Psychological Trauma and the Recovery Process
The human brain, though a mighty organ, uses shortcuts. It does so out of necessity, and you can generally assume that at any one time, the brain is trying to use as little energy as possible. One way it preserves energy is by limiting its sensory input (what your senses take in) and therefore streamlining its depiction of the world “out there.”
For instance, try to remember back when you were very young, and learning for the first time what a “carrot” was — if you examine it at all, you’ll find it is a terribly complex process. If you had never seen one before, your brain would first have to a) take in as much sensory data about it as possible, and b) analyze the data and then form a hazy conception of what a carrot is. The next time you “experienced” a carrot, your brain would go through the same process, but this time it could compare this experience with the last experience. In time, if you ate enough carrots, your brain would not have to approach the carrot as a novel and alien thing, but would instead be able to instantly recognize the carrot as a concept. Think about how your brain does this with the rest of the world. Our brains, to save energy, experience the world through a highly efficient though stunningly incomplete model. Trauma occurs when the model breaks down.
If you’re experiencing psychological trauma, it is important to understand how your brain works, because that is an avenue to treat it, with professional help. It’s easy for others to say trauma is just in the mind, but trauma exists in the mind in full vivid detail, haunting the victim. Trauma is caused by an experience that your brain — for good reason — is not equipped to deal with. It is caused by a novel and usually troubling situation, in many instances by an unexpected reversal of something familiar (such as a beloved husband suddenly abusing his wife.) Remember how the brain works. So when you experience a situation that it has never seen before, a huge amount of neurons fire, and they examine every sensory detail with a microscope. Now if you’ve experienced something absolutely horrendous and novel, your brain remembers every detail, and relives it over and over again, trying to incorporate it into its larger personality.
The individual personality, however, is made up a multitude of selves. There is no single self. Think about this for a second, consider your friendships and relationships. You may be jocular with one friend, humble with another, sexy with one, tender with another. There is the self who compulsively sneaks chocolate cake at midnight, another who reaches for a cigarette despite your desire to quit. A good deal of our selves are more less conscious; these are the ones who can conceptualize in language. But there are still more that are unconscious — who do not have language to express themselves or reason with — the ones who undermine us. When you experience trauma, your
brain creates a “traumatic self,” and to deal with the trauma, it tries to contain the damage in one facet of its psyche. It throws up a wall around the “traumatic self.” The problem is that this “traumatic self,” is unconscious and irrational, and can be triggered into action through subconscious cues such as smell, body position, gestures, dreams, colors etc. And when it is summoned, it can relive the trauma in perfect detail without the help of your more conscious mind to calm it. It can also appear as a panic attack or a terrifying nightmare. It cannot be reached or reasoned with, and it can cause the victim to behave atypically. For the family member of the victim, it is not enough to pat her on the shoulder and say, “it’s all in your head,” or
to try to talk it away. If you are a victim, it is not your fault. You are not being difficult, or hyper-sensitive or irrational. You may also feel numb or detached. This is normal. Your brain is doing the best it can to cope.
But there is help and highly effective treatments. If you have just experienced a traumatic event, the best course of action is to speak as soon as you can with a psychologist or trauma specialist. There you will revisit the event through language in a psychologically safe atmosphere. In this way, your brain can incorporate those events intellectually, and reason with them. Sometimes trauma can take years to manifest itself. Whatever the case, the best course of action is to seek psychological treatment, and re-live and recall the events in a safe setting. In this way, you and your therapist will incorporate those traumatic experiences into your conscious selves, and make the mind whole. Many victims also turn to drugs and alcohol to dull the effects of the trauma. In such cases, the victims will have to also undergo treatment for their substance dependencies before real psychological healing can occur.
Some psychologists may want to pursue hypnosis to summon repressed memories. This course is to be avoided in favor of more successful therapies.
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