Inner Healing

I Shouldn't Feel This Anxious—Insights on Trauma & Healing with Monique Koven

Episode Notes

Today’s episode is just so special and so deeply personal. If you’ve experienced trauma, please listen. If you love someone, please listen. Trauma touches so many lives, and it’s so often misunderstood. In today’s episode, Monique Koven, host of The Healing Trauma podcast, shares her powerful story of healing from trauma. There is absolute gold in this episode for everyone.

Here's what we cover:

1. The anxiety response that she couldn't "logic" away

2. How misdiagnosis caused further harm

3. The role of anger in her healing

4. Exactly how she began to heal the anxiety response she experienced

5. Separating God out from hurtful church messages

6. How Ann Voskamp’s work showed her an example of glimmers

7. Monique’s profound word for you if you’ve experienced trauma

Thanks to our sponsors:

Additional Resources:

Related Episodes:

Episode 79: Surviving Trauma & A Path to Forgiveness—Finding God In the Hardest Parts of Your Story With Esau McCaulley

Episode 15: C-PTSD—The Pain of A Million Paper Cuts

Episode 4: What Do I Need To Know About Trauma?

Music by Andy Luiten

Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik

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While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.


Alison Cook: Monique, I'm so thrilled to have you here. You are doing such beautiful work on the Healing Trauma Podcast with all the things that you offer people who are recovering from trauma. I'm just thrilled to have this opportunity to get to know more of your story and what has inspired you to do the work that you do.

I've talked about I Shouldn’t Feel This Way and this new framework I have coming out. It’s this idea that so often the very first thing we become aware of when we have to dig into our own emotions is this inner guilt, this inner shame, sometimes this inner gaslighting that we do to ourselves, trying to get ourselves not to feel the way we feel.

I want to start there because you write so powerfully and, if it's okay, I want to read your words. You said, “I could not wait until childhood was finally over and I could live free and away from the terror and dread that I experienced in my childhood and teenage years. It was only to realize that it felt like I had not really escaped my childhood after all. I did not understand this because everything on the outside appeared well. I had a career I loved, a beautiful family of my own, and a great community of friends”. 

I just read that and I thought, oh gosh, I'm imagining you maybe in your early to mid twenties thinking, I've got it. I've done it. I've escaped a really hard situation. Why do I feel the way I feel? Can you talk to us, put us back in that moment in time? What was that like for you and what was going on inside of you?

Monique: Yeah, you described it so well. After we've experienced trauma, we are so happy to be away from it and to start fresh, to start new, to have that life that we dreamed of as children, one of peace and calm and happiness. For me, I had just gotten married. Like you read, everything on the outside looked like things should be going really well.

It didn't make sense to me because my body was still feeling sensations and images, and I was feeling a lot of hypervigilance. My husband would walk into a room and I'd jump to the ceiling almost, and it just didn't seem to make sense because on the outside, I have this new life, but yet my body was waiting for what happened in the past to happen again.

Alison Cook: There was pretty significant verbal and physical abuse in your childhood. Is that right?

Monique: Yeah, there was a lot. I had a disorganized attachment. So that means, in my case, a very frightening mother. This was who I was supposed to attach to, and you don't have that safe place. Then there was just chronic chaos, lots and lots of marriages, and I was basically always feeling like I was fighting for my life.

Alison Cook: Very little safety, none of that secure attachment–this is what you're bringing into this marriage with a guy who, when he walks in the room, he hasn't harmed you, he hasn't hurt you, he's not scary, yet your body is reacting to him in your early marriage, as if he is like one of these figures from your past.

I imagine that was very disorienting for you. At the time, how did you frame that for yourself? How did you make sense of that? Or did you not know what to do with it?

Monique: Yeah, it wasn't just him, and there were really great parts of it too, but it was really the day to day, moment to moment life–getting up in the morning, having your own apartment, and the responsibilities of that. Going to my work, I was a social worker and the whole experience of it was one of feeling like I was in danger all the time. I was like, you've got a lot of anxiety girl.

Alison Cook: Okay. Was there a sort of self-shaming component to that? What's wrong with me? Why can't you get it together? Was that part of it for you?

Monique: 100 percent. Because it didn't make sense. I was physically away from my childhood. And I was really upset with myself, thinking what is wrong with you? Look at your life. You have everything that you've wanted and yet you're feeling so anxious.

Alison Cook: Yeah. I feel that in my being when I hear you say that, because I think that is so common for people in the absence of anyone helping us to understand and name what's happening. We tend to blame ourselves and get really hard on ourselves, when your body was doing what it was conditioned to do.

