You probably hear things like “the past is the past” and “you should just let it go” often – they’re common sayings. In part, this is good advice. Of course, the past is the past – this is true. Additionally, yes, it’s a great thought to be able to move on from something painful – we don’t want to forever hover over something that happened in our past, keeping us from the present moment. How can you unroll the contents of your life like it’s film, cutting out the bad parts, though? Thing is – you can’t. Your past, while, yes, it is the past, is forever a part of you. Your entire overall experience is influenced by every detail that has filled your life, and trauma is collected in isolated fragments rather than cohesive, linear stories. Experiencing sights, sounds, and feelings that somehow connect to your trauma trigger a response – your brain is not good at denial, no matter how much you’d like it to be.
Trauma leaves traces on every aspect of our being, and our brains are wired for survival – NOT for happiness. Your brain evaluates all of your past experiences, and becomes reactivated at the slightest hint of danger. Let’s say that you were riding your bike home from a football game, and you got hit by a car and ended up in the hospital. You can be watching a football game on TV, see someone else riding a bike, or even feel the cool fall breeze coming in, maybe even sitting in a pep rally, a car swerves a little into your lane on the highway, or you can simply see a hospital, and your brain turns on the fire alarm within your body. There’s no actual threat, but your hyperactive brain perceives one based on past experiences, and sends a rush of stress hormones throughout your body JUST like it did in the initial accident. Traumatized people tend to experience large amounts of stress hormones after the event has passed. Research has shown that only the right brain (memories, emotions) lights up during a flashback. Your right brain acts as if the initial incident is still happening, and your left brain (facts, vocabulary) is “offline” in a sense, unable to register that you are re-experiencing the past and unable to articulate what’s happening within you. Three years later, everyone expects you to be back to “normal”. Trauma creates actual changes in the brain, though, and “normal” is no longer what it used to be.
When your brain experiences an overload of alert signals, it can be tough for you to discern real danger from perceived danger, hindering your ability to defend yourself when a true threat is present. You may feel immobilized as you lose touch with yourself and your surroundings. As you’re stuck in survival mode, there’s no room for joy or connection with others. You may feel that relationships are weakened as you feel out of sync with those around you. Ironically, social support is an extremely useful protection against stress and trauma. It may feel easy to give up trying, but don’t.
When you seek help, a therapist will not ask that you “let it go”. We cannot remove your past. We can, however, help you re-establish control over your sense of self. We can teach you how to self-regulate when dealing with the physical reactions from your trauma that you experience in the present. We can facilitate an environment in which you notice all emotions and sensations, pleasant and unpleasant without judgment, so that you can reconnect with your inner world. We show you that you can feel it all, so that you can feel again, no longer experiencing numbness. We can encourage you to strengthen your capacity to monitor your body’s sensations through mindfulness meditation or yoga, and to recalibrate your autonomic nervous system through breathing exercises. Be an active participant on your healing journey, and you can experience your past as simply that – your past. Together, we can #endthestigma
Be on the lookout for Part 2!
For more, read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD