Dr Sarah Woodhouse on “You’re not Broken” and Dealing with Trauma in Our Modern World

Dr Sarah Woodhouse, a research psychologist who specializes in trauma joins me to discuss her new book “You're Not Broken: Break Free from Trauma and Reclaim Your Life”. Trauma can manifest itself in anxiety, depression, shame, addiction. Dr Sarah Woodhouse presents insightful and important information alongside an honest account of her own unique story. I hope that you enjoy this insightful and informative episode.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse on “You’re not Broken” and Dealing with Trauma in Our Modern World Introduction

Today’s subject, in one way or another, we all carry trauma. It can manifest itself in anxiety, depression, shame, addiction. The list goes on and on. And in fact, studies consistently show that approximately 70 to 80 percent of women will experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives. And we’re certainly becoming very aware of that in the current conversation about sexual harassment, about child sexual abuse, and about domestic violence.

So these issues of traumatic events are very real and very much part of our conversation, which is such a great thing and a reason why I’m so excited to be doing this podcast today.

The prevalence rates for women, as I said, 70 or 80 percent, but for men experiencing trauma in their lifetime, it’s even higher, up to 90 percent, which is a little surprising. So my guest today is Dr. Sarah Woodhouse.

She’s a research psychologist who specializes in trauma and is passionate about helping people face this word trauma and also their past. And interestingly and she shares some of that with herself as someone who’s experienced her own trauma.

She presents insightful and important information alongside an honest account of her own unique story. The book is called You’re Not Broken: Break Free from Trauma and Reclaim Your Life. Look, I enjoyed this conversation. There was so much in it. I felt like, well, I felt like I spent an hour with a wonderful therapist and it was just a wonderful experience. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Sarah Woodhouse.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:07] Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Before we start, I’d like to acknowledge to the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and recognize their continuing connection to land waters and culture. I pay my respects to their elders of the past, present, and emerging.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:31] Well, today’s subject, in one way or another, we all carry trauma. It can manifest itself in anxiety, depression, shame, addiction. The list goes on and on. And in fact, studies consistently show that approximately 70 to 80 percent of women will experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives. And we’re certainly becoming very aware of that in the current conversation about sexual harassment, about child sexual abuse, and about domestic violence.

So these issues of traumatic events are very real and very much part of our conversation, which is such a great thing and a reason why I’m so excited to be doing this podcast today.

The prevalence rates for women, as I said, 70 or 80 percent, but for men experiencing trauma in their lifetime, it’s even higher, up to 90 percent, which is a little surprising. So my guest today is Dr. Sarah Woodhouse.

She’s a research psychologist who specializes in trauma and is passionate about helping people face this word trauma and also their past. And interestingly and she shares some of that with herself as someone who’s experienced her own trauma.

She presents insightful and important information alongside an honest account of her own unique story. The book is called You’re Not Broken: Break Free from Trauma and Reclaim Your Life. Look, I enjoyed this conversation. There was so much in it. I felt like, well, I felt like I spent an hour with a wonderful therapist and it was just a wonderful experience.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:14] I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with Sarah Woodhouse. Welcome to the show, Sarah.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:02:22] Hi. Hey there, I’m so happy to be here.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:25] Sarah, you’ve written this book and, you know, I think it will resonate with everybody and we’re going to dove into some aspects of it. But I wondered if you might just share with us your journey, which brought you to the point of writing this very book.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:02:41] Oh, yeah. Very happily. I don’t know where to start. Oh, my goodness.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:44] Well, let’s not go from birth.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:02:48] Well, I was 3 years old.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:50] For some people, that’s a traumatic experience too. Well, I’ll leave it with you. I mean, your psychology background. Let’s stick with relevant things and tell us a bit about your journey.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:03:02] So the quick version is I was, so before I went into psychology, I worked as a lobbyist. So I was a lobbyist in the music industry.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:03:10] Wow.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:03:11] And so that because of the lobbying job, I ended up working with a charity called Reprieve. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, that is absolutely brilliant. They bring people back from kind of secret prisons, who are being held in extraordinary rendition. So they repatriate people, so they were very fundamental in the campaigns against Guantanamo, for example.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:03:36] So they realized that music was being used as a form of torture. So they approached our trade body, the music trade body, and said, look, this is happening. What do you think? So we were engaged in a lot of conversations with them about that.

And as a result of that, I began working alongside incredible clinical psychologists who, of course, were trauma specialists because they were, you know, the guys they were bringing back had extreme, very elevated PTSD.

So speaking with those guys and speaking with a clinical psychologist, it just took me I just became so fascinated in what trauma was, what it is, how it can affect people in this way, I became very taken with the question of sort of why do we all react differently? Because at the same time, personally, I had spoken, I’d been working with a therapist and she had said to me, look, all of your symptoms, everything you bring to me, it looks a lot like trauma.

I think something might have happened and you reacted to it and you’re still reacting to it. I still remember that appointment, I was about 23, 24. And so I had that going on in my personal life and this going on in my professional life and it literally was within the same kind of couple of months. And it just became taken.

Suddenly my world was trauma, but not in an overwhelming way even it was just, I just became fascinated with this idea, you know, what is trauma? Why do we all react so differently to it? How can this be trauma over here that these guys have experienced and what I’ve experienced? How are they the same thing?

So I just became really taken with it. And within about three months, I handed in my notice as a lobbyist, I’d approached the University of Sussex and began studying trauma, researching trauma in a very in-depth level.

Speaking of birth trauma, I’ve done a huge amount of work into that, University of Sussex was so, so supportive and, you know, I did it all the way up to doctoral level came here, I was offered research grants, but it just didn’t feel right.

I’d moved to Australia and, I suppose because of my lobbying background and my editorial background, I’ve always loved communicating, you know, I’m a talker, I’m a writer, really passionate about it all.

So I wanted to, I suppose I wanted to step back into that world, so instead of applying for a new research grant, I decided to write the book. And it draws together all my research, all my personal experience. And I suppose that’s why I did.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:06:16] And at the same time, I remember, me too was going on. So there was just a lot going on globally. And I just felt it was the right time for the book. And I’m so pleased I did, given covid and the levels of trauma, I think we’re going to see in most people over the next five years. I am so pleased.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:38] And this is a cathartic experience to do just that, write a book, which actually is almost like drawing a line in the sand from what has been in the past, reflecting on it all and a great springboard for moving forward?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:06:53] Oh, my goodness. On a personal level.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:55] Yes, yes, absolutely.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:06:57] It healed me,  you know, in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Because you draw everything together, you make conclusions, you find the narrative, you know. So you’re joining the dots between these life experiences, these lessons. So these lessons that I learned in my personal life and in my healing journey, I was them putting them in the context of what I had learned as a researcher and all these incredible conversations that I had.

So you’re drawing it together, you’re kind of, so it’s really the most incredible process. And you would know that from writing your book, it’s healing, it’s, as you say, it’s just totally cathartic. I would recommend it to anyone.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:07:35] Yes.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:07:35] Everyone should write a book.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:07:37] I agree with you, I absolutely agree with you. And be prepared to do many, many drafts and in fact, I’m not sure whether in your case, but I’ve heard the expression you never actually finish a book like this, you just abandon it at some point, you have to let it go, but that’s part of what this podcast is all about, actually, because after I finished writing the book, I thought there’s so much more I want to explore and I get to talk to people like you and they answer questions and I learn so much more. And I hope my listeners do, too.

And you mentioned so much already there about the different types of trauma, about your own experience with it, and your own epiphany that you actually had a trauma. I wonder if we could just take a step back and kind of define what we mean by trauma. How do we define and how common is the problem?

What is Trauma?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:08:25] In terms of definition, I think the easiest way to define it is that it’s a reaction. So trauma is a reaction to any experience that makes us feel overwhelmed, threatened, and out of control. So there are three things, so overwhelmed, threatened, and out of control.

That’s the base of it. And when you think about that, of course, big, severe experiences often provoked that reaction in us, right? If you think about it. So if you’re thinking about natural disasters or the bushfires, many people will have experienced that, they will have felt so overwhelmed, so threatened, and out of control.

And then that’s the baseline for our flight fight, freeze response, that reaction. But what we’ve learned is that very commonplace everyday events can also provoke that experience in us.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:09:17] And that is especially true of children because remember what it’s like to be a kid, it’s so how often do we feel overwhelmed as a child quickly, easily and strongly, right?

That sense of overwhelm, the sense of threat, you know, someone’s knocking at the door or, oh, gosh, are they going to be OK climbing up that tree, you feel threatened easily and quickly. And then at the same time, feeling out of control is also very common in childhood.

So it’s particularly true in childhood that everyday, commonplace experiences when I say that, I mean things like, you know, just everyday slips, and falls, issues in relationships, obviously for children, issues within the parental relationship like feeling unseen and unheard, feeling unloved, that can really provoke those reactions in a child, it can be very overwhelming of course, if you don’t feel understood or if you don’t feel loved, it can feel like a threat to your survival because they’re reliant on parents for literally for their survival.

They need the parent to look after their needs, their daily needs, and their emotional needs. And then, of course, they can become quickly feeling out of control, they can feel powerless. So and along with that, the everyday experiences with things like routine medical appointments that has been shown to lead to trauma.

What I would say to people is rather me giving you a big, long list of things that can provoke a traumatic reaction, it’s better to think about the three things that I said to think about overwhelmed, think about threat, and think about feeling out of control and any event that you think could make any human respond in that way on an emotional level and you’re in the trauma zone.

So when I scan up to covid at the moment, do I think it’s going to make people feel overwhelmed? Yes. Do I think they’re all sitting at home in the UK, in the US feeling threatened? Yes, I do. Do I think they feel out of control? Yes, I do. So I’m very concerned from a trauma perspective. We’re in that zone. Same of bushfires, you know, whether there’s big event or whether you’re looking at the everyday ones, there are three things to focus on.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:11:29] That is, that’s so, I mean, Sarah, my background professionally is dentistry.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:11:35] Interesting.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:11:36] And when you talk about trauma, overwhelmed, threatened, out of control.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:11:42] Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:11:42] You could almost define every, potentially, and thankfully, this isn’t the case, certainly, I haven’t found it to be the case, I’ve been very conscious of those things for my patients.

And I know our practice has been and I know many dentists are, but a dental experience is an example of something like you’ve just explained. It’s interesting, though, isn’t it, the point you make? Because there are some events which are just everybody would acknowledge, wow, that must have been so traumatic, a physical assault, a sexual assault, a sudden accident to fall, or whatever.

But defining it as overwhelming, threatening, and out of control opens up a whole world of trauma, potential trauma for everybody. I mean, who hasn’t been traumatized?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:12:30] Hmm. Well, and that’s exactly my point. In one way or another, we all carry trauma and there’s no point pretending otherwise. It is a part of being human.

We have all experienced the traumatic reaction. That does not mean we all have PTSD. Absolutely not. But it does mean we’ve all experienced that traumatic reaction.

