One of the dilemmas, after any trauma, is how to handle reminders. Do you avoid anything that triggers your memory of past events; or do you expose yourself to potential triggers in the hope that, eventually, the fear will dull?
One of the reasons the decision is so difficult, is that our mind works in two different ways. Or, put another way, it has two main skills:
INHIBITION – When focused, the human mind is very good at inhibiting irrelevant triggers. This means that it may work to give yourself another focus, in the hope that your mind will simply screen out any original trauma. This is the basis of distraction.
ASSOCIATION – Over time, the human mind is pretty good at recontextualising triggers. This means that it may work to engineer re-exposure to your fear in a different context. This is some of the basis of grieving patterns, where, slowly, a person’s mind can learn to reframe a loss in a more positive light.
Distracting yourself perhaps works better in situations where there is simply no need to re-encounter similar people or events. Hence the coping strategy of those who have encountered war overseas, and then returned. Many find it easier not to talk about key traumatising events – they try to consign the events to history. Hence also, frequently, the coping strategy of those who suffered mistreatment at school. Rather than bring it all up again, many decide to leave the past where it is, and get on with the rest of their life.
One of the advantages of this approach is that it avoids the need to re-encounter, in depth, the original memory. The mental event, and its memories, are left rather isolated in the mind, and their associations with the present day are limited. But a key disadvantage is the role of the unconscious mind. Even an isolated event, with few associations, can play upon the present mind in the form of dreams or flashbacks. A frequent experience among those who use suppression and distraction, is the upsetting resilience of nightmares and random shocks, which can invade a peaceful life with chronic disturbance.
Alternatively, slowly learning to reframe the original event can have advantages. In particular, some things cannot be avoided. If you need to drive a car, then you cannot avoid cars, even if an accident has given you fears. Reframing the original event, and recontextualising it in the present, gives the mind a chance of re-exposing itself to similar events without breaking down.
This does require ‘leaning in’ to the original experience. If you are going to retell a story, with the intention of giving it a more hopeful context, then you are going to have to reacquaint yourself with the original facts and experiences.
The good news is that a story, in the retelling, subtly starts to change, as your present views and environment have their impact on the past. When giving counselling, I have often watched clients begin to subtly reframe their past in all sorts of ways. For them, ‘leaning in’ has had its benefits in facilitating new connections in their minds.
TYPES OF REFRAMING
How can events be reframed in a more positive light? Isn’t it just deceiving yourself? Well, no. You are a different person in every year of your life, with different perspectives and different associations. All you are doing, when reframing, is letting your mind update past data and experience with present wisdom.
There are several types of reframing. Here are a few that I have witnessed, and I hope they give you a few ideas.
REBALANCING OF BLAME – Many sufferers carry with them a felt sense of self-blame for past events, even if they could not possibly be to blame for them. Some do learn, through retelling of the past, to appreciate a different perspective. Responsibility can be shared more equitably and appropriately. This can lift a considerable proportion of the burden of self-blame many people carry with them, some without knowing it.
DEVELOPMENT OF A LANGUAGE – Many sufferers stay silent because they simply cannot find an appropriate language with which to share their past experience with those close to them. Normal social terminology seems wrong, and so they leave the memory isolated in their mind. Finding a common language, either with a therapist through empathic understanding, or with fellow sufferers through a specialised terminology, can help enormously in the quest not to feel so alone.
REBALANCING OF POWER – Even if the original event rendered the sufferer somewhat powerless, retelling gives an opportunity to find some forms of power in the present. It may be through helping other present sufferers from the same thing. It may be through a more official retelling, such as in a documentary or book, or even through art. But a benefit of ‘leaning in’ to the original experience can be ownership and control in a more active manner.
Everyone who has had a past trauma, faces the problem of whether to distract themselves in the present (‘leaning out’), or pay attention to the original experience and try to give it a context in the present (‘leaning in’).
No one can tell you which choice is wisest for you. There are arguments for both. Many heroic people prefer to just get on with life, and not to look back.
When the time is right for them, some do decide to ‘lean in’ to the original experience, even if it risks retraumatising them. Sensitively handled in safety, this kind of reacquainting, and retelling, can help to lift a burden of guilt, to give a language to an otherwise isolated experience, and give the reteller a sense of empowerment.
There is no right answer when it comes to personal experience. But I hope this discussion offers some ideas. It is born of my own experience and research. While I would never criticise anyone for walking their own path, it may pay to look at options in a balanced way. Hence, someone who has soldiered on heroically may choose their moment to consider telling their story. And, equally, someone who has told their story may choose their moment to begin, heroically, soldiering on.