Since trauma is not only stored in our brain but also in our bodies, there are a number of situations or events in life that can bring up memories or a felt-body memory from past traumas.
The recent hearings revolving Kavanaugh have retriggered many people’s past traumas, regardless of where they stand politically. Anyway this case could have turned out, their traumas would have been triggered, because of how the hearings were conducted and what was said.
While for many, the hearings resurrected difficult memories, negative emotional states, and flare ups in health conditions due to a history of past traumatic situations of a sexual nature, it isn’t actually limited to the same type of trauma.
Because all trauma has similar characteristics, we can relate to anybody expressing with words or body language the pain that we have felt before.
It can be as simple as someone saying something. You may read something. Perhaps you see something, even like an animal hurt or run over. Your mood changes without you knowing why. Sometimes you may get weird dreams or find yourself thinking of memories you had buried a while ago.
How Do I Know What I Am Experiencing Is Old Trauma?
You know when something has touched your trauma place (the brain or body’s stored memory of trauma) when you feel powerful emotions that take you over. When your emotions become more powerful than your logic, you are in a trauma place!
Health conditions may come back telling you that your old traumas have been triggered. Chronic pain may come back from old injuries, skin conditions, asthma or other conditions involving the immune system may flare up. If you need more information about Trauma Bodies, you can find it here.
You may find yourself a day later physically tired, yet inside feeling powerful emotions! For some it will be anger, for others it may be crying without really knowing why.
For example, over a phone call, one of my clients just kind of blurted out in mid-conversation, “This Kavanaugh stuff really has me angry!”
This is typical of a trauma being triggered. It seems to come up and be so strong, you have to say something and get it off your chest as soon as possible! It can’t wait until the end of the current conversation, the emotion behind it feels so strongly.
While on the phone with her, I remembered years ago when she was only 12, she had been staying the night at a family friend’s house, when her friend’s father approached her in the middle of the night.
Thankfully nothing had happened and she had been able to stop it. However, that did not prevent the situation from becoming traumatic.
It was traumatic because of who the person was, she didn’t feel like she could tell anybody that it happened. She thought no one in her family would believe her. As a result they would see her a liar. And because she was a dependent then, she couldn’t run the risk of them getting angry and kicking her out. So, like many women, she stayed quiet. The first person she ever told was me, about 15 years after the event.
But a simple thing like watching the news had retriggered all of those memories, as well as the powerful anger and grief that comes with old traumas that have been buried deep for so long.
Let’s Work with the Traumas When They Come Up
Events like Kavanaugh’s hearing tend to bring people into an awareness of issues they thought had been long buried. Many people think because their trauma happened so long ago and is buried deep inside, it can no longer affect them! But that isn’t true.
For those who are already working on their trauma issues, their nervous systems tend to be more open and will, therefore, have a really strong response to an event such as the recent hearing. Since trauma disconnects your mind from your body, you’ll start to feel more intense emotions once you’ve started to do trauma work.
I’ve been working with one lady for several months now, initially helping her come out of chronic fatigue, and more recently on processing trauma and therapy. She has had weekly assignments, and has been making great progress as shown in her relationship with her husband. We have paced the work so that we don’t overwhelm her system, which tends to fall back into fatigue. She quilts and has been working on a sewing project for an upcoming family party, at which she has now had the energy to sustain.
All has been going well, and then this week came. From the beginning of our session, I could tell she was more disorganized in her thoughts. She was speaking faster, as one does when they have a lot to say and just need to get it out – no matter how it comes out!
Rather than talking about the optimal diet to further help her healing from trauma or her core beliefs like we were “supposed to” this week, the conversation took a very different turn straight from the beginning.
“This Kavanaugh hearing has really brought up a lot of old stuff for me,” she tells me. She goes on to say how it reminds her of a period of time in her life when she was drinking heavily and experienced date rape several times. Of course, they didn’t have that word back then, and even if she had told anybody, they would have said she was to blame because she had been drinking and was putting herself in those situations.
She was very open with me about the things she would do. It was a tough period in her life that lasted well over 10 years! She is honestly lucky to have made it out alive, especially with the situations in which she found herself in.
During our session, she said something remarkable that made it clear as to why this particular event in our current events had unsettled her and was at the forefront of her mind. It had made her feel so intensely, she had to share it with me at the beginning of our session. It changed the direction of our intended work for that particular session and possibly into the future.
“I always feel like I am condemned to be a Sisyphus,” she told me. Sisyphus is a Greek god who was punished and forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top. And this was to be repeated for eternity.
She continued, “I feel like in my work on my old traumas, I am pushing this rock up a mountain. Then I stop and rest or have something else that I need to focus on, and then only to find out the rock has rolled all the way to the bottom again. I feel like I am destined to never make progress and always have to go back down to roll the rock up again.”