What happened, Monique, as you talked about it? Did you tell people? Who did you tell and how did that go? Either positive or negative. It might've made it worse sometimes.

Monique: I remember when it was happening at the beginning at my first job. I'd be making lots of notes because I just thought it was so odd how I was feeling. I didn't really talk about it a whole lot at the beginning. I guess I didn't trust that I could share it, but later on I started to talk about it and recognized, okay, I'm feeling a lot. I need to go for some help. 

As a social worker, I knew that there was help and I started to see a variety of people: therapists and doctors, and I was basically told that I have anxiety and I need to work on the anxiety and the most effective approach for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy.

So I need to work with someone who does that. I did that and that didn't seem to work, found another, tried another, did another, tried another. My body just wouldn't settle when I needed to, because often I would write when I was activated, right? You're supposed to write the truth of what's happening.

I could write the truth, but my body would say that's not the truth. You're writing that you are safe, but your body is saying, no, you're not. No, you're not. How do you explain that, when you yourself don't even have the words? You try, but they don't understand? The feedback I kept getting back was, you need to just keep trying, and I'd get this look and, of course, I would interpret that as, okay I must be this client that's not complying or I must be the one that just can't do it. It was really hard.

Alison Cook: Yeah. There is another traumatizing event there–when you go to get help, the help that is being offered to you is actually not helping, but you feel responsible for that again.

Monique: It even goes deeper than that because my trauma was actually related to not getting help. So you can imagine, here I'm trying to get help. Because things are happening that feel like the past and I'm not getting help. I'm told, just stay with it. I can share a particular scenario because I could not understand it.

When I was a young mom, I would be exhausted. I had twins. I'd be exhausted at the end of the day, and sometimes I'd leave the dishes and pots for the next day. I'd wake up in the morning and I'd take my kids to preschool, and I would come back and I said, you're gonna do the dishes, you're gonna put things away, make it organized.

Whenever I would try to do that, my feet would essentially feel frozen on the floor. They wouldn't move. I'd be like, why am I like this? What? Why can't I do it? I would try and I could feel my body get more and more activated. Then finally I couldn't take it anymore and I'd grab my keys and I would run out the door.

I was like, what is that? it happened every single day, and I'm like, I don't understand this. It makes no sense. Just do the stinking dishes. I could not. When I brought it to my doctor, she was saying, you really need to stay. You need to stay. When actually that was the worst thing I could do. 

That's just an example of how trauma was showing up in my body. I didn't know how to manage it. I didn't know what to do with it. Of course I blamed myself.

Alison Cook: That is such a powerful example of your body reading a situation that it needed you to understand was real, even if it wasn't real in that moment. In that moment you were safe, but it was as if your body was telling you, “But I have known unsafety in this situation in the past. Please listen to me”. 

How did you figure that out, Monique? How did you start to recognize, “No. I'm not crazy. My body isn't crazy. There's a memory here. Something has happened that was hard and I don't know yet what it is. I get that it's not the current situation of the dishes, but something is going on”.

How did you start to honor that? That's such a powerful story.

Monique: Oh my goodness. Like I said, it went on for quite a while and I remember asking friends, does this ever happen to you? They'd look at me with blank faces. No. Oh my goodness. It started with recognizing that there's more to this. I've had trauma. At the time, Complex trauma was not recognized as childhood trauma, it was just PTSD, so from a one-time event or a war.

I remember going to the doctor and of course, it wasn't recognized. That's why I was given a diagnosis of anxiety. Nothing about my childhood was ever even mentioned. Then one day, I came across a book by Dr. Judith Herman, and she was the first person to actually define and bring up, hey, there's this other definition.

It's not just PTSD, there's complex trauma that can involve childhood experiences that have been repetitive and your body can feel like you've been in a war and it has lasting impacts. When I read that, I'm like, oh my God, oh my goodness. I took that book to the doctor that I was seeing. I said, I think I know what it is, what's going on. 

She looked at me with such a blank face, didn't discuss it, and I guess I for the time, put it aside. Just as a note, I've had Dr. Judith Herman on my podcast last year, which was such an honor. But yeah. then what happened was I started to learn a little bit, I started to see little peeps on the internet about complex trauma. 

So I said, you know what? I'm going to get diagnosed professionally. So I met with a psychiatrist and a psychologist that worked together that did all of the evaluations and it came back to complex trauma. When I saw that paper, you can imagine I'm holding that paper and it's like evidence.

I just said, okay, now I'm going to do something about this. That started the whole journey of going for the right type of help, the type that is going to address complex trauma. I started getting trained as a certified complex trauma recovery coach, and my life just took off at that time.

