“In my experience, there’s no such thing as a long time ago. There’s only memories that mean something and memories that don’t.”-This is Us
I know I’m not alone when I say that I am glued each week to the show: This is Us. While watching a recent episode, I saw Sylvester Stallone tell the character, Kevin, this statement while talking about the memories he has of his late father. There’s no such thing as it happened a long time ago. How true is that for those who have experienced a life-altering event that is traumatic in some way? So often we are told that we should get over an experience because it “happened a long time ago” and we “should be over it by now.” Well, I’m here to dispel that myth. No matter how much time is between ourselves and a significant adverse event, it simply not just a matter of “getting over it.”
When we experience a traumatic event, our brain kicks into auto drive and acts in a way that helps us survive. This often looks like fight, flight, or freeze. After the immediate threat of danger is over, some brains continue to operate at a heightened level of sensitivity; this is in an effort to be prepared and ready should survival be threatened, again. This is not due to any personal deficit or weakness. Our brains adapt and cope to keep us alive.
I went to a sexual assault summit earlier this year and heard a profound remark from Dr. David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and expert in the field of interpersonal violence. Lisak spoke about how posttraumatic stress is not a disordered brain, but rather a healthy brain doing what it is designed to do. What is “disordered” is the environment. Lisak used an example from the military. Once soldiers home from combat, they are often seen as “disordered” because they are no longer in threat. However, it was that level of hypervigilance kept them alive in a disordered environment.
I find this perspective so impactful because oftentimes those who have experienced trauma are treated as if they have a disorder or something wrong with them, when in actuality, that individual’s brain acted, as it was designed, to stay alive.
In the short run, our neural pathways for fear are a life-saver. However, our fear pathways were not designed to be continuously fired. In the long run, the activation of these pathways is neuro-toxic. The consequences of a brain on overdrive are seen in our physical and emotional health, behaviors, beliefs, and memory. We experience nightmares, flashbacks, social isolation, changes in mood, and negative core beliefs. We begin to operate in our world feeling physically and emotionally unsafe.
Trauma affects every facet of our being. But, the human brain is powerful and resilient. Remember what I said earlier about our brain adapting in an instant in order to help us survive? In the same way, our brain can also adapt and rewire to a new environment of safety and trust. There is hope. Hope that, with support, we can keep moving forward and heal.
Support can look different based on our individual needs. There are specific treatments seen to decrease the symptoms of posttraumatic stress and increase an individual’s wellbeing. Some of these trauma-focused interventions include, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) for children and adolescents. Both of these treatments have seen promising results through research and are offered here at Resolve.
There’s no such thing as it happened a long time ago. That memory will always be there. However, that memory is not the end of the story. We are strong, resilient, ad more powerful than we can imagine.
Sarah Kindscher, LPC