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Monday, July 10, 2017

Understanding Why You're Affected by Trauma From a Long Time Ago

I've written many prior articles about fear and trauma, including Trauma: How Childhood Feelings of Being Powerless Can Get Triggered in AdultsOvercoming the Traumatic Effects of Childhood Trauma, Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective, and Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds.  The question that often comes up for many psychotherapy clients when they start therapy is, "The trauma happened a long time ago, so why am I still affected by this?"  This is often asked with a lot of critical self judgment followed by a statement to the effect of, "I should be over this already."

Understanding Why You're Affected By Trauma That Occurred a Long Time Ago 

When clients come to me for trauma therapy, I provide them with psychoeducation about trauma and why they're still affected by events that occurred, in some cases, more than 50 or 60 years ago.

Whether the trauma involves a one-time event, like shock trauma or a recurring trauma from the past, it's normal to be affected by it many years later because the trauma hasn't been worked through.

Understanding the impact of trauma can be complicated.  Suffice it to say that trauma remains unmetabolized in the mind and might lie dormant for a long time.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, the trauma can get triggered by something that happens in the present, and it can feel like what happened in the past is happening now--even though it's not.

This can be very confusing for someone who is getting emotionally triggered, so this is why it's so important for trauma therapists to provide clients with psychoeducation about trauma.

A fictionalized vignette
The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how trauma that occurred in the past can get triggered in the present:

Rena
Rena, who was in her mid-60s, began dating Larry after they met at a local community meeting in their neighborhood (see my article: Dating Again in Your 40s, 50s, 60s and Beyond).

Understanding Why You're Affected by Trauma That Occurred a Long Time Ago

Initially, they had a wonderful time together.  They both liked to work out at the gym and go on hikes, and they enjoyed outdoor activities together.

But one day, while they were driving to a camping site, Larry got angry with another motorist who cut him off and began yelling at the driver in the other car.

Since Rena had never seen Larry get angry before, she was shocked at his loud, booming response.

Suddenly, she felt confused and afraid.  She began to tremble uncontrollably and, at first, she couldn't speak.  She felt as if she didn't know where she was.  But when she found her voice, she stammered that she wanted Larry to take her home.

By then, Larry had calmed down and he apologized to Rena for losing his temper, but she felt so ill at ease that all she could say was that she wanted him to take her home, and even this was an effort for her.

Reluctantly, Larry drove Rena home.  He apologized repeatedly and asked Rena what was wrong.  But Rena couldn't respond.  She heard his voice as if it was far away and all she could think was that she wanted to go home and hide under the covers.

She barely remembered opening the door to her apartment and telling Larry that he needed to leave her alone.  Then, she got undressed mechanically, got in bed and fell asleep.

When she woke up the next morning, she felt as if the experience she had the day before was a dream or as if she had been in a fog.  She couldn't figure out why she felt so "out of it" and couldn't remember a time when she felt this way before.

Larry had already left several text messages asking her to call him because he was concerned about her.  He wanted to know if she was alright, and he apologized again.

Rena had no desire to contact him, which she thought was odd.  But she didn't want him to worry, so she texted him that she was alright and she just needed some time to herself.

After a few days, when she got very little sleep and continued to feel uneasy, she went to see her medical doctor.  After her doctor ruled out any physical cause, he told her that she should consult with a psychotherapist.

Rena made an appointment to see a psychotherapist the following week.  In the meantime, she felt like she was just "going through the motions" in her life.  She felt oddly disconnected from people she cared about and things she used to love to do, and she wondered if she was losing her mind.

Several therapy sessions later, after hearing about her family history, Rena's therapist told her that she had been emotionally triggered by Larry's yelling.  The therapist explained that Rena's symptoms were a common trauma response to getting triggered (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences From the Past).

Understanding Why You're Affected by Trauma That Occurred a Long Time Ago

After doing the necessary therapeutic preparation, Rena's psychotherapist used a technique that is used in clinical hypnosis and EMDR Therapy to help Rena to go back to the earliest time when she had a similar reaction in her life (see my article: Overcoming Trauma With EMDR Therapy: When the Past is in the Present).