Alison Cook: Man, this is just, it's so powerful. There's so many different directions I can take there. I noticed my body feeling really angry about the care that you got at the time. I think we're probably roughly the same age and I know exactly what you mean. Everything pointed to cognitive behavioral therapy, which for the listener, can be a helpful modality when it's correctly prescribed. 

It's about looking at your thoughts and aligning your thoughts more with reality. But the problem with trauma, and we'll get into this, is that you can have all the rationality in the world. You can be thinking rationally, but your body, your nervous system hasn't gotten that message. Your nervous system is still living in the war and there's no amount of logic or rationality that can get that message down into your body. 

We know this now, but at the time, listening to you, it breaks my heart for a whole generation, and generations of people who were told there's something wrong with you. You're the problem. You're crazy. To see your face light up when you got the complex trauma diagnosis, there was freedom in that, that brought you freedom and clarity–I'm not crazy. There's a reason that my body is behaving in the way it behaves. 

The resilience in that, the agency in that, Monique, that you had to advocate for yourself, that's remarkable. That younger version of you and what she had to do to get to that point of no, I'm not crazy here–that's heroic.

Monique: Thank you. I guess there was always a part of me that was like, I'm going to do something about it. I think one of the first things I did when I got that diagnosis is start the podcast. I didn't know what I was doing. I was talking in my phone, but one thing I knew for sure is that if I've experienced this, there are so many who are going through that and I just I felt so I had to do something to help bring a little bit of light, a little bit of education, so that they would know that, no, you're not crazy.

Alison Cook: So Monique, you get this diagnosis and I imagine you're replaying the tape on all the years of getting really bad help and bad advice. So tell me a little bit about that. What was that like for you?

Monique: There was a period where I was angry. I was really angry. I had to process that, but for years, I contemplated–I want to go back to that doctor, the one I brought in the book to, and I've even called a couple of times asking, is she still there? I wanted to say, hey, and say, all this time that I came, you said it was anxiety. It wasn't!

I was upset about that. I wanted to also say, “And the therapy you recommended, I'm going to tell you why it doesn't work!” Then, of course, we can talk about the faith community because that too, there was some hurt around also not being trauma informed. 

I get it–if therapists can't even be trauma-informed, how can we expect the faith community to have that understanding? So I was angry for a while.

Alison Cook: Yeah. Yeah. I hear that. How did you honor that anger? Justifiably, you were angry.

Monique: I think I allowed it because it wasn't destructive. It wasn't an interference. I thought it was a healthy anger. That's what it felt like to me anyway. So that felt good. It felt powerful. There was empowerment there. There was justice for that girl. Because I remembered, hey, she didn't get help. Then, again, she didn't get help. 

Alison Cook: I love that. I do think anger is very empowering. It's forward-moving. It's okay, now I can see the truth. I love that justice orientation. So that became a resource to you in a way, that anger. I love that. I think that's important for people to hear. There was a constructive nature to it.

You had seen something that other people weren't seeing. I love that you channeled that anger in many ways. I'm going to start advocating for other people to get this message, start the podcast, get this word out about the truth about trauma to other people.

Monique: It's a slow process. I find the church community has changed. They're much more open to mental health now over the years, but there still needs to be that real understanding of what happens when we've experienced trauma. How it's not just the mind, and that just quoting scriptures is not going to change a nervous system that's in dysregulation, that is overwhelmed because it has experienced chronic trauma and these are some of the symptoms.

Alison Cook: It's interesting, Monique, because you were both part of the therapeutic community as a social worker, and you'd been let down by that community. As a person of faith, you'd been let down by faith communities.

So talk to me a little bit about your faith. How did you, or were you able to, keep your understanding of God separate from how you'd felt let down by faith communities?

Monique: I was able to separate the people, even though some people said some things that really could be very hurtful. I've shared with you before–I had a really beautiful experience with God in my early 20s and I knew he was real, and I knew he was for me, and I knew he was going to help me, and I just clung to that.

He was the safest place that I knew. So it wasn't the church, but rather God himself was the safest place/parent/person for me.

Alison Cook: Monique, you and I talk about these experiences we had early on with God on your podcast, the Healing Trauma Podcast. We'll link to that in the show notes. But I love what you're saying: there was a secure attachment with God that held you through your disappointments with the church.

That's amazing. I love that. Anything else, Monique, that you want to share about that period of time, of wrestling and coming to terms with the reality of your C-PTSD?

Monique: I think what really helped and even started to provide a sense of compassion for my own experience was when I did some professional training with Deb Dana, with the Polyvagal Theory. That rocked my world big time. It changed everything because I really got an understanding of what is happening, what is going on, and how much our bodies and responses make sense.

