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Home / Advice / News / The legacy of trauma and difficult experiences and how therapy might help

The legacy of trauma and difficult experiences and how therapy might help

By: Lotte Lenaers

Updated: 10 May 2021

The legacy of trauma and difficult experiences and how therapy might help

The legacy of trauma and difficult experiences and how therapy might help

One of the prevailing myths in our Western society is that if we just talk enough about our difficult experiences from the past, we will feel better. While making meaning of a painful experience is an important step in processing, there has been increasing evidence that just talking about your past does not necessarily help you move on from it[1]. A big part of our stories remains written in our body, the non-verbal parts of our brain and our nervous system, causing anxiety, depression, difficulties in relationships, anger, etc. even years after the events have taken place.  Therapy can help us in noticing how our body’s learned habitual responses have helped us cope over the years, but also how we can learn new responses that are more adaptive and appropriate to the present context.

Difficult Situations

When you go through something difficult, whether it is abuse or neglect by a parent, being bullied as a teenager, or having a car accident as an adult, it is an intense experience that overwhelms our normal processing system. While normal events, like going to the beach on a sunny day, are stored as a verbal memory like ‘I went to the beach’, unprocessed traumatic experiences are often stored in their original, often fragmented format, with all the images, sounds, smells, emotions and physical reactions. We remember these kind of experiences more as implicit memories, i.e. non-verbal, emotional or body memories[2].  So, after a car accident, a person might be triggered by the sounds of an ambulance and get catapulted back, not only in thinking about the accident, but also feeling the pain in the leg where the car hit them, smelling the burned tyre, feeling the anxiety in their stomach, and getting a sense of loss of control. These reliving experiences are often unconscious and will be reported as ‘I am anxious’ or ‘I had a flashback’. In more subtle adverse experiences, the triggers and the reliving of the memory will be even more difficult to pinpoint. If your anger as a child was met by even more verbal abuse, your body will have learned that it is better not to fight back, to not be seen or heard, and you might nowadays react to a negative comment from your boss by trying to please her more, by giving up the task altogether, or even climbing into bed for the day.

Recognising Triggers

An important step in therapy is to start recognising when we get triggered: what we think, feel, sense in our body and what our impulse and behavior is. Many of our habitual responses happen outside of our consciousness and are led by our instinctive reactions of fight, flight, freeze or submit. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: when faced with a bear, we need to make a split-second decision to fight or flee, instead of utilising the more sophisticated and complex part of our brain that can take perspective, weigh up our options and think of all the possible consequences. However, outside of these life or death situations, we do actually want to bring this part of our brain online, the part that makes us human and distinguishes us from animals. Brain scans show that when we bring the noticing part of our brain online, the more emotionally reactive ‘fire alarm’ of our brain get inhibited. We can more easily regulate ourselves, and we start ‘being with’ instead of ‘in’ the memory[3].

Thinking Differently

Secondly, therapy can help you think differently about your anger, depression or anxiety. Rather than seeing them as personal failures (why can’t I control my anger? Why am I such a people pleaser?), we start to see our ‘symptoms’ as learned, ingenious coping strategies[4] that have helped us navigate the complexities of our lives. When you grew up in a household where your parents were constantly fighting, you learned that you had to be attuned to the smallest shifts in your parents’ mood, to anticipate and prevent the next fight. Or maybe your best bet to get a bit of recognition at home was to be a good girl and have high grades, so isn’t it normal that you still push yourself so hard at work and cannot sit still in your free time? When you learned over and over again that reaching out for connection holds the possibility of rejection or even worse, the possibility of abuse, your nervous system rightly learned to stay on high alert for cues of (emotional) unsafety and withdraw when even the smallest cue, like your boyfriend looking at his phone while you speak, is picked up.

Threat or Trigger?

In addition to recognising and appreciating our habitual coping mechanisms, therapy can help us investigate whether these strategies are still adaptive in the current context. Does a small negative comment at work warrant your alarm system to go off? Is this an actual threat or just a trigger? Do you need to be this anxious in this current moment, or can we help our nervous system to see the present situation is different from the past? The good news is: the brain has the ability to change, to rewire, to make new neural networks (called neuroplasticity), so when we notice how our nervous system responds to certain triggers, we can also learn new responses. Neuroplasticity is an ongoing process, and inside and outside therapy, positive and corrective experiences can create changes in how we perceive and experience life and hence positively affect our wellbeing. This involves activating the noticing parts of our brains, learning new body movements, learning new beliefs, and noticing, tolerating and regulating our emotions.

Regulating Ourselves

The goal of therapy is not that we will never get triggered again; in the end life is full of triggers. The goal is rather that we can recognise when we get triggered and that we can regulate ourselves. We can distinguish between what is from the past and what is actually here in the current moment. We can learn new responses that are more adaptive to the here-and-now. From that place, we can access the internal and external resources and skills we have picked up along the way. Maybe we can even say: that happened to me, it was bad but it is over now. We can carry the past with us, but we no longer have to live in it.


References:

[1] van de Kolk, B., The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, 2015. Fisher, J., Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, 2017. Dana, D., The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, 2017.

[2] Fisher, J, idem.

[3] Dana, D., idem.

[4] J. Fisher, idem. 

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