When I was 21, something very traumatic happened to me and for weeks afterwards, I felt my brain was attacking me with horrifying memories and vivid dreams. I’d spend hours staring at the ceiling, I cried all the time and burst into fits of rage. But as time passed, the flashbacks and dreams stopped. I started feeling more normal and able to engage with the world again. Without realising it, I’d processed the trauma and allowed myself to heal by doing one important thing.
Trauma is common and according to research, around 70% of the world’s population has been exposed to one or more traumatic experiences.
After something traumatic happens, it’s normal to experience posttraumatic symptoms like sleep problems or having flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the event. And for most people, these symptoms fade after several weeks, allowing them to process and heal from what happened.
But for a small percentage of people, these symptoms don’t subside and sometimes get worse. If you’re still experiencing post-traumatic symptoms a month after the event, it might mean you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Many factors increase the risk of developing PTSD but there’s one that’s particularly powerful.
Avoiding reminders of the trauma can feel safer at the time but this actually increases the chances of developing PTSD. It could mean avoiding or suppressing certain thoughts and memories or it could mean avoiding certain places, smells, songs, people, and so forth.
It’s natural to want to avoid unpleasant memories, thoughts, and emotions. But unfortunately, if you avoid it, you can’t process what happened and end up re-experiencing it as though it were happening all over again.
The thing that saved me was my writing habit. I’ve always kept a diary and after it happened, I wrote about my feelings and experiences every day until eventually, I wrote down the whole thing in detail.
So without realising it, I was conducting exposure therapy on myself. That’s not to say that was the end of my healing journey but the crippling symptoms that I’d experienced for weeks started to disappear.
Research confirms this: therapy which includes exposure or ‘facing the trauma’ is most successful for treating posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Trauma gets ‘stuck’ in the emotional part of your brain
When something stressful happens, your brain activates the alarm system (the limbic system). This triggers your body into action, releasing stress hormones and preparing your body for the fight/flight/freeze response.
Under (relatively) normal circumstances, this stressful event is later processed and ‘moves’ from the limbic system or emotional part of the brain to the prefrontal cortex. That means it can be organised into your life’s narrative and you can think about it without it causing an exaggerated emotional response.
It’s like having an argument with your partner and going to bed angry and ready to break up with them. But when you wake up in the morning you feel fine and can’t even remember why you got so angry in the first place – it’s because it’s been processed during your sleep!
But when something traumatic happens, the emotional load is so high that it takes much longer for the brain to process it. For most people, it takes a few weeks for the memory to lose its intensity and be organised into the narrative of their lives. It might still be an unpleasant memory but the flashbacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbance, and other posttraumatic symptoms reduce or disappear.
The hard part is that processing the event means facing it mentally and/or physically, which might include going to the place where it happened or talking, writing or thinking about it. This helps the brain to release the emotional intensity of the memory, also known as ‘desensitisation‘.
If we don’t face it, we can end up in a loop or endless cycle of re-experiencing.
Escaping the loop
Let’s say you were involved in a car crash. Before that happened, cars held no particular emotional meaning (unless cars are your thing, of course). After the crash, even the sight of a car sets off a highly emotional response: you start sweating, your heart goes into hyper-mode and you experience intense fear.
It means a neutral object has been paired with an emotional response (this is called conditioning).
If you keep avoiding cars (which most likely requires you to stay indoors because cars are everywhere) this conditioned response goes on indefinitely and can’t be resolved until the association between cars and fear is extinguished.
For that to happen, you need a new experience with cars – one that allows you to remove the association. But because emotional responses are updated when we’re actually experiencing them, we have to go through the fear to remove the fear.
Exposure doesn’t only apply to physical reminders of the trauma but to memories as well. An emotional response can be paired with a particular thought or memory so, to reduce the negative response, we have to expose ourselves to the memory.
Types of exposure
Narrative writing means writing about the traumatic event over and over again and has been found to be an effective method for reducing PTSD symptoms. I can vouch for this one from my own experience but for some people, it might be inadvisable to go through this process alone.
Speaking to a trained professional or therapist is a way to be guided through what happened in a safe and supportive environment. They might use certain techniques that can help you to process the traumatic event such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) or guided visualisation under hypnosis.
These techniques use bilateral stimulation, such as visually following a finger moving side to side or asking you to mentally rewind and fast-forward the event until it becomes ‘boring’. It’s not entirely clear how it works but one theory is that moving your eyes from side to side activates both hemispheres of the brain which allows memories and emotions to be processed.
Even if you don’t consciously think about what happened, it’s still anchored into your subconscious mind, affecting your daily life and your relationships and ability to feel happy.
So the bottom line is that to heal, the trauma must be processed. It might be the hardest thing to do but it will allow you to release the anchor and live more freely.
Anna Drescher holds a master’s degree in psychology and mental health. She’s been working in the field for almost 10 years.
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