In the past, when I would have these triggers or responses, I would get upset because it didn't make sense. But when I learned about how our bodies are always looking underneath awareness, looking and evaluating whether we are safe or whether we're in danger, because it's happening below awareness, that makes sense. 

That's why I would walk into a room not thinking anything, but suddenly feeling this powerful feeling inside me. That wasn't coming from my mind. It was coming from a cue my body picked up that may have reminded my body of something in the past, and I was experiencing it in the present. That brought a lot of compassion.

Alison Cook: Wow. If you're willing, would you walk us through that instance of your freeze response in the kitchen with the dishes, based on what you know now about the body and about polyvagal theory? 

Monique: Okay. Absolutely. It's so interesting, our brains, and you know this, they're connectors. I was saying on one of my episodes how I've seen this in real action once we were driving in Myrtle Beach. As I was driving, I heard my brain and my brain was saying, this town is like that town.

That's what brains do. This is like that, or this is similar to that. In my kitchen, I would walk in and there would be pots and pans and all kinds of things. I've had a lot of repetitive trauma, sometimes in the kitchen of complete chaos, and for some reason, my brain made a connection. What happened to me over and over again, and sometimes it was in the kitchen, there was chaos, there was so much disorder and craziness, and I always wanted to run, but often I was stuck.

I looked at the dishes and the pots and pans that were overflowing and it's pots and pans, for crying out loud. But to the brain, to my body, it was a reminder, even if it's just a sliver of truth, a sliver of connection, a sliver of a reminder. That's what it did. I did the right thing. I got out of there. I grabbed those keys because I couldn't do that when I was younger. I was stuck. I was frozen. But this time, I grabbed those keys and I ran. I did that so many times.

Alison Cook: That is such a beautiful example of this. Sometimes we call it the work of reparenting where at the time it was happening, it was probably still somewhat semi-conscious. You couldn't have pieced together all the dots, but I could also imagine, I don't know if you actually did this as you're walking yourself through that, to gently become aware of this freeze response. 

It makes sense, and watch us leave the room, watch that now, little part of me. I think of the parts model here. Watch that right now. I actually have the agency and we can leave. As you allow that younger part of you to recognize, oh, now you have an adult in the room who really loves you and who will care for you and who will get you to safety. Over time, that part of you is going to become more open to the idea that, okay, these are just pots and pants.

But you first have to connect with the part. It reminds me of the work of parenting our own children. We first have to connect with them. They're scared of something. They're scared of the dark closet. They're scared of the cobwebs. We're not sitting there saying to them, you shouldn't be scared of that. That's dumb. 

We're saying, let me come with you into that fear. Let me explore that dark closet with you. Let me show you that you have what it takes. We connect first and that's exactly what your body needed in that moment–not for you to shame it, but to go, yeah, I get it. That's just beautiful.

Monique: Yeah. you can imagine when I was told, you really need to stay in it–

Alison Cook: –that's re-traumatizing.

Monique: Yeah. But my body knew better. My body knew to get out.

Alison Cook: Yeah, and as much as parts of you were taking in the bad information, parts of you were like, no, I'm going to keep fighting for myself, and you did. You did. You got yourself better information. I just love that. 

Tell us a little bit, what were some of the next steps you took? You finally understood, this is what's happening. How do you begin to heal? Because obviously that naming is huge. It's huge to unlock the beginning of the healing journey, but you still have to go through the journey.

As you began to put the pieces together, were there daily practices that began to help you really heal your body and honor the signals in a new way?

Monique: Yeah, definitely. The thing with healing from trauma is that it's work. It's not just going to be time and it's not just going to be once a week therapy. Because we have this nervous system that has been shaped very early on towards self-protection and towards looking for things that are potentially threatening. Again, that happens below awareness. 

Then we need to make a conscious effort to help our bodies to see that there is still good in the world and in our lives, and to look for those things and also to practice. So one of the practices that I do, you can call it a gratitude journal, but it's a little bit more than that.

I write down things throughout the day that give me a little taste of goodness and I don't just write it because that's going to stay in my cognitive mind and it's not going to do very much. It's going to stay there and then go away. I'm trying to help my nervous system really get a feel that things are different and that there's goodness.

For example, this is a big glass of water and the cup is pink with flowers. It makes me happy. So I would look at that cup and feel a joy of like why I chose it and how I feel inside. I would savor that for a couple of seconds. So that's the idea of savoring just for a bit, and doing that throughout the day.

