Having a history of trauma leads to some predictable difficulties in life. This post is to help you understand some of the difficult emotions you may be experiencing.
There are certain emotions you experienced during your traumatic experience(s) that were incredibly intense and confusing. As a result, many trauma survivors try to avoid feeling emotion as much as possible. This is totally understandable.
However, avoiding emotion makes it hard to self-regulate. Ideally, emotions motivate us to take action that addresses the feeling, and then the feelings pass. For example, if we feel angry that someone crossed one of our boundaries, we are motivated to strengthen that boundary. When we ignore emotions, we don’t do what needs to be done and the feeling comes back. It’s said that emotions are like toddlers, if you ignore them, they get louder! The more we try not to feel them, the more we end up feeling them.
After avoiding emotions long enough, we lose ability to know what to do with emotion. Then it feels like pain for no good reason, which makes us want to avoid them all the more. When we avoid the emotion, we’re also not learning what to do with emotions, also leading us to avoid emotions at all cost. This experience is called anxiety!
During trauma, there is a decrease in the flow of oxygen to Broca’s area in the brain which is where we attach words to internal experience. This can lead to a sort of “speechless terror” where folks get stuck in emotion. The body then experiences emotion (or other triggers) as evidence that the trauma is still happening without a way out of it. Instead of understanding emotions and doing something goal-directed in order to deal with the emotion, trauma survivors may experience emotion only in the body. This makes folks prone to impulsive action, often destructive action, and often against their own body.
What can you do?
Connect with safe people.
- We were created to have safe attachment with others. Our emotions calm down when we’re with our safe people.
Begin feeling emotions a little at a time.
- Practice letting them come, and then distract yourself from the emotion after a few minutes. Notice how you can have some influence over your experience of the emotion.
Put words to body experiences.
- For instance, “My heart is racing and I feel like I can’t breathe.”
- Putting words to experiences helps to show our brains that the trauma is no longer happening, which can lessen the terror the body feels.
- Putting trauma into words helps get rid of flashbacks. Talking about the emotions and bodily sensations helps us make meaning of them and integrate them into the whole of our life experience. Until we make meaning (like solving a problem), our brain continues to work on the memory and bring it up. As we make meaning, we become more used to them and the brain doesn’t keep it at the forefront of our mind anymore.