Don’t be alarmed, you’re likely having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Many people have difficulty getting past certain events that have happened to them and find it challenging to “get over” persistent negative feelings that inhibit their ability to enjoy the present moment and feel happy.
This is likely because they have suffered some kind of trauma. Most people think of trauma as a major life event in which we experienced serious injury to our body or in which our life was threatened. This might include events such as a car accident, combat, kidnapping, rape, physical attack, sexual abuse or natural disasters. Indeed these events are so stressful they would be upsetting to nearly everyone and would likely involve a reaction of fear, helplessness or terror. These events are what we as therapists refer to as big “T” traumas. Most people who experience these events develop what’s known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
However, there is another category of events that qualifies as trauma, which we refer to as small ‘t’ trauma. Small “t” traumas occur in childhood, often in the home but can also take place in school and on the playground. These are upsetting moments in which a child is helpless to defend or stand up for himself. These include instances in which a caregiver, teacher or friend is very critical, rageful, mean, drunk, unpredictable, mentally ill, violent, emotionally absent or verbally abusive. All of these are events in which a child could potentially feel fear, helplessness, powerlessness, out of control and confusion.
These early life experiences occur in the context of a child’s developing brain and has a pervasive effect on the way the brain develops and gets wired. In these early life interactions we internalize our caregiver’s responses and subsequently as adults, we come to expect these responses from others. Hence these early patterns of attachment and traumatic events affect the way we process information about our surroundings and can create in adults a sense of insecurity in the world and with people.
If early life interactions were frightening or unsafe then the brain of the adult will continue to behave and react to the world as if they were “under siege” much like the experience they had as a child.
I can’t get over it
This isn’t just about memory, it’s about the way our brain developed, got shaped, got wired. Studies have consistently shown that trauma has its most pervasive impact when it happened during the first decade of life.
So, no wonder you feel at times you ‘I can’t get over it’. Because your brain is consistently behaving as if your environment is still unsafe. Your body will likely be in a constant state of hypervigilance, as if the fight or flight switch never got turned off. Whether it is big ‘T’ or small ‘t’ trauma, often it is necessary to seek the help of professionals who use specific strategies to heal trauma such as E.M.D.R., to help re-wire the brain.
When trauma happens in our past it will affect our present in 3 significant ways: First, it will affect our ability to focus and concentrate, because we feel constantly hijacked by the feelings that get triggered by unresolved events from the past.
Secondly, it will interfere with our ability to regulate our emotions. The emotions in people with past trauma are often too large, too extreme and too persistent. For example, while most of us may feel frustrated or hurt when someone takes our parking spot, is late for an appointment we are likely to let it go after a short while. Traumatized people however, can’t let things go so easily. They tend to have more intense reactions and take more time to regain a sense of calmness. They may fly off the handle if their partner is late, threaten or swear at the one who took their parking spot or give their partner the silent treatment for a whole week because they didn’t want to have sex. A traumatized person’s reactions to simple events are often disproportionate to the ‘crime’. This is because past trauma leaves a legacy of hurt, humiliation, fear, rage, bitterness, shame and guilt. Tragically, most people with trauma, have learned to soothe themselves through self-destructive means like alcohol, drugs, food or other addictions. These help to minimize perceived external threats and to regulate emotional distress.
Finally, the third area that trauma affects us is in relationships. Traumatized people tend to have a basic perception that they are helpless and that people will hurt them somewhere along the way. They may be afraid to stand up for themselves lest something terrible happens. So they always feel the need to protect themselves from others, which can manifest as arrogance, aggressiveness, stubbornness or being distant, disengaged and unable to rely on others.
In spite of all this however, many people with trauma manage to lead highly rewarding and fulfilling lives and have stable relationships, while others don’t. So what is the secret to getting beyond these early life experiences and not letting the past dictate the future?
In working with people with trauma over the last 25 years, I have been fascinated by this question. In my own personal and professional analysis, I have identified 3 elements, which in my own opinion differentiates those that stay stuck from those that thrive and rise above their trauma.
First, people that thrive recognize and acknowledge within themselves the negative and harmful effects of their negative feelings of hurt, fear, anger, bitterness and unforgiveness.
Secondly, they no longer wish to hold the past or anyone else accountable for these feelings. They have a genuine and sincere desire to be free from these toxic feelings and instead want to be able to cultivate feelings of love, compassion and kindness towards themselves and others. They want this as much or more than anything else in their life.
And thirdly, they are not willing to just hope or wait for something to transform them. To this end they have daily practices and rituals in place to help them nurture their internal capacities to feel safe, calm and activate their deeper potential for love.
I can’t get over it
Regardless of what has happened to us in the past, it’s the present and the future that counts.
I assure you that everyone on this planet has suffered some tragedy, loss, humiliation, abuse or anguish of some kind or another. Not one person is exempt because it is the condition of our incarnation. This means that we were born in order to learn to overcome the challenges we encounter in our life. No matter what our tragedy the solution is the same for all. We must learn the lessons of love and forgiveness through it all. Learning to love ourselves, to love others and to love God.
But to make this happen we truly must want this for ourselves as much if not more than anything else, including fame and fortune. As an individual I must recognize and wholeheartedly accept that the only thing there is to change is myself. Nothing and no one else – only me.
This commitment is well summarized in the words of a nun’s prayer: “God, change no circumstances of my life, change me”.
Claire Maisonneuve, MA., Registered Clinical Counsellor
Director of the Alpine Counselling Clinic