none, can be very helpful when it comes to learning to stay with our challenging emotions, but for many of us it’s not enough. While I would imagine that some people can simply learn to stay with their emotions based on the information above and the realisation that emotions are simply information, that they are not dangerous in themselves, for many people with C-PTSD they, like me, need to learn to surf the waves of intense emotions with the help of an experienced “surfer”. Unfortunately this isn’t a skill taught in many training programs for therapists or health professionals, so it’s not uncommon for someone to go through years of therapy with several therapists like I did, without learning how to surf.

I recently learned to surf the waves of emotion with a therapist who I was fortunate enough to come across because she has trained in working with neuroplastic pain. She learned to surf as she worked to heal her own complex PTSD and chronic pain issues, and has since then become an experienced “emotional wave surfer”.  She has easily been able to teach me this foundational skill within a few sessions, early on in my therapeutic journey with her. I had heard about the idea of surfing waves of emotion but hadn’t been able to gain any actual experience in doing it until I dissociated one day in a therapy session and my therapist helped me to stay present and surf the wave of emotion that the automatic dissociation was designed to squash, because my brain perceived it to be dangerous.

As I sat with her that day, and recognised that I had started to dissociate while talking about an intense flashback from my past. So I began orienting myself to the items in the room (as prior therapists had me do. However as I was doing so, it suddenly became clear to me that in doing that I was essentially “shoving the emotion that had started to arise back into the box and putting on the lid”, which was in direct contrast to the words my therapist was saying; which were an invitation for me to see that I was in no danger, that the emotion was simply information (data), and that if I stayed with it, it would peak and then fall away. I was skeptical as it was a very intense wave of emotion, but as I did what she invited me to I discovered that it did indeed peak and then fall away. While the emotion felt dangerous, my therapist was right, it wasn’t dangerous at all; it was simply energy wanting to be released.

I hope there are lots of people who can learn to surf the waves of their intense emotions simply through reading a blog post such as this, but the reality is that for many of us we are so conditioned to push our intense emotions away that we don’t even realise we are doing it. When the emotion arises, it only reaches a peak and then falls away (if we don’t resist it). For many of us resistance is so deeply conditioned in us that we don’t even realise we are doing it. Learning to surf waves of emotion with the help of an experienced “surfer” gives us the opportunity to have the reassurance we need, and to have the therapist draw our attention to how we are resisting and perceiving danger where there is none. Because while staying with waves of emotion is much like surfing in many ways, there is one key difference: as a beginner surfer you can easily take on a wave that is a bit too big for your current skill level,

and you would be particularly unwise to attempt to surf a tsunami; however no waves of emotion are at all dangerous for us to stay with, even when they feel like an enormous tsunami. They are simply energy on the move, totally safe for us to stay with even when we have only just started to learn to surf. As I wrote earlier though, for many of us we need an experienced surfer with us to help us stay on the board long enough to discover this for ourselves.

Learning this skill has been incredible for me. Over the years I’ve worked with therapists/practitioners using several different modalities including expressive arts therapy and somatic therapies, without making any real progress because I kept becoming too dysregulated. I can now see that that is because none of them taught me to surf. I am now able to utilise modalities (for example various expressive arts therapies) on my own, as I know that even what feels like a tsunami isn’t. I’m still a beginner surfer, and no doubt I have much more to learn and experience; however it has been incredibly empowering for me already.

I am very, very thankful for my therapist Sarah Dakhili being an awesome surfing mentor. If you are in need of healing and learning to surf yourself, you couldn’t find someone more supportive. 

(Written by one of Sarah’s clients who wishes to share her experience with others while remaining anonymous)

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