NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reacting to Your Present Circumstances Based on Your Traumatic Past

All of us, without exception, are affected by our past experiences.

Sometimes, we're aware of how our past affects our perspective about the present.  But, often, we're not aware that we're reacting to the present based on our experiences of the past because these experiences remain unconscious.

Reacting to Your Present Life on Your Traumatic Past

When the effect of past experiences, whether they're conscious or unconscious, has a positive effect, this isn't usually a problem.

But when the effect of past experience is negative, there are bound to be problems.


Because we're seeing current situations, which might not really be negative, through the lens of our own past negative experiences.

Instead of responding to current situations by reflecting on their meaning in the present, we respond in a negative way because we're getting triggered by the past.

Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences of the Past

When this occurs, most people are unaware of it and confuse what happened in the past with what is happening now (see my article:  Working Through Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now" in Therapy).

This makes it difficult to reflect on the current circumstances.  And, most of the time, it also makes it difficult to engage in self reflection about what's going on internally on an emotional level.

In a future article, I'll give a composite scenario of how this often plays and how trauma therapy can help.

For now, here is a list of examples of how this can occur in situations:

Examples of Reacting to the Present Based on Traumatic Experiences of the Past:
  • Tom is walking down the street when he sees a woman approaching with her German shepherd on a leash.  Suddenly, Tom's heart begins to pound, he begins to perspire, and without even consciously realizing what he's doing, he is running as fast as he can down the street in the opposite direction to get away from the dog.  When he gets home and calls his older sister to tell her about what happened, she tells him that when he was two year's old, he was bitten by a German shepherd who broke loose from his leash.  Tom has no recollection of being bitten at two and so he can't understand why he would respond this way now.
Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences of the Past
  • Ray is veteran who served in Iraq and witnessed the atrocities of war.  When he walks down the street, he tends to be anxious and vigilant about what's going on around him.  Suddenly, a car backfires and, without thinking about it, Ray dives for cover.  He is trembling all over, afraid that he'll be hit by enemy fire.   Even after he realizes that he isn't in Iraq, he gets startled when a passerby tries to help him to get up.  He doesn't know that he has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military experiences.
  • Jane gets into a cab to go crosstown to visit a friend.  She tells the taxi driver where she wants to go and she sits back and relaxes as they head in the direction to her friend's apartment.  But as the taxi driver begins to chat with Jane, she has a visceral reaction.  She's shaking and has an urge to jump out of the cab in the middle of the highway, but she doesn't know why.  She feels confused and she can't think straight.  All she knows is that she needs to get out of the car immediately, so she tells the driver to pull over and let her out.  Then, she gets out of the taxi as quickly as possible.  Later on that day, when she arrives at her friend's apartment by subway, she sobs as she tells her friend she doesn't know what happened.  As her friend listens to the story, she makes the connection that Jane didn't remember at that moment:  Jane was raped on a dark street when she was a teenager, but she never saw the man.  But her friend pieces things together and she realizes, based on what Jane told her, that the taxi driver had a similar accent to the man who raped Jane.  This was enough for Jane to have a trauma response.
There are many similar examples where a current situation triggers a trauma situation from the past.

Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences of the Past

Whether the trigger is known or unknown, the person can have a visceral emotional and physical reaction to the current situation.

It often makes no sense in the present because there's nothing going on in the current situation that would warrant these traumatic reactions.

Even for people who can make the connection between the past and the present, they often don't understand why something from the past should have such a big negative impact on them in the present because they don't understand what it means to get emotionally triggered by the past--whether the past is as an infant or the past was last week.

See my Part 2 of this article: Reacting to the Present Based on the Past - Part 2.

Getting Help in Therapy
There are times when regular talk therapy isn't effective in helping traumatized clients to work through their history of trauma (see my article:  When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

If you suspect that you're having a traumatic response where you're getting emotionally and physically triggered by the past, you can get help in therapy from a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in trauma therapy, like EMDRSomatic Experiencing or clinical hypnosis.

Working through your trauma can help to free you from your history so that you can live in the present and no longer have responses based on your past.

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 (917) 742-2624 or email me.