May 23, 2020

What No One Tells You About Painful Past Experiences

If you’ve been through something painful, I’m sure you want to forget it.  You may have run into obstacles in this process and the reason largely boils down to this: the brain remembers.  

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk wrote in his quintessential work on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “while we want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring our survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial.”

Once you’ve been through a significant hurt, your brain continually anticipates the smallest indication of danger, fears you may once again get into a painful scenario, and therefore, desperately tries to shield you from this torment.  A minor argument with your partner or a perceived slight from a friend, as some examples, are all a traumatized brain needs to activate into protection mode.  

What happens to your traumatized brain is the following: 

  • You become much more easily alarmed, irritated, and angered
  • You experience a flood of stress hormones, which make you feel, well, stressed
  • You struggle to differentiate critical from unhelpful pieces of information, which makes it difficult to make the most appropriate decisions

To summarize, trauma changes the brain, and therefore our emotions, thoughts, perceptions, social interactions, and beliefs in dramatic, and often profoundly negative, ways. 

If it sounds like I’m describing you, I want you to know there’s absolutely hope for a significantly improved reality.

Here’s how we help the brain forget and to live a much happier, peaceful, and hopeful life:

  • Talk with someone with whom we trust, such as a therapist, about these past negative experiences.  When you develop the courage to share what you’ve been through, and detail it in a safe and comfortable way, it reduces the hold these memories have on you.
  • Show your mind and body that the threat you experienced in the past is no longer present.  “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present” (Van Der Kolk, p. 21).  To accomplish this, you want to engage in more instances of courageousness: partake in experiences that counter the fear, anger, and frustration in which trauma imparted on you, and replace them with ones which instill confidence, competence, and hope.  Once your mind and body recognize that not only is the threat no longer there, but great things are happening and can continue to happen, you’ve changed your brain for the better!
  • Along these lines, one way to accomplish this is to notice and resist your mind’s attempt to live in a wounded past state and, instead, work to live in the present.  A traumatized brain is one that continually believes it is in the past negative experience(s).  It takes continual work, at least early on, to teach it, and yourself, that you’re actually in the here-and-now, and you’re safe.

I can help you understand the impact of past difficulty and work to live the life you deserve through a telehealth session through a HIPAA compliant video or phone session. Give me a call and we'll discuss how I can help. Call Jordan Zipkin, LMFT, at 561.214.4113.

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