Now, in some of us, it will have resolved. Okay, so some of us will have experience that traumatic reaction, and within a month or two, the reaction will have resolved. And there are lots of reasons that would have helped that happen. We’d have talked about our feelings.

We’d have been around people who validated our feelings so they would have said, you’re looking very frightened, you’re looking out, you need to cuddle. There would have been a lot of support kind of pulling around them.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:13:16] What else would it be? That there would have been people around them that would have been extremely grounding. So adults, so if we’re looking particularly at children now, so the adults around them would have been able to stay very grounded and strong, which is very difficult for most parents.

If I see my kids going through something, it’s hard to come back to that centered space where you can be their rock. But if we can do it, we help them coregulate. So when they experience that reaction, you see them becoming extremely overwhelmed, very frightened, and feeling out of control.

If as a parent, you can, of course, we react, so allow yourself to react, but then come back to a place of calm, if you can regulate your breathing, use different breathing techniques because you are regulated, you will help them regulate.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:14:08] I love that expression coregulate.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:14:11] Yes, isn’t it beautiful?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:14:12] It’s a beautiful expression. I mean, the whole issue you mentioned also fight and flight. And we’re talking about the impact of this on a person’s nervous system, but what are some of the impacts? What are some of the symptoms of trauma? You’ve also mentioned PTSD and I suppose we should not assume everybody knows what that means, maybe we could just flesh that out a bit, too. What are some of the symptoms of trauma?

Symptoms of Trauma

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:14:39] Yeah, they are extremely, extremely broad. So I actually think it can be quite confusing for people because I’m saying what trauma is a reaction that happens here. So when you however old it might be and it can be as varied as people-pleasing is a common reaction.

So all the behavioral things we would see so compulsive eating, addictions, compulsive busyness, compulsive shopping, avoiding your feelings. OK, so you’ve got all these behavioral things. You’ve got the emotional reaction.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:15:11] So feeling, and this is the key point, it’s not just feeling shame, it’s feeling stuck in shame or say your shame is regularly triggered. A case of shame, anger, fear, and of course, attached to that is also anxiety. So you’ve got all the emotional stuff and the physical sensations that go along with those emotions because they’re very physical experiences and if we feel frightened that we feel it all through our body top to toe and then there are the cognitive things too, the cognitive symptoms like low self-belief, negative thinking about patterns, black and white thinking, confusion.

So they’re the three main areas is you’ve got the cognitive symptoms, you’ve got the physical and emotional, and then you’ve got the behavioral and it spans all the way across those. And actually, to complicate matters more, if you’ve been living with a dysregulated nervous system over time, there are also a lot of outcomes that we see.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:16:14] So physical health outcomes like chronic fatigue, chronic pain, even cancer is now been linked back to adverse childhood experiences in particular. So symptoms are very, very broad. And up here, you’ve got PTSD, which is extreme and elevated symptoms, so you would have from each of those kind of categories, you’d have multiple ones of them and they’d be lasting for a long time and they’d be at a high level.

So you’ve got a high amount of symptoms. But then looking further down, you can have people who would only experience one or two of them but are still able to recognize, as they kind of, lift the lid on it a little bit as they begin looking and thinking, they realize actually they’re experiencing this difficult symptom today, so often having their shame triggered, for example, or prolonged and ongoing anxiety is a very common one. And realizing actually that did happen in response to an event when I was younger, when I felt overwhelmed, threatened, and out of control.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:17:21] Gosh, what a minefield we’ve opened up here, Sarah, because, you know, I mean, I think everybody would reflect back on an event as a young child, which still sticks in their mind and maybe it was, you thought your parents, you know, the parents were going out at night and you wondered what happens if they never come home?

You know, I mean, I think everyone’s had that kind of feeling and how that’s dealt with and the way another child speaks to another child and the effect that has within the group, I mean, it’s a total minefield, isn’t it? But it’s great to have this conversation because this is so important.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:17:59]  Well, before we log into how do we deal with the problem, let’s just still stay with this, because you mentioned covid and this particularly globally challenging period we’ve been in, how are you seeing it, what are you seeing some of the challenges we’re facing because of what’s been going on?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:18:22] I mean, the thing that immediately comes to mind is that trauma for many of us, not everyone, but the vast majority of people that experience trauma become avoidant. So what that means is they push their feelings away, and they push other people away. So they really go inwards.

And it really is a big problem and it sits at the crux of why this, you know, I said before, for some people, the symptoms resolve so they can experience the traumatic reaction and then the symptoms will resolve their lesson and over time, it just fades away and they get on with life, whereas for others, they kind of become stuck in the reaction and actually can grow and morph into all these bigger issues that I mentioned.

A big difference between if you take these two people, a big difference between them would be the way they cope. OK, so the person who gets stuck in it often that the people that become very avoidant, so they push their feelings away. So instead of allowing the feelings to flow, instead of allowing them to come out, which really is what we want, say trauma is all about being stuck.

OK, so trauma attempts everything down, all the feelings down, and we almost become like a pressure cooker. What we need is movement, you know, at all of the treatments, that’s what it’s about. It’s about getting things moving, whether it’s cognitively, or emotionally, or even physically.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:19:45] If you think of, you know, the incredible somatic treatments and treatments like dance, dance therapy, things like that, it’s all about getting things moving. So the reason I highlight that is because when I picture the world at the moment and I picture everyone sitting in their houses, and I’m especially thinking here about people who live on their own, I know that the thing we need to be careful of is that avoidance. And I feel like people are being almost having no choice but to go down that path. They’re going inward. Zoom is incredible. I mean, look, what we’re doing now is an amazing thing, right? But it can’t be everything.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:20:24] And I think a lot of people are feeling so overwhelmed, so threatened, and out of control that they’re actually. Pushing it away and pushing people away, because there’s that natural closing in any way, it’s making it worse. So I suppose that’s the thing that comes to mind is the thing I’m most concerned about because I just don’t see how things can resolve, how they can get things moving without people to talk to. No, it’s not simple.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:20:52] Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, before we came onto this podcast, we both reflecting on our connection with the U.K. You obviously are from the U.K. and my wife is too.

