Goodbye Trauma: A Way To Understand Trauma And Its Gentle Release, Part 2
The result of a trauma continues long after the trauma has occurred with the perpetuation of a negative belief story.
There are four basic components necessary for a trauma to persist in your life: an overwhelming event, the emotions this event elicits, where you store these emotions in your body, and the negative beliefs you start to think about yourself because of the event. For instance, if you went to the beach with some friends and had a nice, but uneventful day, you would probably not remember the details of that day years later. If you went to the beach and you almost drowned (the event), you might feel anxiety in your whole body, terror in your lungs when you cannot breathe, and sadness in your heart when you realize you may not see your friends and family again (emotions and body sensations). You might think the world is unsafe, water is unsafe, this was my fault (the negative beliefs). You would remember every detail of the day.
A negative belief story about yourself is the most damaging component in the creation of trauma. This narrative starts when you are a very young child and depend on other people around you to tell you who you are. More criticism than praise can easily feed a negative narrative. Feeling unsafe or unloved makes it hard for you to see yourself in the best light, and you begin to collect negative beliefs about yourself. Each time something happens to support that belief, you think, “See, I knew I was bad, incompetent, undeserving, stupid, unlovable, broken, always at fault, invisible, etc.” After a while, even if something happens that contradicts that negative story, you discount it or pay no attention to it. You know the real truth about how bad you are and you are sticking to it.
When an event triggers your already poor negative story about yourself, you just collect more proof that you are a loser. You can see how deep-seated these thoughts become. The most harmful result of this approach to interpreting your world is for it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you are stupid, you don’t go to college and become the teacher you always wanted to be. If you think you are not good enough, you never ask for that raise or get a job that appreciates your talents. If you think you are unattractive, you do not end up going out with the person of your dreams. The story you tell yourself dictates how your life evolves.
Trauma causes you to adopt a negative story. Therefore, the result of a trauma continues long after the trauma has occurred. It is only the beginning of the changes that take place in a person’s life as circumstances perpetuating that trauma continue to happen. Meanwhile your unconscious mind tries to protect you from seeing and feeling the traumatic event. In a sense, your negative story goes underground, making you unaware of how it affects the decisions in your life.
As an analogy, if you plant a garden with flowers, most likely weeds will come up along with the flowers you intended to grow. If you pull the weeds early in the growing process, there is plenty of space and nutrients for your plants. If you don’t remove the weeds, they will choke out your original plantings. Your negative stories from your traumas are the weeds. Without the weeds, you would have more positive stories — flowers — to make your life more beautiful and fulfilling, allowing you to become your best self. When weeds begin growing early in life, they have a very fertile plot to grow in with little competition. Your personhood and personality have not had a chance to build any protection against the invasion of the weeds. The earlier the negative stories begin, the stronger their influence on your path in life. The good news is we can go all the way back to the earliest traumas and pull up those first weeds, yielding remarkable results.
Trauma Can Sap Your Energy
You might find yourself saying, “I can’t seem to be able to get out of my own way. I am so tired all the time. I’m worn out.” Maybe you have even checked with your doctor to make sure you don’t have an underlying infection or disease. There seems to be no explanation for your malaise. Could it be caused from all the undetected traumas you have been collecting throughout your lifetime?
Let’s say you are born with 1000 units of energy to run your life. Each time you experience a traumatic event, the event drains some of that energy. The older you get, the further away those first traumas are and the more units it takes to continue to keep these traumas at bay.
If you plugged your electric lawnmower into an extension cord, you probably will be able to reach further into your lawn to mow. But if you add two or three more extension cords to the first one, eventually the electricity will not be able to flow strong enough to continue to supply your lawnmower with enough juice to run it. Besides the length of time between the oldest traumas and now, which are using energy units, you are also continuing to use more energy as you add more traumas while your life marches forward. Eventually, your units become almost nonexistent. When this happens, a seemingly small thing might cause you to seek therapy. Your trauma symptoms are making it too hard to be in the world and live the way you want to live. At this point, time has literally caught up with you.
A Look At How Trauma Is Stored — Going To The Movies
Here is an easy way to visualize how trauma is stored in your brain. Let’s look at the previous example of going to the beach. When you store the memory of the uneventful day at the beach, the memory goes to the center of your brain, where your brain says, “I recognize this beach day,” and sends it directly to the front of your brain — your frontal cortex — where it gets filed chronologically as a memory with no emotional content. The further away in time, the less vivid the memory will be.
When the memory of almost drowning goes to the center of your brain, however, the brain says, “Oh no, I have no idea what to do with this.” At this point, the memory will most likely be placed on your back burner, literally the back of your brain — your reptilian brain. The memory is complete with all the components of trauma — the event, the emotions, the body sensations, and the negative beliefs. Unfortunately, the trauma has not been processed and is stuck on replay in the present moment. If in the future you are reminded of the event by say, choking on a glass of water (a trigger), all the memories of that day can come flowing back (flashback), and it will feel as if you are drowning again. Keep in mind you don’t just have one trauma on your back burner. You probably have many.
A movie theatre offers an excellent analogy to help understand what is going on back there. When you go to a mega plex movie theater, you can walk in and see a variety of different movies. Each brings out specific emotions in its audience. A love story might make you feel happy or nostalgic. A thriller could make you feel tense and scared. A science fiction or fantasy movie might bring you into a new world you had never imagined. The movie might make you feel hopeful or hopeless depending on the plot. As soon as you enter the theater, you start to feel the appropriate emotions and body sensations.
When traumatic events end up in the back of your brain, they become long running movies with you starring in them 24/7. This is another way you are unknowingly losing your energy to trauma. You play the part of the person you were at the age of the trauma, often your child self. Your present-day self is unaware of all these movies until a trauma gets triggered, and the younger part of you comes forth to react to the trauma.
The good news is the movies can be shut down through various therapies, thus releasing old emotions and body sensations. When this happens, a new neural pathway is created from the back of the brain (primitive or reptilian brain) to the front of the brain (prefrontal cortex), where the memory can be stored in its proper chronological order in the past, without upsetting emotions. Once this is done, you can rewrite the negative beliefs of your negative belief story. This can be replaced with a positive belief story. “I am worthy. I am good enough. I am lovable etc.” The result is you will remember the memory, but it will not recreate the intense emotional response in you.
Can you imagine how much more energy you would have if you did not have all these trauma movies playing 24/7? When the negative beliefs no longer have a hold on you, a new set of positive beliefs can take hold efficiently and stick.
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 1
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 2
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 3
Diane Spindler, LMHC, LMFT, is the author of Goodbye Trauma — Gentle Reprocessing: A Technique to Relieve Trauma, newly released in March 2023. Over her 30 years of private psychotherapy practice in Central Massachusetts, Diane has developed and trained other clinicians how to use Gentle Reprocessing to help their trauma clients. She has presented her work in the United States, Canada, and France, and has also has taught regularly at Boston University, in private workshops, and in clinics. Visit gentlereprocessing.com