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Past Trauma: 5 Reasons Why You Can’t Just Get Over It

It’s a regular Tuesday morning at the office and you’re grabbing some coffee from the breakroom. Your coworker walks in with freshly baked banana bread. You’re instantly reminded of your grandmother whom you adored. You’re flooded with happy memories of baking banana bread with her as a child and you just can’t help but smile. She was always so good to you. She may be gone, but you’re grateful for the time you had with her and the little trip down memory lane was a bright spot in your morning.

Later that day you’re driving home, and a song comes on the radio. Oh, how you remember that song! You’re transported to your junior prom and that moment in time when your date, the love of your young life, broke up with you. You were crushed! You can still feel the hot tears on your face as he walked away. The song ends but you’re left with that familiar flush of emotion.

We’ve all had those experiences, right? We encounter something that triggers a memory and for a moment we’re right there. We can’t help it. Our brain remembers.

Now imagine that instead of pleasant memories with grandma, or the painful but not life altering experience with the junior high jerk, you’re reminded of something traumatic. Instead of a trip down memory lane, you find yourself in a full-blown trauma response. “What’s wrong with me?” you might ask yourself. “That was ages ago. Why can’t I just get over it?” Why? Well, for the same reason you couldn’t help but think of Grandma or the jerk. It has to do with how we as humans are wired. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, a near death experience, or an experience where you believed you might die. If you’ve ever struggled with trauma, here are 5 reasons why you can’t “just get over it.”

Whether positive or negative, intense emotional experiences are recorded in our brain and stored in our bodies. They become a part of us. The more heightened and intense the emotions, the more likely we are to remember. Consider, for example, 9/11. We all remember where we were on that day. If you were a kiddo at that time, you probably remember how your teachers responded. You may remember watching the news at school or at home with your parents. If you were an adult, you remember how you learned of the attack and where you were at the time. You remember what you did immediately after you heard the news and where and when you first started seeing the footage. Intense emotional experiences flood the body and stay with us. That’s wonderful when it’s joy, we’re experiencing, but challenging when it’s fear, grief, or terror.

We have a “survival instinct,” and there’s no off switch. Because we are wired to survive, our brain needs to keep track of threats. That means that if you’ve experienced trauma, either on-going traumatic events like childhood abuse, or a single traumatic event like a car accident, there’s a part of your brain that’s going to stay on high alert so as to protect you from any potential future threats. That part of the brain is essentially saying, “Hey, I’ve got this. I’ll make sure you stay safe. I’ll be hypervigilant.” This is both good and bad. Obviously, it’s helpful when there is an actual threat. However, with trauma, the part of your brain that’s trying to keep you safe isn’t taking any chances and doesn’t take time to evaluate whether or not there is an actual threat, it just reacts. This brings us to the next two points.

Our fight, flight, freeze or fawn response, otherwise known as our autonomic nervous system, takes over. Remember, you’re hard wired to survive and you’ve got those earlier experiences of trauma stored away. When there is a perceived threat, your body automatically reacts as needed to keep you safe. You can’t help it. With fight or flight, your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to prepare you to either fight or run away. Your heart will start pumping, making your heart rate go up, your blood pressure increases, and you start to breathe faster. In situations when fighting or fleeing are not an option, your body will go into a freeze response in an effort to simply survive. Being powerless and unable to defend yourself is such an overwhelming experience your brain decides it’s actually best to shut down. Your heart rate will slow, you may feel frozen or unable to move, you may hold your breath or feel a sense of being trapped in your body. The freeze response is more about dissociating from the pain, checking out, and shutting down until the threat has passed. The fawn response may occur after fight, flight, or freeze. It’s an emotional response to ongoing abuse where you do whatever it takes to accommodate, adapt, and avoid danger.

Your brain goes off-line. Because we store traumatic experiences in our emotional brain, and because we are hard-wired to survive, and because our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses happen automatically, there is no time to think. The rational, logical, thinking part of our brain goes off-line when we’re triggered. In other words, if there is a threat, whether real or imagined, your instinct to survive kicks in and there’s just no time to consider whether or not you are actually in danger. Again, this is adaptive and normally serves us well. When it’s less adaptive is when the threat is over. This is what happens with trauma. Your brain and body respond and react automatically to keep you alive long after the threat is over. It’s why you can’t “just get over it.”  So…what’s the good news?

The good news is our brains are actually very capable of healing. With the proper kind of help and support, and appropriate trauma informed therapy, our brains can be re-wired. Through the magic of something called neuroplasticity, you can work through the trauma and help the emotional part of your brain learn new responses. You can develop coping skills that will help calm that automatic response and help you bring that rational part of your brain back on-line when you feel triggered. The more you practice this, the stronger those responses become–that’s the re-wiring part.  Overall, this is a pretty cool thing!

Healing from traumatic events is no small feat and can be frustrating. Friends and family just want you to be “okay,” and you yourself are exhausted and tired of feeling triggered all the time. That idea of just getting over it and moving on with your life is appealing to all. But thoughts like that don’t make the trauma go away, they just add to it. It’s important to practice compassion and remember that we are wired the way we are for a reason. No, you can’t “just get over it,” but with the right support, trauma-informed therapy, connection with others, and by working through those emotions, you absolutely can heal. To learn more, call (805) 842-1994.

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