But taking London, the Blitz, as an example and comparing it to the covid experience, I mean, having bombs dropped on you is incredibly traumatic and certainly, if your house is blown up and people around you dying, but I think one of the observations that surprised people about the Blitz was how incredibly resilient people were psychologically because it brought them together.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:21:30] They saw the best in human beings helping each other, and they were connected and empowered in many ways. And looking at that as an extreme example of a potential trauma, but recognizing the personal connections that were powerful and comparing that to now where, you know, actually you can’t go out and hug your neighbor and see if they’re all right and help them with whatever, you’re actually isolated, and to see what the bigger trauma is, long term, will be an interesting experiment that we’re still to unfold.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:22:07] I agree. It’s such an incredibly powerful observation. I agree with that because you look at it and from the surface, you think, well, obviously the Blitz is worse, obviously, you’re going to experience more trauma, but then you look at covid, I mean, really, the fact that the people aren’t able to coregulate, they aren’t able to voice their feelings, they aren’t able to.

Because the other thing, if you think about what a social support does for us and the thing that I found in my research is, when we’re having those days when we think we’re awful and the world is awful and now what, you know, imagine the covid context, what if I get covid? And what if Dad dies and, you know, all these awful things that fly through our minds?

We need to have people around us to say, it’s OK. You know, I feel I’m going to cry when I said that but isn’t that a big part, so I supposedly say?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:22:57] It’s going to be, OK, I’ve got you. We’re going to be OK. So for those people that don’t have that, there are, you know, there is so much health anxiety, see it on social media all the time, people are genuinely afraid, genuinely, genuinely afraid that they and their loved ones are going to die, you know? So that’s the context of the feeling deeply threatened, deeply overwhelmed, and deeply out of control. So I, and unlike the Blitz, unlike that kind of situation where you can club together, you can see your neighbors, you can help each other, they are alone. So it is extremely worrying. I agree.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:23:36] And it’s also interesting to juxtapose that on the other movements that are occurring and you mentioned me too, is being one and what is going on in Australia here at the moment with sexual harassment and, you know, respect for women’s rights to be able to feel safe. This is another, this is opening up another whole can of worms and an important one, critically important one. That’s another area we’re seeing added on to this covid world.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:24:10] Yeah. And like I say, it’s a big reason that I wrote the book. Covid hadn’t happened yet, we were a few, you know, how many months away from it wasn’t that far before it but me too was, and as you say, it’s you know, we’re almost in the second wave of that at the moment are we in Australia. It’s incredible to see that we’re moving, very, very moving, very powerful stuff we’re seeing said and shared. And in terms of their trauma, I mean, it’s deep and it’s well, that’s what I would say but I would feel more hopeful about it today than I did two months ago because they’re speaking.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:49] Yes.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:24:50] They’re up there, they’re sharing, you know, their shame, obviously, is a big part of sexual assault and any kind and actually a lot of trauma generally, especially relational trauma, the kind of trauma that happens within relationships, whether they’re sexual assault or not, sexual abuse. Shame is a big, big part of it.

But it can only exist in silence. I don’t know if you’ve heard that phrase before, but shame can only exist in silence and I have seen that to be true. Time and time and time again. And when I first heard that phrase and began to explore it professionally and personally, and began to apply it to myself and then the people I worked with, I realized the truth of that. When we speak it, it dissipates. It’s a very odd thing.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:25:45] But as soon as you say it to someone, you know I’m feeling really ashamed about, X, Y, Z, whatever it is, whether it’s a small thing from your day, something to do with your parenting, something about whatever it might be, you speak it and it dissolves. It’s like this granular thing.

It’s just, OK, maybe not with the big things. Maybe you need to keep speaking about it, you know, keep voicing it but the fact that these women are standing up and voicing it on a personal level, it makes me, I mean, makes me just so incredibly proud and emotional but I know that it’s that pathway to healing because they’re voicing it. And so they’re saying, well, if they do carry any, note that they will, but if they do, it will dissipate and quite right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:26:30] And I guess the same can be true or said for what is being emerged as domestic. You know, the consciousness, the conversation about domestic violence and child sexual abuse as well, these are all about that.

And I was interested because your journey from a lobbyist in the music industry and your association with Reprieve, but your own epiphany in your own therapy, the kind of the therapist you were with at the time identified, hang on, this sounds to me like trauma. And it is about that, for many people about an awakening. How do we start that journey?

Listen to your body and your feelings

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:27:11] Well, I think for each of us, it can be quite different. I think if people listening to this and it’s ringing true, you know if it resonates because I think that’s the thing. I think some people hear the messages I’m saying, and they just know it’s true. They just know for them that there’s a truth here.

That what they’re experiencing today is a reaction to something that happened in the past and they want to explore it. And there are so many ways you can do that. You know, there are so many things you can do at home. Think about what I’m saying in terms of getting things moving.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:27:43] You know, a lot of the tools that I teach people to use at home, they’re very simple, you know, notice how you’re feeling, so just notice your feelings and allow them, you know, so it’s her name, what are you feeling?