Trauma Is a Burden on Our Mind and Body
Trauma can feel like a heavy burden! For many, carrying around old trauma will feel like pushing a rock up a mountain.
The difficult, and even unfair, thing about trauma is that since it’s stored in the brain and body as memories that don’t always have words, life can constantly feel like you’re only pushing a rock up a mountain with little to no progress. And often enough, you might not even realize that that big rock is caused from old trauma. Because of that it’s easy to feel that life is harder for us than it is for other people.
Trauma will stay stored and a burden until you work with it in the appropriate way to resolve them. Resolving trauma means letting the survival cycle complete. Unresolved trauma mean your system hasn’t had an opportunity to complete its activation cycle around being started or threatened. This causes an imbalance in the nervous system that is activated during a threat, stress, and trauma.
So, this is where I went with her. What we uncovered as a result is so profound that it brings tears to my eyes as I share this with you. This will be huge for her and will help her to resolve and complete the activation cycle; and will therefore, rid her of that heavy rock; she will not have to push it up that mountain any longer!
Completing Trauma Activation Cycle for Healing
We needed to complete the trauma activation around this period of her life when she was in danger and was constantly being threatened physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
We now have the knowledge and tools to do that!
This is where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or traditional talk therapy for trauma reaches its limitations. Those approaches are unable to access the deeper emotional and limbic parts of the brain.
Talking about “the story” will definitely activate the nervous system, but by just talking about it while trying to change our thoughts about it, we aren’t letting the nervous system process it.
There are two ways to work directly with the nervous system while allowing it to complete the activation around a trauma story, or in her case, a traumatic period in her life with lots of very similar stories.
Rather than doing each story by itself, we can lump them all together and address the period of her life as one story.
Which Trauma Therapies Work Directly with the Nervous System
We can use Somatic Experiencing trauma therapy approach or an art trauma therapy approach called Instinctual Trauma Response Model.
Neurofeedback and Biofeedback also work directly with the nervous system. However, in the case where you need to process a specific story and let the activation cycle complete, these are not good modalities. But they are great in other various areas to help heal the nervous system; I use them a lot.
I have used some Somatic Experiencing techniques with my client over the last month as our work has focused more on her emotional health since she is doing better with her physical health and energy problems.
In this situation, I chose to use the Instinctual Trauma Response Model with her. Here is a blog on the Instinctual Trauma Response Model as a trauma therapy.
The Instinctual Trauma Response Model is an organized way to tell a trauma story based on the brain and body’s response to the trauma.
No matter how long ago the trauma, this approach will work to allow completion of the cycle, because each cycle of the brain and body’s response to the trauma is captured.
The trauma response in this model is organized into 7 parts. The trauma response starts with a startle (realization of a potential threat) and ends with self-repair (soothing and caring for one’s self).
Because we didn’t have time in one session to do all 7 parts, I chose to do the beginning and the end of the story at that moment. We will follow up next week with the middle part of the story where all the actual trauma response resides.
When we go back and look at a point of old trauma and emotional pain, it’s important not to leave it open-ended. I knew I couldn’t start a trauma story and then finish it later. Her nervous system would be activated until we came back to the story and finished it!
By doing the beginning and the end of the story in one session, it allowed us to hold the story without her nervous system being on edge until we could come back.
In fact, because this was such a new, but old place that she was exploring, I wasn’t sure that her memories or thoughts would be organized enough to complete a drawing of both the end and the beginning!
Because of this, I had her start with the end. I am extremely careful when working with trauma, because I don’t want to activate it without being able to regulate, complete, or bring the nervous system back into resolution. I never want to leave somebody hanging in their trauma! This will definitely make them scared to the point where they’ll never look at another one of their old trauma point again!
I asked her to think of a moment towards the end of this period of her life that really captured her new direction in life. A moment that we could attach the meaning “I’m going to be ok” or “This period of my life is over.”
As is typical, it doesn’t come immediately. We talk about different memories and after about 10 minutes, she finds it!
“It’s when I broke up with my boyfriend! I had already quit drinking 2 weeks before that, but still had my boyfriend who drank a lot. That was really significant for me and really was the last piece to my old life. That was my turning point.”
Ah hah! We found it! It took some time, but we had had some fun and laughter in the process of sorting through memories, which is part of the process!
I had her write “The End” on a blank piece of paper and would come back to drawing that last page after we figured out where her story of this period of her life started.
As we explored when this period of her life started, it uncovered the big trauma that had resulted in this whole period of her life with all of its own traumas. It was the real pain that had become the rock she felt she was always pushing up a mountain.
Uncovering the Bigger Trauma
This is very normal in trauma work. There is a trauma that has come to the surface as a result of hearing, reading, or seeing something. As you go into that trauma, you find the deeper trauma that has been causing so much pain and suffering without you being consciously aware of it.
