Serious emotional trauma results in post-traumatic stress, perhaps even PTSD. You experience “flashbacks” where you are hijacked by the past. A scent, a sound, or a vivid reminder of your trauma triggers an instantaneous feeling that you are back there–even if you know rationally you are not. How do you deal with this?
The first step is “grounding” to help you stay in the present. When you are triggered, can you name five things you can see and five things you can hear? Can you feel anything, perhaps the chair you are sitting on or the temperature of the room? Can you smell anything? Really concentrate on your surroundings. If you have difficulty with this, try something more drastic such as sucking on a lemon or listening to loud music. Or you might carry a stone in your pocket, something hard and firm that can help pull you back to the present.
Another helpful practice is mindfulness meditation. Contrary to popular belief, it is not about relaxation, but rather its opposite: heightened awareness of the present. You learn to sit with with difficult feelings and thoughts as they arise and then dissipate by focusing intently on your breath or some outside stimulus such as a clock ticking.
In therapy, we deal with the toxic self-messages linking past trauma to present triggers. They probably happen so fast, you don’t notice them, but they are there. The scent of cologne might trigger a powerful memory of sexual abuse, for example. Immediately you replay the thoughts from your trauma, thoughts like: “I led him on. It was my fault.” And the thoughts lead to intense feelings of powerlessness, violation, and self-blame.
What are the thoughts you tell yourself when you are triggered? “I’m powerless”? “I’m to blame”? “I deserve this”? Thoughts like these may not only trigger you, they may also cause you to stay in an abusive relationship or be taken advantage of. How do you challenge them?
I might invite you to reflect on situations where those messages do not apply. I might suggest you come up with positive messages you know are true. I might question whether you would tell a friend in a similar situation that he or she deserves it. Are you horrified at the thought? – Then stop doing it to yourself. Find positive, healing messages to tell yourself instead.
Reminders of past trauma may always bring up painful memories. But if you can challenge the toxic messages associated with those memories, you can remember what happened without reliving it.
You can’t undo the past and “heal” the trauma you suffered. You cannot get back the life you once had. But out of its shattered remnants you can build something healthy, something wonderful, something beautiful.