Don’t runoff, don’t go and do the dishes, don’t race to pick the kids up, pause, notice how you’re feeling. Where is it in your body? So in body, that’s a big thing with trauma, we come back into our body because often the whole reaction is almost about leaving, it’s about avoiding the feelings, so come back into your body, notice where it is.

If you’re feeling afraid, where do you feel it? Is it up on your shoulders or where’s the tension? So you notice the feeling, noticed the tension in your body, be with it and allow it. And what’s fascinating is the more you work with that, the more you realize that this simple concept of noticing and allowing, allows your body to kind of move through the feeling, so instead of getting stuck in it, you know, imagine what would have happened, say we have the opportunity to do either, notice, allow it, have a cry if we need to, make a call to a friend if we need to, OK, so that shift it.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:28:57] It releases the feeling, it gets things moving, and then take a breath with go on with our day right. If we don’t do that, imagine the scenario, we’ve tamped it down. So we’ve pushed all our fear down, all the shame down. How do we feel? We probably feel anxious and nervous, we’re going to spend the day running around, we’ll find things to clean, we’ll find things to do, we don’t feel settled, we can’t be still, can you relate to that feeling?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:29:23] Absolutely. You know, this is actually, I believe, we should be listening to our body and we get report cards each and every day, you know, even the way we go, you know, what happens on the toilet is an important report card, which we’ve done a program on about what does your poo say about you? You look at skin as a reflection of nutrition and that.

But here we’re talking about, let’s look a little bit deeper here about let’s listen to your body and your feelings. Let’s listen to your feelings, not just the physical body, but your feelings. I love it, it’s music to my ears.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:30:03] Absolutely. And it’s so easy and it’s so difficult because you said you’re like what you need to do? You just feel a fear that you feel like, hang on, something’s going on here. You just need to pause, notice the feeling, take a minute. It sounds easy, right? It’s not. It’s hard because we’re used to and we talk to society teaches us to get on with the day, pull your socks up and get on with the day, get to school, get to work, be busy, keep moving. So we’ve been programmed to pull away from the pause. We’ve been programmed to just keep moving. It doesn’t matter. It’ll go, it’s not important.

And when we’re thinking about trauma, it’s that reaction to keep moving and avoid is the problem and it will keep you stuck. So if you’re worried that simple tools will start things moving and who knows where you’ll go from there? There are other tools we can use at home. And actually, there are seven in the book.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:01] Could you share a couple of those with us?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:31:03] Yes. Well, that one, feel your feelings is in there, actually.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:07] And I was going to ask you, you know, again, as you said, it’s easier said than done. It’s like saying to somebody, well, you can’t change things really, but you can change the way you think about it. Well, that’s true. And it’s probably the biggest tool we have. But how do you do that?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:31:24] Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:25] How do you feel the feeling?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:31:27] How do you feel a feeling? What a great question. Honestly, it’s hilarious. If we’d have had this conversation 15 years ago, I’ll be going, I don’t know the feelings.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:36] Well, you’ve done a Ph.D., Sarah, you’ve written a book and done a Ph.D.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:31:40] I mean on a personal level.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:42] Yes. No, I know that. That’s why I’m asking you.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:31:45] I could not feel my feelings. You know, this was my nemesis that I write about this in the book. I remember, I mean, I worked with a therapist for five years, not weekly sessions, but over five years we did gentle somatic work and I did my trauma work it was an important, very important time for me. But I remember sessions with her when she would say, how are you feeling? And I just, I don’t know. I don’t know. How do you where, what do you mean how I’m feeling? Do you mean,

I don’t get it. And I, just honestly I couldn’t do it. For me it was because I was she would ask and I would always say she it was too much to me. It was like and you know, where are my feelings? I’m not sure I was overwhelmed even  by the questions so, you know, and maybe some people who are listening will be able to relate to them.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:32:32] I think that’s absolutely what a lot of people will be able to relate to.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:32:36] It is confusing. And it, like everything, you know, now we’re in the realm of neuroplasticity habits. We get this stuff now, don’t we? It’s all about repetition and practice. So the more you practice this, the better you get at it. But take your time if you can be with your feelings. And I remembered my therapist sensed me, if you can be with that feeling and say, you know, she’d think, oh, I think I’m feeling afraid if you can be with that feeling for even one second longer today than you were yesterday. That’s a win.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:33:11] Mm-hmm. And it’s interesting, when you talk about feeling, Sarah, because it occurs to me that I wondered whether there was a significant difference between men and women in how they process trauma. And when you mentioned feelings, I thought about myself because often if my wife asks me what’s wrong, you know, how are you feeling?

And I actually need, sometimes it takes me a day or two to be able to articulate, and she says, I’ve crawled into my cave and, you know, so I wonder whether, you know, is there a difference between the way men and women experience trauma and they’re able to express their feelings?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:33:57] That’s very interesting. There isn’t a huge amount on that, to be honest, I mean, women are more likely to experience it. So if you tend to see that pop up in the research. But in terms of the actual, I’m thinking about the sort of perseverance of trauma symptoms and what we see this they’re fairly similar. I believe men are more prone to avoidant coping, to avoidance generally not avoidant coping. I shouldn’t have said that but avoiding their feelings.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:34:28] Yes.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:34:29] You see that a lot. And you do see that gender difference pop up, which is exactly what you just said. You know, there is a tendency to push away. So that’s the main thing to them. When we got back into the trauma space, if we take that fact and then come back into the trauma space, you would say, well, you know, it puts them at a higher risk to end up being stuck in the symptoms if they’re more prone to avoidant, to avoiding their feelings. But it’s not across the board. You see many, many women do it as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:01] But you mentioned you had seven things, and I know triggers is one of them. I wonder if we could just talk about triggers.