For my client, by her going back to the beginning of this period of her life when she was around 21 years old, we tried to find what picture came to mind of her right before or at the beginning of this time where she was drinking heavily and would obtain a number of traumatic experiences.
Similar to how we determined the end of her story, she shared a number of memories. It’s almost like looking through an old photo album! You pick up one memory, we look at it, maybe laugh or cry a little, and then put it down and look for the one that captures the beginning.
As we went down memory lane, she all of a sudden paused. Then she said, “I woke up in the hospital and that kind of started everything.” By her pause and how the look on her face changed, I knew we had touched on something significant.
“I haven’t told you about that yet, have I?” “No,” I said, “but go on.”
“Well, I got pregnant and wasn’t married.” I thought she was going to share that she had had an abortion, a major loss, which often causes trauma for those women who have had an abortion. But it was even worse than that.
“I was 4 months pregnant when I told my parents. I couldn’t tell my mom because I knew she would cry, so I told my dad. I had decided to have the baby and put it up for adoption.”
“That night at dinner, he drugged me. When I woke up, my parents told me they had arranged for an abortion. They had arranged for it to happen at a hospital 60 miles away. He got some other doctors to sign off on it – but it was so illegal what they did.”
“By the time they could arrange everything, I was 5 months pregnant.”
“They gave me no option, and the only person they allowed me to talk to if I was having any doubts was the psychiatrist at this hospital who was the grandfather of the baby. He was the third doctor who had already signed off on the abortion. He obviously was not a safe person to talk to and could tell that I wanted to have the baby.”
“Because I was so far along in the pregnancy, they had to do a C-section. I woke up in the hospital bed afterwards. My mother was sitting there in a chair, and she never said anything. For the rest of her life, she never even mentioned anything about this pregnancy.”
“I had no-one to talk to. About that time my sister had had surgery for an ovarian cyst, and my parents told her that I had had the same thing. We recovered together at home.”
“I lived with my parents for a few months until they moved and left me behind. I didn’t talk to them for a long time after that. I was so angry but back then, I don’t think I even knew I was angry.”
“It makes perfect sense,” I said, “why you numbed yourself with the alcohol. You had a lot you had to numb to keep going in life not being able to talk to anybody.” (Numbing is an indicator of hiding past trauma as is explained more in this video.)
She finally looked up at me and had a new energy to her. “You’re right!,” she said. “I never thought of that. I was not allowed to grieve and felt so alone. I felt so powerless with what had happened. I would not have been able to go on without either getting some of that out or numbing it.”
We had found our beginning to the period of her life of heavy drinking. Unfortunately, as is the case with many people, it was a period of her life when she accumulated many more traumas onto this big one that got buried down deep.
All of This Because of the Kavanaugh Hearings…
It doesn’t matter what the trauma. Yes, your trauma may have been sexual in nature. Just like my client shared in her own language this week, it’s more about the feeling of not having a voice, not having anyone to talk to, not having anyone there who did understand. Feeling alone and powerless.
Those are the qualities of trauma, and so anything that reminds us of those qualities, whether it’s something we see or hear, it will trigger those trauma memories in our brains and bodies of when we felt alone and powerless.
If the Kavanaugh hearings activated your nervous system and you’ve found yourself with flare ups in your physical health, know that this is normal. Stressing about it will distract you from the underlying trauma, though identifying the trauma is exactly what would be the most helpful for you in the long run.
Sometimes just looking at your old trauma can be so painful and bring up some powerful anger and grief. This is why many people never do and just try to keep the trauma buried.
Of course, we know you can’t bury trauma successfully, and you’ll have to rebury it over and over again as different life events or things you watch on T.V. bring it back up.
When your trauma memory is activated you’ll start to feel like life is hard and that all you’re doing is moving boulders up mountains only to have it fall back down. And when this happens you’ll have to do the work of burying that trauma memory all over again. You might even try to find more ways to numb your mind and body in order to keep yourself distracted from that buried trauma.
It’s really scary to look at old trauma. If this is happening for you, I really encourage you to find a therapist or a friend who can be there with you as you look at something that has been buried. If we are alone, it can be scary to deal with the intensity of the pain as we open up the old wound. Find someone you can confide in.
Also remember that trauma work is not just emotional work and therapy.
Your body needs to have the energy and internal resources to do this work without going back into overwhelm. Addressing your physical conditions, especially chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and immune conditions is an important piece of being able to do the trauma work.
If your nervous system is not in a healthy place or optimal place due to your physical health, diet, or lifestyle factors, your body will be unable to do the trauma work.
If you don’t have anybody to sit down with you so you can finally talk about a past trauma or period of your life that you’re ready to look at and resolve, I welcome you to consider working with me. If you think you may need to work on health conditions first, especially if they have been activated recently, we can start with that journey.
To Your Health and Healing After Trauma,