How to Process Past Trauma to Enjoy the Present

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During a chat with another marriage and family therapist last week, I was reminded how important it is to address the past emotionally in order to make changes today. For example, a new client came into my office recently. “I’m so angry at my ex-husband for having an affair,” she said. “That’s painful,” I replied. “When did that happen?” Much to my amazement, she said, “Fifteen years ago.”

Whoa! What a perfect example of how holding on to past emotionally-laden events colors our present experience. There are studies that show that talking about traumatic events can ease the emotional pain. Recently there was a research study conducted at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Elizabeth Broadbent and her team studied healthy senior citizens by having half of them write for 20 minutes a day about the most traumatic event they had ever experienced and the other half wrote for the same amount of time about their next day’s plans.

The researchers then took small biopsies that left wounds on all of the subjects. Eleven days afterwards 76% of those who wrote about a trauma had fully healed, where as only 42% of the other group had.

Some other studies have found that PTSD patients benefitted from writing but still others found no difference in terms of reducing their symptoms. And there is some research that shows that pushing people to explore traumatic events when they are not used to expressing feelings can actually increase PTSD symptoms.

I thought you might be interested in Attitude Reconstruction’s take about how to truly resolve past stuff that you know is in your way today. A lot of time I work with clients about what’s not working right now in their lives. But sometimes it’s clear there are underlying events that need to be processed. I know with certainty if we return to the emotional component of an event and face what we didn’t or couldn’t at the time, it loosens its grip and then we can more easily make changes today.

You can dismantle an emotionally charged event by yourself, with someone you trust, or in a group where constructively expressing emotions physically is truly okay. With a particularly traumatic event, it is advisable to have the assistance of a trained, licensed health-care professional who has been down the path many times before. She or he can lend a hand and provide a nurturing space for your exploration.

When you are ready to roll up your sleeves, choose a safe time and place to tell your story (you can either speak it out loud or write it down). Allow your mind to do a little investigating. Focus on what you suspect are benchmark events, or identify when you first remember acting out in unhealthy ways, such as eating, smoking, being nervous, or bullying a neighbor. Describe what happened.

For example, say you have a fear of abandonment that manifests as being clingy with your friends, desperate that they might exclude you from their gatherings. Get a sense of what was going on when you first felt needy. Maybe it was when your younger brother was born or when you had to change schools midyear.

Describe what you remember. Then, recount that specific event several more times, adding more details with each repetition, until you start feeling the emotions that you suppressed at the time. Keep talking or writing until you hit the pain and keep your attention there. Suppressed emotions will explode on the surface, allowing you freedom to do what you didn’t do then: constructively express your sadness, anger, and fear physically without indulging your destructive thinking. This is the key to unlocking traumatic events – constructively and physically express what you didn’t or couldn’t at the time.

When you feel complete, move on to another incident and describe it in detail, emoting as you go. Sometimes this can take several repetitions, as often what happened felt quite traumatic. If calm remains elusive, there’s something about that the situation you’re not fully accepting. Expressing anger often opens up the emotional floodgates so your perspective shifts and you feel relatively neutral when you talk about the situation. Accepting what happened doesn’t let other people off the hook; they’re still responsible for their actions. But acceptance brings new insight about what you need to do today.

Forgiveness is also necessary if you’ve cried buckets and still feel hurt. Tell yourself people did the best they could at the time, given their own circumstances, limitations, and histories. Letting go doesn’t mean saying you’re over it. It means you no longer ruminate about what happened or cringe when you hear someone speak your ex’s name. Forgiving allows you to think about a situation, and come from a place of authentic neutrality, with a strong sense of compassion (for yourself and them) in your heart.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean you have to be best friends, but you do need to view them in a genuinely compassionate light. Over and over repeat phases that contradict your old thinking about the situation and allow yourself to express any emotions that surface:

• Mom learned to lie to cope when she was growing up.

• Mom couldn’t handle raising a family by herself.

• People and things were the way they were.

• We all did the best we could at the time.

• I forgive you.

The gift of forgiveness must also be given to yourself. It’s fairly common to believe you were somehow to blame for traumatic events in your childhood. The reality is that you were little and did the best you could at the time. Stop beating yourself up or clinging to regrets. Identify your destructive mental chatter and find contradictions that are true, such as:

• If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.

• That little girl sure was in pain.

• It was a difficult time.

• I did the best I could in order to survive.

• My job is to take care of myself now.

• I’m doing fine.

When you’ve dealt with your emotions and straightened up your thinking, you will be able to consult your intuition and determine what needs to be said and done to feel resolved. Sometimes, feeling complete is entirely an internal process. Other times, speaking up and taking action is imperative. If action is required and you follow through, the future opens its doors, and the present welcomes you with open arms.

Give this strategy a try and let me know the result.

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