Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP
Trauma survivors live with a difficult phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as “trauma time.” Trauma time is a phenomenon that has grabbed and deceived almost every survivor of trauma at one point or another. Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. explains that traumatic memories are stored differently than everyday memories. They remain in an unprocessed form, encapsulated in a separate neural network along with emotions, sensations, images, and perceptions that were present at the time of the trauma.
This is actually a good thing in the big picture of survival, as the unprocessed memories keep the brain on “high alert,” ready to self-protect in the face of danger. “Mother nature” assumes that if we have experienced a traumatic event, we may be living in an unsafe environment. To survive in such a world, we must remain vigilant and reactive to suspicious sounds, smells, facial expressions, and actions. We can’t allow ourselves to be fooled by the passage of time, as the danger might be just waiting for us to let down our guard. Never mind that the original source of trauma is vanished. Never mind that we are older, wiser, or beyond its reach. These concepts mean nothing to the more primitive regions of the brain.
“Forever vigilant” is the motto of the survival brain. Quality of life is of no concern to this part of the brain. After all, what is quality of life if there is no life?
One, two, ten, twenty, or forty years after a trauma, a sound, a smell, or a sight may activate the unprocessed memory, either consciously or subconsciously. An immediate surge of stress hormones may flood the brain. The cortisol and adrenalin speed up the heart and breath and move blood into the limbs, making the body ready to fight or run. We may find ourselves arguing or hiding for no apparent reason. Under extreme duress, we may lose sight of the present and forget the passage of time. It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to feel suddenly much younger, to experience flashes of images from the past, or to mistake memories of sounds as if they are present and real.
There is hope. To be effective, therapy must help trauma survivors strengthen their connection to the present and develop skills for staying centered, self-aware, and tolerant of strong emotions. After building skills, it becomes possible to safely address the “stuck” memories and integrate those memories with helpful information, a present-day orientation, and a present-day perspective on what happened. A trusted therapeutic relationship can provide needed safety and security for addressing the past.
Therapeutic approaches that reach into the emotional region of the brain help integrate the present-day perspective with memories of the past, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Eye movements are just part of the 8-phase protocol that activates processing centers in the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Art, music, poetry and other creative methods for expressing feelings also help reach into the emotional brain for integration and resolution.