Let’s talk about Triggers

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:35:08] Yes, absolutely. So triggers. I’m sure many people listening will be really familiar with that term. We use it quite widely nowadays, isn’t it? But it does come from trauma or it’s inherently linked to the traumatic reaction and the traumatic process because we’re triggered. So when we’re reminded of a past overwhelming threatening event today, when we’re reminded of it in any way, so say someone uses similar tone of voice.

And I don’t mean I should, sorry, I’m going to pause there and say I don’t mean consciously reminded, so I don’t mean you’re suddenly going to think, oh, I am being reminded of that event when I was four years old, it’s not like that or it’s very physical, a very subconscious emotional and physical reminder. So we’re reminded of we hear someone speak in a similar tone of voice as our father did, perhaps, or we’re in a certain situation that reminds us of a traumatic time at school or whatever it might be, any kind of reminder, smell and image, a situation, a person really, it’s extremely varied.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:36:15] So we’re reminded of the past trauma and that triggers our own reaction and it’s not exactly the same. So the triggered reaction isn’t exactly the same as the reaction that we would have had when we were younger, but you’re in the same ballpark, very, very similar, and that obviously just pulls us back into that leap of reactions, which is extremely difficult because, and I do say this in the book, triggers are only a problem if you don’t realize you’re triggered, if you know you’re being triggered to say you’re having an argument with with with your partner, for example, and you find yourself really overreacting.

There’s a phrase in the book that’s if it’s hysterical, it’s historical. OK, so if you experience a big reaction to something, it’s highly likely you’ve been triggered. I really mean that. It works across the board, OK, so what we’re looking for are big overreactions. So my reaction doesn’t seem to fit the situation that I’m in. I seem to be feeling overwhelmingly frightened and all I’m doing is dropping my kid off at school. It’s that kind of thing where the reaction isn’t really fitting the situations that make sense.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:37:24] Oh, yeah.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:37:25] Cause is such a problem for people, primarily because people don’t realize they’re triggered. So we end up feeling really confused. Why am I feeling so afraid every time I have to go into a board meeting or why am I feeling so angry every time I’m around my friend Meg?

You know, it’s so confusing that these parts of life that we just don’t really get because the reaction is isn’t really fitting with the situation. Well, I would say to anyone listening, if you’re experiencing that kind of thing, strong reactions in a similar type of situation, you’re being triggered because you’re being reminded of a past overwhelming event, overwhelming and threatening event. And in the book to kind of get to grips with this because it can feel overwhelming.

Well, when am I triggered and how am I triggered and what’s the reaction, and what’s the trigger? So what I encourage people to do is just get a simple journal, a simple diary, or a notebook.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:38:20] Put the date, today’s date at the top. So what are you going to be writing down is the trigger, the reaction, and then under that, the part whether it links to the past events, the trigger reaction past question mark. So you’ll write down the trigger. Because you’ll have noticed that you are reacting and you don’t need to do this perfectly, but you write down the trigger, so I was triggered in a conversation with my mom, all you need to write something like that or I was triggered when one of the children threw up through a cop or something like that.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:38:54] And you’re not going to be sure. You’re not going to be writing it down, I’m absolutely certain that was the trigger, but you’re going to be writing down your best guess of what led to your overreaction and you’re going to write down what that overreaction felt like.

What did you do? Did you feel afraid, overwhelmed? Did you feel ashamed? Did you, what was going on? What was going on with your feelings? What was going on in your mind? So what were you thinking? So suddenly was my thinking became really negative or it was spiraling or I began worrying or I began obsessively thinking about, you know, whatever it was, whatever was going in, then note it down. And also behaviorally, what did you do? Did you walk off? Did you overeat? Did you call someone? What was the behavioral reaction? OK, so those three things.

So we’re going to really try and pick apart that reaction. And then if people want to, they’re going to have a think about whether it relates to a past event. So did anything come to mind? And we’re not going to push we’re not going to really dig around for information. But as people start working like this, they realize that actually, if they have the reaction to, you know, I was having that reaction, my mom kept popping into my mind.

It’s very curious as you begin doing the work, you realize actually as you start instead of censoring the information that your body and your feelings in your mind are giving you as you go with it, I’m really beginning to observe, you realize that there are clues there that your body is actually trying to show you what it links to in the past. So not every time, but sometimes. And if we repeat that, those three simple things, trigger, reaction, passed, question mark.

If people want to do that well if they feel comfortable doing it if you can repeat that for a week or two, you will start to see your patterns. And that’s what this is all about. It’s about observing the patterns that we’re stuck in. And that’s the trauma. That’s the repetition. Form is inherently about repetition,

OK, so that’s what we’re trying to find. We’re trying to find where we’re stuck, where we’re repeating in life, where we’re reacting from the past. I’m being pulled away from the strong adult that we are today. I’m being pulled into an old reaction that we want to like. But we all want to grow out of these things, don’t we?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:10] Mm hmm. So, OK, practicing our feelings and exercising that, becoming aware of triggers. We’re not going to go through all seven because people have to read this book, but give us another one. This is just this is beautiful. I’m loving this. Keep going.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:41:29] Let me think, what would be, I’m turning in the ones that will be the most applicable to the most people. I would say reining in your thinking is probably very applicable across the board, isn’t it?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:50] What do you mean by that?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:41:54] So trauma, traumatic reactions when we’re triggered, they happen in a kind of a cycle or a loop.