So if I'm walking, in the past I might walk with earphones, and I really don't anymore because I'm trying to take in the goodness. So I'll look around and I'll stop for a second, take it in, what that bird feels like in my body, what the sun, the air feels like in my body. So that's what I do.

Alison Cook: I love that. It reminds me, I think it's Deb Dana's term of “glimmers”, which are the opposite of triggers. You're being intentional about noticing the glimmers. Glimmers are when our nervous system is calm, clear, it's in that good place. You keep using the word goodness, which I love.

It's a fruit of the spirit. it's almost like you're training yourself again, with that reparenting idea. You imagine with a young child, how we want our children to bask in the goodness. It's almost like you're teaching yourself how to do that. I love that,

Monique: Yes. You know what's so interesting? I absolutely love Ann Voskamp and she knows it, but who doesn't? But what's so interesting was that when I was learning about the training I did for polyvagal theory and learning about glimmers, I'm like, this sounds a lot like Ann's work, because Ann was writing a list of God's graces.

For me, as someone who loves God, I thought, yes, I'm going to see these things through the lens of God's gifts and God's goodness. That was so powerful to me because like she says, it shows us the ways that God loves us. So we get that sense that he's still active in our lives every moment. It's the little things. It really is.

Alison Cook: I think you're referencing One Thousand Gifts, which you're so right. That's exactly what she was doing. I love what you're saying, Monique, and I want to just pause here for a second and linger because so often when we're talking about trauma and we're talking about the activation, and it's so important to honor that, what I love about what you're saying is it's the both- and. To honor what's hard and not shame yourself for the times of activation. And, simultaneously you're trying to also teach your body about what's good, what is safe, what is beautiful, what is good about God. It's the wholeness. It's the integration. It's not all one thing, but it is both. 

Monique: It's so interesting that you say that because that's exactly what I was thinking about before our conversation–about the both-and. Because sometimes with our upbringing, it's black and white, things are horrible, and then there may be good. 

It is a both-and. We can have some symptoms that are uncomfortable and we can have some goodness in our lives. We can have both and we can hold both.

Alison Cook: That's incredible. That's a really powerful testimony for lack of a better word, in the sense of the healing you described. We talk on the podcast about how the word salvation has its roots in the word “sozo”, which actually means heal. It's really about the process of healing. God didn't minimize what was hard for you, and you also honor the goodness that you taste. It's that much more beautiful for having honored what was hard.

Monique: Yes. And since this journey, I've been able to really slow down and see things that in my hypervigilance, I didn't see. A lot of survivors have difficulty staying in the moment because their bodies are used to being ready for the next thing. This idea of coming back into the land of the living is so beautiful and so hopeful.

Alison Cook: That's beautiful. What would you say to that younger 20-something-you now?

Monique: I would probably first tell her that I love her and that she is precious and beloved and there's going to be hard things, but that it's going to be okay.

Alison Cook: That's beautiful. She is lucky to have you. What would you say to the listener who is maybe realizing there's been trauma or who is healing from trauma? What would you want the listener to know?

Monique: The very first thing that comes right out of my mouth, because I believe this with all of my heart, I feel like it's something that's been stolen, is that I really want them to hear this truth I'm about to say. It’s that you are so beloved. You're beloved. You're beloved.

That's what you're made of. Then I would say that it is possible to find joy, to experience moments of peace, fun, safe relationships, community, and that there is always hope.

Alison Cook: That's beautiful. That is so beautiful. How can people find you, Monique? You're doing such good work in the world, bringing that hope to so many people. How can people find you?

Monique: They can find me at my website thehealingtraumapodcast.com, and you can also listen to The Healing Trauma Podcast on any platform. If you sign up with Spotify, you will have some bonus and extended episodes, but that's how you'll find me.

Alison Cook: Yeah, I highly recommend it. I did an episode with you for your podcast, and you do a really great job. You've got some great people on there. You have a faith focus, but you bring in people from all sorts of experiences to talk about different angles on trauma. It's really beautiful.

Monique: The faith component just started this past January, and I’m really excited about that. If you look at it, you might see that I've had a lot of well-known people, but now we're taking a little focus on trauma, healing, and faith.

Alison Cook: Beautiful. One final question. What's bringing out the best of you right now?

Monique: Oh. I want to say, the first thing that comes to my mind is my little dog that's sitting right next to me. I love him so much. He's just such a joy. I kiss him a million times a day. I'm going to have to say that, but just don't tell my husband or kids that I said that.

Alison Cook: Honestly, dogs just bring so much joy. Talk about that joyful goodness. Thank you so much Monique, for sharing your story, for being here and for taking your hard story and turning it into these healing resources for so many people.

Monique: Thank you for having me. It's been a joy.

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