Rena suddenly remembered how frightened she was as a young child whenever her father lost his temper.

Her father was a big man, who frequently lost his temper and would hit Rena's mother, Rena and Rena's younger brother whenever the father got angry.  He had a loud, booming voice, which was similar in tone and volume to Larry's voice when he lost his temper.  This frightened her.

Afterwards, when Rena and her therapist discussed what came up, Rena was surprised that something from so long ago could be still affecting her now.

Before she came to therapy, Rena hadn't thought about her childhood reactions to her father in a long time.  But now, she remembered hiding under the covers whenever her father was abusive.  Her childhood bed was her sanctuary, and she felt the same after the incident with Larry.

Rena's psychotherapist explained how this type of recurring trauma can lie dormant for a long time, but it was still a part of Rena and the trauma was susceptible to getting triggered now (see my article: Coping with Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers).

Rena's therapist helped her to separate what happened in the past from what was happening now (see my article: Working Through Emotional Trauma in Psychotherapy: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now."

Rena knew that Larry was not like her father.  Before the incident with the other motorist, she never saw him lose his temper or felt afraid of him before.  But since the incident, her feelings for him were conflated with her feelings for her angry father.

Rena knew, on an intellectual level, that she wasn't in any danger with Larry.  But, on an emotional level, she felt afraid.

Her therapist introduced her to EMDR Therapy (see my article: EMDR and the Brain).  She told Rena that there was no "quick fix" for getting over what happened in the past that was still affecting her now.

Gradually, over time, with EMDR Therapy, Rena began to appreciate how damaging her childhood experiences were, and she was able to work through the trauma related to her father.  She also "uncoupled" her experiences with her father from her experience with Larry.

Eventually, a year of so later, she resumed her relationship with Larry, who, from then on, was much more aware of how he came across.  A few months after they reconnected, they got engaged.

Understanding Why You're Affected by Trauma That Occurred a Long Time Ago
But when he did occasionally get a little angry, he was relieved to see that Rena didn't have a big reaction.  Rena was also relieved that she remained calm, she was able to see that Larry's anger wasn't abusive, and she was also able to react to the present rather than getting triggered by the past.

Conclusion
Traumatic memories can get triggered in the present--even when people don't have present explicit recall for those memories.

Trauma reactions can include emotional and physical reactions as well as sleep disturbance, and other common reactions to trauma.

For the sake of simplicity, the example which I gave in the vignette above is a relatively straightforward example.

But triggers aren't always so straightforward or as easy to link to the past.  Sometimes, the trauma that gets triggered can appear to be very different from the present circumstance.

Often, what links the present to the past can be memories that seem to be unrelated to the present.  The original trauma isn't always so easily detectable at first.  It might not even be a complete memory.  It can be a fragment of a memory--like a sound, smell, emotion or physical reaction.

People who come to therapy to work on unresolved trauma often feel guilty and ashamed of their reactions, as if it's their "fault" that they're experiencing these reactions.  So, an important component of trauma work is developing self compassion (see my article: Having Compassion For the Child That You Were).

Getting Help in Therapy
Most survivors of psychological trauma are resilient people.  They often have a lot of personal strengths.

Their resilience and personal strengths can make it all the more confusing as to why they're unable to overcome traumatic events on their own (see my article: The Benefits of Therapy).

People who suffer with traumatic reactions often feel ashamed of their reactions.  As a result, many people, who suffer with traumatic reactions never get the help that they need, which is unfortunate, especially now that there are effective forms of trauma therapy.

If you are struggling with psychological trauma, you're not alone.  Even though many people don't talk about their struggles with trauma, a significant percentage of the population are affected by psychological trauma.

Rather than suffering on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to work through the trauma so that you can lead a more fulfilling life (see my articles: How to Choose a Psychotherapist and How Talking to a Psychotherapist is Different From Talking to a Friend).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.
























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