So initially we said we’re reminded of the old experience and then initially will experience it in a very physical and emotional way, will feel suddenly frightened or suddenly ashamed or suddenly angry, whatever it might be.

And all of the physical things that go along with that, and that then affects our thinking. So what’s going on when that happens is our nervous system is suddenly flooded with all the stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and everything else.

And of course, they affect our mind too. So our body is flooded, and our mind is flooded with these hormones. And that seems to be the piece of it that a lot of people miss. It’s not just the physical thing. It’s your mind is flooded with hormones, you cannot think straight, OK, that’s the truth.

So when we’re triggered, our thinking spirals ourself, our old beliefs are triggered, so our self-limiting traumatic beliefs are triggered, I’m a failure, I’m bad, no one loves me, the world’s unsafe, people can’t be trusted, all these old beliefs are triggered, OK, so we’ve got all of those going on and our thinking is spiraling, by that, I mean the adrenaline is just creating, you know, those racy thoughts, thoughts are racing, and feel very fear based often, it’s just a general feeling of threat, you know, through our body and in our mind.

So it’s a central part of the traumatic reaction and I think it’s when we don’t talk about often enough. And anyone that’s been triggered, I’m sure, can relate to that feeling. It affects your body, it affects your emotions, but it also really affects your thinking, doesn’t it? And I think for all of us, we need to be aware that that’s going on, because even if in that moment we can just pause and think I’ve been triggered, OK, I mustn’t trust my thinking, essentially, it’s that simple.

So when I say rein in your thinking, it’s in the moment. OK, so it’s the simplest way to explain it is when we’re triggered we feel unsafe, right, that’s what’s happened, so we’ve been reminded of an experience that made us feel really unsafe, really threatened, yeah, and we’ve been reminded of that today. So what do we need? What do we really need? We need to feel safe. OK? So the way we rein in our thinking isn’t to have a go at ourselves.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:44:29] It’s not to be very strict. It’s not even to fixate on control. Help yourself feel safe, reassure yourself. So when we’re in this zone of kind of overwhelming spiraling thinking because we’ve been triggered, which I would argue really I would say is the cause, I can’t prove this is not based on my research at all, but I believe from speaking to people very often it comes back to being triggered, very often when we experience these moments where our thoughts are racing and we’re ruminating, we’ve been triggered, we’ve been reminded of something from a past event.

First of all, don’t take your thinking seriously, This is not the time to be believing stories. It’s what story are you telling yourself. But second, you must reassure yourself. You notice the thinking, okay, my thinking spiraling, my old beliefs have been triggered, however, it might be that you would notice it and reassure yourself, okay, I hear you, you’re frightened, I get it. It’s okay. Something has frightened you. You’ve been triggered. I’m going to look after you. You just reassure. It’s just a gentle reassurance.

So leaning in on that voice instead of the inner critic, which often we do, our thinking spirals and then the inner critic pops up. You’re a fool, why are you worrying about this? You shouldn’t be. So we dove into self-criticism when actually really actually I really hope people can hear me when I say this it’s the worst thing you can do because you are keeping the flight to fight freeze response going when you speak to yourself like that.

So the only way through trauma is through gentleness. So when you see yourself reacting, if you can remember having overheard this conversation, you know, hearing this conversation that we’re having now realizing, okay, I think that might mean I’ve been triggered, I think that means, even though I don’t really know why, I think it might mean I’ve been afraid of something, or something’s making me feel afraid or threatened or out of control.

I’m going to try this reassurance thing, know just give it a try, play around with it, and I promise you that if you can speak to yourself in that way, if you can reassure the part of you that’s been triggered, you will be back on track. You will be reconnected to your adult self much, much, much quicker than if you walk down the critical road. It’s all about gentleness.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:46:58] Yeah. Love it. This is terrific and I can’t wait to read about the other, you know, the all seven of these. Let’s come back just a little bit here, and I wanted to ask you, what are your thoughts on the new therapy around PTSD and chronic depression, which is often related to probably traumas? I mean, more unlikely. You know, we just heard in Australia, the federal government is allocating fifteen million dollars for research in psychedelics, and we did actually a podcast interview a few months ago with Mind Medicine Australia, technologies young talking about psychedelics and MDMA.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:47:38] Have you looked into this at all? What are your thoughts on it?

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:47:43] I haven’t. I’ve got to be honest. I think it’s very important when you sit in a seat, as I do, to explain what your specialties are and what they’re not. I’m fascinated by the work that they do. And I’ve spoken to many people who are very passionate about it as a form of treatment, especially in the states in Canada, which it’s been explored a great deal up in Canada especially. But I don’t know a huge amount about it. But I would say that I have met many people who swear by it. They were very excited.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:48:14] As I listen to you and talk about, you know, how we can swirl around in our own head in a negative spiral. You know, the breakthrough moments that would described to me through this psychedelic MDMA treatment is about the effect it has on the default mode network within our brain, which helps us make connections with memories and with all of our sensory input. So I think it’s an area that will be a very interesting one.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:48:43] That’s exactly why. And I would interject and say, although it’s not my specialty, everything I have read about it, leads me to believe that it makes so much sense, you know, it really does because where I come from in my research is all looking into kind of trauma exists as an unprocessed memory.

So it’s kind of the scattered memory, so raw because we’ve so overwhelmed him because we had all of that big, big fight, flight response, all that adrenaline coursing around us, it deeply affected our memory, our brain couldn’t function. So at the core of the reaction is it’s a memory, I don’t even know, it’s a memory issue, really.

The memory hasn’t been filtered down into our long-term memory, so it kind of exists in this splinted was, that’s sort of part, sensory part feeling, that’s why it’s so easily triggered because it’s not where it should be, right? Should just be sitting neatly in our long-term memory, but it’s not there, which is why it’s so easily accessed on a day-to-day basis. So that’s where I come from.

That’s my research over the years had a lot to do with the sort of looking at memory and, the psychedelic stuff and what they’re suggesting and exactly as you say, how it can unlock and access and help us reform those memories. It makes a huge amount of sense to me in terms of where I come from, for sure.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:50:08] Yeah. Look, this is just fabulous. I’ve so enjoy it. I feel like I’ve been to the therapist already. There’s so many issues that I’m going to go I’ve made notes here because I got to deal with these things that you’ve mentioned. But listen, as we finish up and obviously we’re going to have links to your book and which is coming out, which has come out by the time this, on the 30th of March, 2021.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:50:34] Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:50:35] And I wanted us to just take, finally just to take a step back from your role as a researcher, as a clinical psychologist, as an author, because we are all on this health journey together through life in our modern world. And what do you think the biggest challenge is for us as individuals on that journey?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:50:57] Let’s say not trauma-related.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:00] No, not trauma-related just on our health journey. Well, maybe that is the biggest challenge. I think you may have identified it, but, you know, putting aside that in terms of how we negotiate the world.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:51:13] How we negotiate the world.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:16] And in our health, you know, looking for better health.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:51:21] So physical health?

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:21] Yeah. Physical, mental, emotional, just our journey.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:51:26] I mean, the thing that pops to mind and I’ve already covered it, I suppose, but. I think the big thing for me, so this is true within my research, I looked at groups.

So the effect that groups have on our sense of identity and our sense of well-being and our overall health. OK, so how the people around us have a big impact, negative or positive, on our physical health and our mental health. And in part, that’s really a lot to do with sort of the subconscious messages we’re getting from the people around us. If we’re surrounded by people who use alcohol as a way to cope, it’s going to be really hard not to fall back in the same, you know, fall in line with that. Likewise, if we’re surrounded by people who speak openly about their feelings over time, we’re going to feel much more comfortable about doing it.

So that’s the simple reason, really. But it also affects our identity, our self-esteem, our well-being.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:52:28] So from my research, I’ve been blown away by really understanding on a very deep level just how important the people we surround ourselves with are. And I would say that on a personal level, I have learned that at times very painfully. That’s the truth in a very painful way over the years as I’ve grown and now I really get it.

Like I really get that I need to surround myself by people who build me up to represent the future that I want and who allow me to be me, you know. So that’s a space where I would, how I would answer that question is I would just really urge people to think about who’s around them, you know, and surround themselves as much as possible with people who lift them up because it literally affects your physical health and your mental health. It’s extremely simple but powerful.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:53:28] Wow, what a note to finish on. And I’m so grateful to have been surrounded by you this morning. And then for us to have had this conversation and for you to share this, your work in this book, which is so important to everyone. Thank you so much for joining us today. Sarah.

Dr Sarah Woodhouse [00:53:44] Thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:53:48] That was so terrific. I mean, you know, I’ve been I think we’re encouraging people to listen to their bodies in terms of their physical experience and their mental one we’ve talked about. What does your poo say about you? And that’s a reflection.

That’s your body sending you out a laboratory report card every single day. And you should be listening to it because it gives you an indication of how your digestive system works. And if the gut is the second brain, then that will have an impact on your mood as well and your mental and emotional well-being.

We also talk about being, and then today here’s Sarah talking about being in touch with your feelings and practicing that. You know, we’ve had other podcasts where I remember speaking to Leila Masson about it, about fatty foods, and she saying, be persistent and be gentle and don’t just do it once or twice with a child to encourage them to eat a fascinated, to eat all sorts of food, be persistent and be gentle.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:54:53] And here’s Sarah Woodhouse is telling us to practice the experience of being in touch with your feelings and being persistent and gentle.

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:55:03] I just love this whole story connecting all the dots from all sorts of different connections. And I think I’ve said many times that the model of stress that I’ve been working on in my practice for 40 or so years is a great model for asking all the right questions.

And I think actually this podcast is a great example of that. And also the podcast is about personal empowerment. So I hope today’s episode has triggered, there was another word that we got introduced today to, trigger, and be in tune with our feelings.

So we’re going to have links to Sarah’s book, which, as I said, has been released in Australia by Penguin Random House on the 30th of March, so do get that copy. I’m looking forward to reading it, and I hope you will explore it because clearly trauma means so many things to so many people from the extremes of post-traumatic stress disorder to an event which may have occurred in your life as a child or throughout your life, which you may not have fully appreciated, has had a significant impact on your life.

Look, we’ll have links to that. As I said. Now, don’t forget to go onto iTunes and leave us a review. We’re trying to push this podcast up to a place which I believe it should be. And I’d like it to be I’d like I’d be happy when look, we’re getting thousands of podcast downloads a month, and I’d be happy when we start getting tens, if not hundreds of thousands of podcast downloads a month anyway, I’m going to keep on doing this until we do.

Also download the Unstress with Dr. Ron app, you need to put that in, Unstress with Dr. Ron at the App Store to download that and stay in touch with all the latest episodes and all the workshops, and we’ve got plenty of those coming up, some really exciting courses, online programs. And so stay in touch with that. I hope this finds you well until next time.This is Dr. Ron Ehrlich, be well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.