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Why unresolved trauma doesn’t just go awayOctober 17th, 2014 | by Pauline Carey | in | 0
Having experienced trauma in your life is, well, traumatic, but sometimes it feels like it just hangs around and you can’t shake it off – sometimes even years later.
People will often tell us, “don’t think about it, it just upsets you” – or “you have to let it go”. Worse still, they may say, “you’re just choosing to hang on to this”. No-one chooses to hang on to pain or hurt – it’s either there or it’s not.
What happens when a trauma occurs is that our minds automatically repress a certain amount of information about the trauma – after all, a trauma is by definition an event that is overwhelming, scary, and definitely not something we want to happen. So our minds try and protect us by pushing some of the information down into our unconscious so we are not burdened by it in the present.
We may also add to this memory repression by consciously trying to suppress the memories – “I just don’t want to think about this”. We may distract ourselves or keep extra busy so we can’t think about it. But the memories sneak back somehow. (BY the way, repression means the mind automatically pushes memories into our unconscious, whereas suppression is when we consciously try and forget something).
So this repression and suppression help us cope in the short term – we aren’t aware of all the details of the trauma – but it means that the traumatic memories are still there in our unconscious, and we have to use some of our energy to kind of drag them around with us.
There is a downside to this protective repression and suppression. When we don’t remember everything about the traumatic event, we can’t actually resolve it and fully integrate it into our overall life experience. We are also vulnerable to having the trauma suddenly come to mind – this usually happens when something similar happens in our lives. The new situation only needs to be similar to the trauma in one or two small, possibly unimportant ways for the trauma memories to suddenly come back. And whenever they do come back, we usually have to spend a whole lot of energy dealing with the pain and discomfort of them, and having to suppress them back into our unconscious yet again.
For example, if I suffered a sexual assault some years ago and found this to be a very traumatic experience, my mind would probably repress some of the details and I would suppress as much as I could. So I might not remember how I came to be in the place that it happened, and also not how I got away afterwards. I might have a jumbled memory of what happened during the assault too, and not remember that my attacker had light blue eyes. Later, I work for someone who has light blue eyes, and I can’t figure out why he makes me nervous. I just feel my boss isn’t trustworthy and I feel unsafe. I start having nightmares about the assault and don’t know why.
So in summary – unresolved or unprocessed trauma doesn’t go away, simply because we have not had the opportunity to fully face it in a supportive safe environment. So some or all details of the trauma get pushed down into our unconscious. This keeps them with us in present time, kind of lurking beneath the surface, and they come back unexpectedly at times and cause us further distress.
Next Blog – can we help ourselves resolve past traumatic experiences?