When the past keeps interrupting the present after trauma, we usually call these "symptoms". Unfortunately, a clinical description of symptoms seems to distance and minimize the destructive nature of trauma.
They aren't just symptoms! Symptoms are for colds or the flu!
They are constant interruptions, intrusions, and overwhelm bordering on panic at seemingly random times. They destroy our sense of connection with ourselves, our relationships, and our roles in life...
The intrusive memories of trauma being relived over and over again show up in sights, sounds, smells, urges to fight, flight, or freeze, and the same locked up body sensations we experienced during the original trauma. Sleep is no longer safe as the nightmares come crashing in. Sooner or later, we recognize that the memories are likely unavoidable.
At the same time, we keep trying to avoid experiencing our memories. We stay away from people, places, or activities that remind us of our trauma. When this doesn't work, we begin to shut down our emotions. Sometimes, this looks like addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, etc., that serve to distract us and guard our trauma vaults.
Since we are "experientially wired", we literally teach ourselves to numb. We unwittingly convince ourselves it's the only way to survive. We shut down relationships, suppress our body, and entrap ourselves at home until the idea of even leaving the house feels frightening.
One of the things I've noticed with the push/pull of intrusive memories and avoidance is that we can't just limit the avoidance to trauma. Eventually, WE HAVE TO SHUT DOWN EVERYTHING.
We shut out others and isolate. We shut down anything that used to be "fun" or give us joy. We shut out God. We shut out life.
Little by little, we resign ourselves to this fate of emptiness in order to hold back the overwhelm that floods if we dare to take a chance on opening ourselves to experience life again. In light of the ACE's study and the pervasive nature of trauma in our culture, I've often thought this is where a great deal of the epidemic of depression and suicide in our culture stems from.
I often steal the following analogy from Dan Siegel who is a brilliant neurologist and trauma expert. He describes trauma like a dog bite.
If a dog bites your hand, think about your first instinct. Most of us will instinctively pull our hand away...right?
And, that's likely the most painful and unsuccessful option. The dog will only grip more tightly. Tearing and ripping of skin and other painful crap is gonna happen. Plus, the dog will still be biting your hand.
The best, and possibly, only way to force a dog to let go of your hand is to do the opposite of your instinct. You have to shove your fist down the dog’s throat. This forces the dog’s jaw open and cuts off air at the same time. Only then will the dog let go of you!!
It’s counter-intuitive. It goes against our instincts. It has to be a conscious choice.
This is exactly how trauma healing happens. We have to find enough strength and courage to step into our traumas in order for them to release us, even as everything inside fights to AVOID.
If we wait until we feel like it or want to address our trauma, it is likely never gonna happen. We have to resign ourselves to choosing to do the work of processing and releasing trauma.
This always means confronting our trauma head on and proverbially shoving our hand down its' throat.
I’ve rarely had someone step into my office to process trauma with a sense of expectant excitement. It’s more a sense of surrender to the process in the hopes of finding relief.
As you continue to move through the course or consider trauma work, notice the urges to avoid as your own history shows up in some of what you are learning. Practice stepping into it in small ways through some of the skills and strategies we will be learning along the way.
Our next blog will look at the third aspect of trauma that keeps us constantly activated as a result of trauma.