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A way to understand trauma is to think of a physical wound. Without the right treatment, a wound may get infected and worsen instead of healing. Someone can put a bandage on a wound, but if there is a deep infection then a bandage can only cover up the deeper problem. Trauma is a personal experience. What is traumatic for one person may not have as much negative affect on another person who experienced the same event. Many factors go into how an adverse experience or traumatic event affects people, and these factors may include how frightening the event was to them, whether they had emotional support after the event, and what beliefs they developed about themselves, others, or the world as a result. For example, some people who have experienced child sexual abuse have a more difficult time finding healing for reasons such as the abuse was a secret, they were threatened by the abuser, or they were not believed by whomever they told about the experience. If the abuse was reported, there may be even more emotional disturbance from having to tell the police or others and then having to go into detail about the experience in a stressful, high-pressure courtroom environment. On the other hand, if a child is believed and the abuse is addressed with care and support from the child’s family, friends, and professionals, healing may take place while still in childhood. Returning to the physical wound analogy, a physical wound may need to be opened and exposed to remove the infection so that the wound can heal from the inside out. As with a physical wound, it is vulnerable and scary to open up a psychological wound and expose all the feelings, emotions, and thoughts connected to a past stressful experience.
Many of the memories our brain stores are in our prefrontal cortex and do not feel disturbing when we recall them. If a memory is traumatic, our brain may polarize between the logical (left) and emotional (right) because feeling everything at the time of the memory was too overwhelming to process. Without having an opportunity to heal, the brain stores traumatic memories in a way that causes emotional disturbance in our limbic system. Memories can be activated by something that reminds us of the traumatic event and this can lead to intense emotions such as anger or rage, depression, or excessive anxiety. We may freeze up and be unable to do anything when we are emotionally disturbed by these reminders, or we try to fight back and may become violent with ourselves or others. Relationships can be damaged when we respond to one another from a painful memory and feel as though we are reliving the event. When the memory is still disturbing, healing is necessary to return to a better quality of life. Once memories are processed in the present through a therapy that engages both body and mind, the memories can be stored in an adequate way to where they no longer cause emotional disturbance. Healing looks different for each person because each memory and how the brain stores it is a unique and personal experience.
Merriam Webster defines dissociate as “to separate from association or union with another”. We all dissociate in some way, and the more stressed we are, the more we are likely to disconnect from the present moment. Whether it is driving in a car and forgetting part of the trip, or wondering whether things really happened or whether you just dreamed them, dissociation is what the brain does to cope through experiences that feel overwhelming by disconnecting in some way from reality. When trauma is involved, dissociation can mean our minds separate ourselves from our bodies to be able to cope with the experience. When dissociating, our mind and body are not integrated as a whole person. If we continue to dissociate after the event, the memory still holds emotional disturbance in the body even though it is in the past. The past is activated in the present through emotional triggers or traumatic reminders and our brain tells us we need to separate ourselves from our bodies in some way. The more the pain is not healed, the more the brain tries to dissociate to cope. Some people dissociate by trying to avoid thoughts or memories through distracting themselves by various means. Others use alcohol or other substances to avoid feeling the pain that memories bring up for them.
I utilize Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in my practice to help people find healing from traumatic or adverse experiences. EMDR can also effectively treat chronic pain, phobias and anxiety.