Whew! What a crazy year this has already been and it’s barely February! I really thought this year was going to be better, didn’t you? And then one shut down after another really brought things into perspective again. One thing that I think we can all agree on is that the last 2 years have been pretty “traumatic.”
But what does that really mean? People throw around the word trauma left and right. I everyone seems to use the term without a clear understanding of what makes something “trauma” while something else is not. I’d like to spend a little time here really going into detail about what TRAUMA really means from the perspective of a trauma therapist (yes, that would be me).
What IS trauma really?
I could write a whole book just about this, but I want to give you a brief overview of what it really means.
Trauma refers to undigested or “stuck” memories. These memories “get stuck” in the emotional center of your brain, which is called the limbic system. This is more of a metaphor than an actual neurological phenomenon but it works to explain these super complex brain concepts simply.
To illustrate this, make your hand into a fist with the thumb tucked inside. Your 4 fingers represent your adult brain or prefrontal cortex, while your thumb inside those fingers represents the limbic system or the emotional center. You can think of these two parts of your brain as the adult self and the baby self. (We all have a baby self, actually more than one, but we’ll get into that in another blog so don’t worry!)
When memories “get stuck” in the emotional center of our brain, it can causes us to ACT from our emotional center, which is indeed our “baby self” or as I like to call it the “inner 2 year old.”
In fact I would say that most ALL the problems in our lives are caused by these pesky undigested memories!
Because what happens when we have memories stuck in our emotional brain is that our body’s alarm system (called the amygdala) can get set off unexpectedly by innocuous stimuli in our environment. And when it does we behave and feel like much younger versions of ourselves. AND EVEN WORSE our adult, rational brain goes completely “off line.” This is what it means to “flip your lid.” Can you take your fist now and open it so the thumb is exposed? That’s what happens when we have undigested memories.
This can cause us to feel all kinds of crazy stuff. Anxious, super angry, very fearful, powerless, out of control, you name it, when these memories get triggered we feel it.
This is what “getting triggered” really means.
You’ve heard that expression before right? Did you know that it actually happens in our brain? It doesn’t mean that you’re crazy and it’s not just an expression that the kids use! It’s a real phenomenon that happens in your brain…in ALL of our brains from time to time.
For example, think of the post war veteran who comes back from battle right? She hears the sound of a helicopter (innocuous stimuli) and goes into fight or flight. She may feel like she’s under attack and actually “hit the deck” to avoid being shot at or bombed even though she’s in the Von’s parking lot. She may feel crazy afterward but it’s just a sign that an undigested memory has gotten triggered. She’s NOT crazy. This is a normal response to an undigested memory!
Now different memories have different trigger responses. Most of us have not been bombed, so our trigger response is not going to look like hitting the deck. For us it may look like an unexpected emotional response seemingly out of nowhere.
For example “getting triggered” can look like feeling really tearful after our partners ignore us or don’t do what we’ve asked them to do. For others of us it might be getting really angry when one of our kids leaves their socks on the floor AGAIN, or getting really anxious when one of our kids is bullied or feeling completely worthless when our boss yells at us. You get the idea.
For me it looked like an empty soda can on the counter and that set me off on a tirade! Not even kidding! The underlying undigested memory had to do with a time in my life when my oldest was an infant and I was living 1000 miles from any family and felt totally alone as my hubby at the time worked out of town from Monday – Thursday. Now we wouldn’t normally call that “trauma” right? But that post partum period has a lot of undigested memories that resurface here and there for a LOT of women.
Trauma resurfaces NOT as a memory but as body sensations and emotional reactions.
If I wasn’t a trauma therapist I would never even know where to look to find the underlying undigested memory.
But this is what I do with clients all day long. We take their current symptoms that they are struggling with and figure out what specific situations are causing the symptoms. Then we find the memory from their past that is getting activated and use this super weird and trippy process called EMDR to help “move the memory” from the emotional center back into the prefrontal cortex or adult brain. Then the symptoms usually improve very quickly.
As we like to say in therapist circles, it’s not the size of the event, it’s where the memory is stored. So even the most dramatic severe traumas can be “re-stored” or “re-filed” in the prefrontal cortex and allow you to live a more fulfilling enjoyable life!
Doesn’t that mess up everything you’ve ever thought trauma was? I mean how many times have you said “Well, that thing happened to me but other people have experienced way worse.” That’s probably universally true because of course people have experienced worse than us, we live in the first world and most of us don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, but that DOESN’T mean you don’t have trauma. Does this make sense now?
If it’s stored in the limbic system, it’s called TRAUMA.
And that, my friends, is what trauma really is!
Any questions about this? Was this useful information?
Would you like to know if you have undigested memories that are currently impacting your life? (It’s actually not IF, but HOW).
If you’re curious, I’d like to invite you to set up a free 20 min consult with me to dive deeper into how your trauma might be impacting you and what you could possibly do about it.
Believe it or not, ALL trauma is treatable. No matter what happened to you or when, there is always the possibility of healing from it and moving forward in creating a life that you love. In my next blog, I’ll explain what it actually means to heal trauma and the proven method I use to do it! (CLIFFHANGER OMG!! Can you even WAIT until next week?? LOL)
|Nancy Shah, Psy.D. – 125 North Acacia, Suite 111, Solana Beach, CA 92075, United States
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