Josephine Bila

Long-Term Post Traumatic Stress Turns People Into #Vulcans

Each time I step into my doctor’s office, something inside my brain turns off.

The brain cells that turn off are the ones that are terrified by the “what if,” “might happen,” and “possible” scenarios.

“What if” the nurse misses my vein five times? You never know what “might happen” after receiving this unit of blood. It’s “possible” that no one will ever marry me because they can’t see past this hospital stuff.

I learned how to turn off most of my negative brain chatter at a very young age.

Way back when, I realized I could either worry myself into a frenzy or I could simply turn that part of my brain off and get on with my days.

The problem with turning myself off to all those scary thoughts was that I also turned myself off to healthy emotions.

For years, I couldn’t cry when I knew I should be sad; I couldn’t feel empathy for someone who was hurting; and I couldn’t connect with people on a deeper emotional level. My outward expressions of these emotions were totally warped.

In psychology, there is an actual term for this type of emotional incongruence. It’s called “inappropriate affect.”

Inappropriate affect is defined as an “emotional tone or outward emotional reaction that’s out of harmony with the idea, object, or thought accompanying it.”

The show Star Trek introduced me to the character Spock, a Vulcan, who attempts to live by reason and logic with no interference from emotion.

Kirk (center) and Spock (right)

Here’s a sound bite from the latest Star Trek movie “Into Darkness” where Spock tells Captain Kirk not to lecture him on “the merits of emotion.”

I totally resonated with this character. Please leave a comment if you hear me!

Unfortunately, reality on Earth tells us that people who are devoid of emotions or display inappropriate affect are more often than not, sociopaths, psychopaths, extreme narcissists or other such defined malevolent people.

What isn’t often discussed by medical professionals is that people born with congenital illnesses that require painful medical procedures over an extended length of time develop post traumatic stress disorder. Which is why my sense of self and reality became extremely distorted.

So, what did I do about it? I reprogramed my brain by forcing myself to feel.

In order to feel, I became hyper aware of the emotions being displayed by people in my surroundings. I observed the timing of when people laughed, looked sad, appeared angry, or cried.

As I watched other people, I couldn’t feel what they were experiencing, but I internalized the emotions and tried to recapture the part of myself that had become cut off and numb.

For a long time, emotional expressions made me extremely uncomfortable. Regardless, I reminded myself that emotions were healthy to have and necessary for maintaining positive relationships with people.

When I couldn’t get myself to feel sad, I would turn on music that made me feel sad. Believe it or not, this helped me cry when I knew I needed to.

Music can be extremely healing.

Alasdair Wilkins, who writes about the neuroscience of music on, states “songs carry a tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem that that’s our brain’s primary concern when it comes to music.”

He further informs us that “the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points of comprehension are lost.”

Music triggers emotional responses in the brain. So, if you’re having difficulty connecting with emotions in an appropriate way, listen to songs that help you feel the way you know you should feel.

Do you have any favorite songs that stir your emotions? What are they? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

If you know someone who doesn’t display healthy emotions, share this article with him or her.

Fascinating, isn’t it,

About the Author

Josephine Bila

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I’m Josephine Bila, LMSW, a licensed social worker for you — the health seeker who craves an energized body, strong relationships, and the willpower to overcome any obstacle.

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  1. Oh my. I’m so glad I’ve found your blog Josephine, I completely associate. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to completely shut off the emotions and the internal negative talk, but on a conscious, front of mind way I’m pretty good at it. And the Vulcan way of thinking? Its kind of the way my brain works normally, even before or away from my medical condition. I correct people when they say something which is factually incorrect, that isn’t logical not because I’m being mean but because it isn’t correct. Like Spock. I’ve always made decisions logically, not emotionally, and I know it’s the reason I struggled in high school (I went to an all girls school), and with some people in my social and work circles. But the emotional stuff is underneath, bubbling away, waiting to burst up (sometimes with outbursts when pain gets bad, but also in a drug side effect).
    And I understand the logical disconnect leading to your idea of post traumatic stress – putting a needle into you, or ingesting odd chemical compounds makes little sense because it is, on the surface, harmful. But it’s often the thing keeping you well or alive.
    This is so very timely for me, I actually wrote something in a similar vein myself today –
    Great post again. Thankyou.

    1. jennanlovell Hey Jenna… thanks for the comment and for sharing your blog.  Thanks also for referencing my work in your article.  Several things… I never shut off the negative self talk.  That was ever abundant.  I did turn off my feelings though.  I still know how to go to that place if I need to, but I watch myself and make sure that I don’t.  It’s actually kind of scary to be so disconnected emotionally… very unhealthy.  The negative self talk is something that I overcame later in life and it’s something that I currently coach people through in their own lives. 🙂
      I also want to clarify that I don’t use meditation so much to get through the anxiety, anger, etc… I use exercise.  Physical exercise with sweating and all.  I find that activity moves focus from my mind to my body.  Meditation is for quieting the mind and calming the body.  If you do not know how to quiet your mind, you will just get frustrated and quit.  The best thing to do is sweat out the problems first and then meditate.  Your mind will be much more quiet then.

      1. JosephineBila jennanlovell Thankyou for your reply. I’ve certainly experienced the benefits of exercise that you talk about. Its been a big frustration of mine that my symptoms have been getting in the way of exercise and movement over the last few months.

  2. My son was diagnosed with Thalassemia Major in 2009 which was tramatic enough but in 2011 when my daughter was diagnosed as well. I lost it, life had no meaning and this coming from me, the risk taker, live life to the fullest person. I lost every emotion I ever knew. My life was always full of really highs and really lows, passion was a peice of who I am. Then knowing the two people I live for, had to go through what they do to survive and to have to watch it and tell them it is ok when all I  wanted to do is tear my heart out. It all became numb. I lost many friends, my relationship with my significant other was on the rocks, I couldn’t focus at work, and I stayed away from my kids because I was scared to get any closer to them. I was a robot, day in day out with no purpose, a zombie.
    Almost two years later Make a Wish Foundation per my daughters wish sent us to Hawaii and we got to break away from our routine and BREATH! That was the begining… wanting that, craving that for my whole family. So, I went back to school which has really shookin up my world. Understanding Thalassemia better and the truth of what was killing me inside. I am still not 100% the person I was, but slowly I am finding my new self with our new life style of treatments and learning to laugh again, even finding moments where tears come falling down (It may had been 2 years since I last cried). I still have moody moments where I can not identify the exact emotion I am feeling like a five year old. There is hope we will find that peace again but a new form of peace.

    1. bopbopdedoup Wow, thank you for sharing your story.  I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have two kids who need medical attention.  I think it makes sense that you responded by by losing your emotions.  That’s what panic does so it can help you focus on the tasks at hand.  Now that you’re probably into more of a rhythm with everyday life, you’re moving out of the panic zone and returning to some old patterns.  
      You’re right to say that you’re finding a new form of peace.  You had expectations of what your life was supposed to be like.  Having two kids with thal challenged that internal belief of what “should” happen in life.  When that life-long belief wasn’t met, your mind didn’t know how to resolve the emotional pain of the experience, so it shut down.  
      Peace is a state of mind.  The situation at hand is one that you can accept as it is, deny and feel angry about, or change your opinion of.  Peace lies in your decision to accept or change.  Hopefully you don’t see this comment as coming off as self-righteous or all-knowing, but instead as one that is coming from a place of of humility and understanding.  We all do the best we can with what we know.  I want you to have peace, because I know that it already exists within you.

  3. There are just too many songs to list! Where do I start? Any Linkin Park or Staind song really. The song that came to mind immediately though is Broken, by Seether and Amy Lee: I used to listen to this after I had gone through a break up that really hurt. I also used to listen a lot to Sick Cycle Carousel by Lifehouse: The Staind songs I like the most are Everything Changes ( and Excess Baggage ( Songs speak the most to me. Hope you like them too!

    1. DavidLevy I thought I replied to this. Pretty sure I did, but the site didn’t capture it.  I love this. Thanks for sharing your music.  I’m always happy to hear what moves people.

