In my clinical work, I frequently encounter individuals who have experienced significant traumas. The experience of trauma is not exclusive to those who have experienced or witnessed violence or sexual abuse. While these things are certainly traumatic, trauma is defined as any situation or event than overwhelms our nervous system’s ability to cope at that moment. This is why anger outbursts, threats to leave, or frequent yelling by caregivers can be traumatic, among other experiences.
Our brains are masterful at trying to protect us. When we experience trauma or overwhelming situations, our brains attempt to protect us by encapsulating the experience.
If memories of certain events are creating emotions and feelings in the body that are overwhelming now, imagine what it was like to experience it real-time as a child.
In response, our brains found strategies to keep us alive.
These strategies may look like dissociating, blocking out memories, fighting when a threat arises, or emotionally shutting down. Dissociation is a powerful way that our brains “escape” a situation by disconnecting us from our thoughts and feelings in the present moment. We may experience this as losing track of time, “zoning out”, or not being sure of where the last few minutes (or hours) went. Our brains tend to do this naturally when experiencing trauma, and may continue to do this as a coping strategy if left unaddressed.
When a memory time capsule leaks or bursts into the present moment, the memory feels like it did at the time it when was made. It can be difficult to manage a time capsule rupture without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down.
When we react to experiences in ways that seem “out of proportion” to the event that triggered it, our reactions most likely have to do with one of our memory time capsules rupturing.
For Example, imagine that a friend calls to cancel plans that you had been looking forward to, and in response you are filled with rage. Annoyance would be a typical response to this situation. Rage, on the other hand, may indicate that old wounds are being triggered. Maybe there was a sense of abandonment or rejection in childhood, and the change of plans hurls our emotional brain back in time, feeling what it felt like to be rejected as a child.
This is a moment of suffering. Often times we react from a place of hurt, which can impact the health of our relationships and our own physical and mental wellbeing.
Our nervous and endocrine systems remember times of intense stress and overwhelm. They don’t know (or care) how much time has passed. They will continue to be hyperactive until we learn to regulate and calm them.
Sometimes our bodies generate sensations that remind us of past moments of fear or stress, and we react by shutting down, attempting to escape, or aggressively pushing back to defend ourselves.
We can begin to calm and regulate our hyperactive nervous systems by:
Noticing when we have a physical reaction and labeling it. “My chest and shoulders get tight when I feel anxious.”
Paying attention to the physical sensations of our bodies and noticing the impact of emotions on these sensations. Can you visualize the sensation in your body? Is it hot or cold? What color is it?
Using our breath or bodies to move the sensation. What do you notice when you breathe into the anger or anxiety? What about when you tap below your collarbone. Does it move? Does it dissipate?
Noticing our irritations, anxieties, and rigidities starts breaking our automatic, habitual response patterns. As adults, with newfound awareness of the impact of old emotional experiences on our present emotional experiences, we have an opportunity to do something radical.
We can imagine that hurt child, the one who feels lonely and rejected, and imagine our adult selves offering comfort to that child. We can tell them “it will be okay, I’m here. You are loved.”
Noticing these moments of intense suffering open the door for our healing. We can offer ourselves the compassion that we so desperately needed.
If you are processing trauma or would like support in working through difficult emotions, I encourage you to seek support from a licensed mental health professional. All writings shared on Original Worth are psychoeducational in nature and not a substitute for seeking help from a trained professional. For finding resources for therapy in your local area, check out the therapist finder.