I am watching a four part video from the UK about illness and trauma.
The first part is about how trauma memories are stored differently from regular memories. Regular memories are stored in files, like stories in a book or a library.
Trauma memories are stored in the amygdala and often are disjointed and broken up and have all of the sensory input from the worst parts, including the emotions.
The therapist is talking about healing: that our tendency is to turn away from the trauma, smooth it over and try to ignore it.
However, the amygdala will not allow this. It will keep bringing the trauma up. And that is actually its’ job, to try to warn and protect us from danger!
The therapist counsels finding a safe time and place and safe person (if you have one) and then making space for the trauma to come back up. One approach is to write out the story, going through that most traumatic part, but not stopping there. What happened next? Writing the story and then putting it aside. Writing it again the next day and doing this for four days. As the story is rewritten and has an ending, even if it is not a happy ending, the story is eventually moved from the amygdala to the regular files. People can and do heal. They may need a lot of time and help, but they can heal.
I am not saying that four days of writing stories is enough. That is one approach, but nothing works for everyone and people need different sorts of help. There are all sorts of paths to healing.
In my Family Practice clinic I would see people in distress. With some gentle prompting and offering space, they would tell me about trauma and things happening in their personal life or work life. Things that were feeling so overwhelming that they could not tell their families or friends and they just could not seem to process the feelings about it. I would keep asking what was happening and give them the space to tell the story. Many times when they reached the present they would stop. There would be a silence. Then I would say, “It seems perfectly reasonable that you feel terrible, frightened, horrified, grieved, whatever they were feeling, with that going on.” And there was often a moment where the person looked inwards, at the arc of the story, and they too felt that their feelings were reasonable.
I would offer a referral to a counselor. “Or you can come back. Do you want to come back and talk about it if you need to?”
Sometimes they would take the referral. Sometimes they would schedule to come back. But nearly half the time they would say, “Let me wait and see. I think I am ok. I will call if I need to. Let me see what happens.”
When a person goes through trauma, many people cut them off. They don’t want to hear about it. They say let it go. They may avoid you. You will find out who your true friends are, who can stand by you when you are suffering. I have trouble when someone tries to show up in my life and wants to just pretend that nothing happened. “Let’s just start from now and go forward.” A family member said that to me recently. Um, no. You do not get to pretend nothing happened or say, “I wanted to stay out of it.” and now show back up. No. No. You are not my friend and will not be. And I am completely unwilling to trade silence about my trauma for your false friendship.
Yet rather than anger, I feel grief and pity. Because this family member can’t process his own trauma and therefore can’t be present for mine. Stunted growth.
People can heal but they need help and they need to choose to do the work of healing.
The four videos are here: https://www.panspandasuk.org/trauma.
This song is a darkly funny illustration: she may be trying to process past trauma, but the narrator doesn’t want anything to do with it. And he may not have the capacity to handle it. He may have his own issues that he has not dealt with. And maybe they both need professionals.