This blog post was written by Karen Bailey, LPC
Why does past trauma affect me still? Will it ever go away?
When this question is asked there are a lot of aspects that can be discussed. Today’s discussion will be on understanding how the brain can change.
Trauma, a deeply disturbing or distressing experience, can affect someone long after the episode is over because your brain’s job is to protect. When something traumatic happens to a person, it sets off an alarm; that part of the brain is called the amygdala. So to protect a person from harm, the brain very precisely learns to notice situations that are similar to the original trauma. I call it a “trauma trigger”.
For example, If a person grew up with a parent who yelled loudly, negatively while harming the person as a child, then when they hear someone yelling loudly even when not being aggressive, it can trigger the person into protective mode. When a person grasps that he/she has gone into the “protective mode”, taking a deep breath can begin to calm the amygdala. Other skills that help are calming music and rocking/soothing movement.
When a person’s alarm has gone off, the person’s reactions may not equal the current situation. That is when the past trauma continues an issue because it is still affecting today.
Related: When to seek help for depression
So, yes, the trauma can begin to go away!
It can take some understanding to recognize what is happening, but there is hope! The way our brains are made, there is always room for growth and improvement. So past trauma can go away as the brain changes.
Our brain is made up of many neuropathways. These pathways can become familiar, just like how easy it is to drive a car when you have been doing it for many years compared to when you first learn. It becomes automatic. Some of the thoughts a person can have can be negative and defeating without much “thought”. This is because the neuropathway is “set” in that direction.
But HOPE is that we can create new neuropathways!
Just like learning a new musical instrument can be awkward, a new thought pattern can be also. Over time though, the “old path” becomes less familiar and the newer path is more acceptable.
Here’s an example: Lucy slept badly last night. Her lack of sleep leads her to feel that when she wakes up in the morning, “It’s going to be a bad day with this lack of sleep.” This leads her to struggle or berate herself for the reasons why she didn’t sleep well, etc. But if she tries to tell herself something different when she wakes up such as “I’m tired but I’m going to have a good day”, even if she doesn’t feel like it, she begins to change her thought process. A new neuropathway is born! Eventually, the negative thought doesn’t have as much power and Lucy trusts that she can handle the day even when her sleep is poor.
That is a simple example but it is the way a person can change the pattern in their brain step at a time.
Steps to help cope with trauma, and move on:
- What trauma response is the most difficult for you? There can be a lot of issues that come up but it is easier to start with one issue at a time. It keeps you from being overwhelmed. Success in one area gives energy to the next area that needs help.
- Recognize the way your alarm (amygdala) goes off. Do you shut down? Fight? Freeze? Fawn (which means tries to appease the other person)? Understanding what your patterns are and what you are experiencing can produce kindness towards yourself.
- Take a deep breath. Step away. What is your self-talk in this situation?
- What can you do to start a new neuropathway? Maybe a positive statement, “I can do this!”, or a song that reminds you of your strength, or the next step to remedy the problem. Sometimes just taking the time to let your mind calm enough to see what the next thing needs to be.
- Be kind to yourself on the journey. Even when you see a mistake in handling a situation, realize you are human and new habits take time. Make compassion your new neuropathway as this life is a journey and beating yourself up for not being perfect is the old neuropathway we want chopped off!
Life is a journey and your trauma can become less of a hindrance and more of a growth experience with each step that is taken.
Do you need a little help coping with past trauma?
WTCSB offers help in the form of:
– Group Therapy
– Individual Therapy
– Peer Support
– Recovery and Addiction Support
– And more.