  4. Wow, this post raises so many interesting and pertinent questions I experience or have experienced in my life. So I won’t bore you with a 5000 word essay on my thoughts, however I will leave some songs/music that heighten certain emotions within me.
    ‘One Day Like This’ by Elbow – This song is about falling in love, but for me not just romantic love, but life itself. I use to listen to this nearly every morning to remind me that the day has to be savoured and it put me in a hopeful, cheery and fighting (in a good way) state of mind.
    ‘There Goes the Fear’ by Doves – Much of what we do or don’t do in life is dictated by fear. For me it is an important reminder/warning that fear shouldn’t cause you to let the moment pass you by because of it. And also reminds me of the moments of clarity/exhilaration we experience in the absence of fear.
    ‘5 Years Time’ by Noah and the Whale – A song about enduring love and the melancholy which can surround it due to uncertainty. It may sound cheerful but I think it is paradoxically quite pessimistic too at the same time.
    ‘Sabotage’ by The Beastie Boys – Come on admit it, we all just want to go crazy at times and destroy everything around us. Well unfortunately this is socially frowned upon and therefore not a practical thing to do to release that anger inside of us. So just pop the earphones on and let The Beastie Boys do it for you in the form of music!
    ‘Genius’ by Kings of Leon – O.K I hold my hands up, I sometimes think I am a genius and have moments of arrogance. This song soon brings me back down to Earth and makes me humble once more.
    ‘Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed – Grim and depressing despite the title. But I still love it. A whole multitude of emotions arise, I would be here all day trying to explain them.
    ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths – Another bitter-sweet song that has many interpretations. It is about teenage and eternal love,a guy’s death wish and isolation amongst other things. For me it also about the legacy you leave behind and that is the ‘light that never goes out’.
    ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie – One of the best songs ever written in my opinion. just listen to it.
    ‘Wires’ by Athlete – Those who have faced health issues and hospitals throughout their life will understand this song perfectly. These lyrics sum it up aptly – “You got wires, goin’ in, You got wires, comin’ out of your skin, There’s dry blood on your wrist, Your dry blood on my fingertip”

    Well I could go on and on but I shall keep it (relatively) short and sweet. Please do have a listen to the songs you have not heard before and leave your feedback. Thanks.

    1. Sajid Hussain I LOVE that you guys shared your music with me.  Makes me so happy.  Thank you!  Also glad you liked the blog post!  😀

  5. Hey Jo! I am so happy that this blog was about 2 of my favorite things! Star Trek and music! Funny how so many valuable lessons can be learned from Star Trek. Their idea of not interfering with other cultures, not trying to change history and also Gene Roddenberry’s message of acceptance was so ahead of it’s time. As far as music being healing…you are so right! This is one of the reasons why I love what I do so much. (Music and movement classes for children) Music is a gift. It allows us to express emotions that we might not otherwise be able to express. Especially when we make the music ourselves. Music therapy is such a miraculous thing. After Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, music played an important role in her healing. She could not speak full sentences, yet could sing entire songs word for word. Alzheimer’s patients can recall song lyrics when they can’t even recall their own family members. Music making uses more parts of the brain that other activities cannot – not even playing sports. One of my favorite things that parents tell me is that they hear their babies singing to themselves in their cribs. How precious is that? These babies are actually learning to soothe themselves through singing. I have a family in my class that missed the end of the winter semester and the whole beginning of this spring semester because the father/dad had a stroke. They finally made it back last week and I saw them for the first time after many weeks of being absent. I had mailed their music to them so that they could make music at home while they were absent and I thought it would give the little girl some comfort to hear familiar songs and voices. Here is part of the email I received today from the mom, “We just wanted to let you know how great it was to be back in your class
    yesterday. We’ve really missed attending and consider it such an important part
    of our lives. Thank you! ” It made my day.
    Music = Life

    1. BettyCorona That’s such a GREAT story!  Music is what heals me.  Truly.  😀 xoxo

  6. Mr. Spock is my all time favorite Star Trek character. I could never get into the Next Generation because there was no Spock. I think somehow we all want ot relate to him because he was able to  hide from the hurts of the universe and had this amazing inner strength. As for music, where would we be without it?  It can bring about the most amazing feelings of joy, sadness, light, love as well as anger. I remember seeing a documentary about a village in Africa where the people sing as they do all their work; fishing, farming, washing, etc. They are a joyful people. There are so many songs that make me feel so good when I hear them that I could listen to them over and over. There was a saying “Music soothes the savage beast”………Music can put a bandage on the biggest of wounds. Thanks for this great blog………you rock……….!!! 🙂 xoxo

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