On Rootless Pain: Why Some Mental Health Issues Seem to Come Out Of Nowhere
Making sense of painful behaviors and emotions that emerge in the present with little sense
I devour movies and TV shows that deal with how trauma is passed on from one generation to the next. It’s not that I can necessarily relate to the stories, but these shows allow me to pull a string from the main character’s present-day behavior to her childhood experiences.
In a typical scene, the main character is shown taking drugs or cheating on her husband. Next, the camera cuts to a flashback of a five-year-old girl sitting at the top of a staircase watching her parents argue and her drunken father hit her mother. As gruesome as these scenes are, the suggested causal links offer a sense of closure, which I rarely experience with my own mental health issues.
I can rarely trace back my reactions to specific childhood experiences; my pain appears rootless.
Most of my maladaptive behaviors and challenging emotional states simply emerge in the present with little sense. When I arrive at a hotel in a foreign country late at night and find out that the air conditioning doesn’t work and that the loud construction site nearby makes it impossible to fall asleep, I can get so overwhelmed that I feel like screaming or pushing my nails into my skin. Or when I’m about to leave for a date, my body can get into a fight-or-flight mode bordering on a panic attack, making me want to cancel. I can rarely trace back these reactions to specific childhood experiences; my pain appears rootless.
Sometimes I nevertheless try to excavate my memory out of curiosity or to seem more sane in the eyes of a friend I’m sharing my experiences with (This didn’t come out of nowhere!). If I remember something specific, it’s usually one of the memories I’ve shared so many times that it’s stripped of all emotion — a story rather than a past reality.
Most of the time, however, I arrive at a mere hunch with nothing to back it up. I’ll tell my friend that I think my parents didn’t really know how to be there for me when I got overwhelmed or that they didn’t always take my anger, fear, or sickness seriously. But ultimately, my reminiscing exercise feels like a guessing game, a game of little value for letting go of pain.
To feel less alone in my experience (and less like a freak), I’ve searched for books on the topic — whatever topic that is. Some of my favorites have been The Body Keeps the Score, When the Body Says No, and It Didn’t Start with You. These books have taught me a lot about the more rootless type of pain.
I’ve learnt that some people are more attuned to cues of threat than others because of how their nervous systems are wired.
I’ve learnt that some people are more attuned to cues of threat than others because of how their nervous systems are wired. Their bodies not only respond to the tiniest of cues, but also adapt more effectively to protect them from similar threats in the future. At its worst, an event that might upset one person can traumatize another. Having such a sensitive biology and nervous system can show up as anxiety, panic attacks, and other types of mental health issues.
I’ve also learnt that our nervous system and psychological make-up are molded very early in life or even before we are born. Attachment styles — which affect how we experience and navigate interpersonal relationships — are developed in the interactions with our primary caregiver during the first year of life. The mother’s stress levels can shape the fetus’s nervous system already in the womb. And as crazy as it sounds, in addition to the color of our hair, we can inherit unresolved trauma from our parents and even grandparents via our genes. No wonder there are no memories for some of our painful behavior patterns and emotions.
As a friend of mine once formulated it after I had told him about my anxiety and the related symptoms: “Well, you were certainly not born into an easy body.”
Learning these things has made me feel a little less guilty about my mental health issues. Perhaps I’m not just a spoiled kid who can’t handle reality. As a friend of mine once formulated it after I had told him about my anxiety and the related symptoms: “Well, you were certainly not born into an easy body.”
Having understood that we can have quite different bodily experiences in this world, I sometimes try to comfort myself with the following message when I’m dealing with a particularly strong emotion or reaction:
Considering how my body is wired, my response to this situation is sensible and coherent. Anyone living in my body would react similarly. And if I’m able to act against what my body is suggesting — to flee the situation, respond with aggression, or zone out and disconnect — I show a lot of awareness and courage.
But as comforting as the above message can be, it doesn’t resolve the pain. It doesn’t help me stay calm at that hotel in a foreign country or turn my pre-date panic attack into cute little butterflies in the stomach.
For some the answer might be psychotherapy (which is great if you have the access and the money). But if you’ve already done a few years of therapy and gotten quite a bit better, you might be longing for tools that you can apply as part of your daily life. That’s where I’m at.
Since memories often elude me, I’ve searched for an approach that doesn’t require remembering childhood experiences, an approach that would allow me to uncover the stories I’ve adopted by using the present moment as a guide.
I’ve been searching for a way in which to work with trauma, stress, and psychosomatic symptoms as I go about my life. And since memories often elude me, I’ve searched for an approach that doesn’t require remembering childhood experiences. An approach that would allow me to uncover the stories I’ve adopted by using the present moment as a guide.
Through psychotherapy, the books I’ve read as well as a mindfulness and meditation practice, I’ve found some ways in which to work with rootless pain. And because writing is how I make sense of things and arrive at new insights, I feel compelled to share how I try to work with mental health issues as they unfold in daily life.
That’s why I’m planning to write two articles on the topic:
- The first article will explain how we can use the here and now as a tool for tracing the stories we’ve adopted in the past (or for some inexplicable reason) to process our rootless pain.
- The second article will explain how we can use our interactions with other people to uncover the stories we’re blind to, but which others might see more clearly. This is a subcategory of the approach described in the first article.
If you just became a little curious and don’t mind reading the ideas of a kitchen psychologist, then follow along. I promise it’ll at least be interesting.
Movies are excellent vehicles for depicting cause-and-effect between childhood experiences and present-day behaviors. The director places one scene after another; the mind figures out the rest. But what if the director simply wanted the story to make sense to the viewer? What if his perspective isn’t shared by the main character?
Perhaps the main character feels utterly confused as to why she has such a strong urge to do drugs or flee her current relationship to be with another man. Perhaps she doesn’t recall her past as vividly as the flashbacks suggest.
If this is the case, our imaginary main character is faced with the same question I’ve been posing in this article: How do you heal your wounds if you can’t recall the events that led to them — or if there are no such events to recall in the first place?
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, you can check out my other article What If the Emotionally Fragile Generation Is in Fact the Emotionally Honest Generation?
Notes & Reading Recommendations
- Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb Dana
- It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn
- The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
- When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Maté
- The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living by Hillary L. McBride