When you’ve survived an extremely upsetting event, it can be painful to revisit the memory, but telling your trauma story may have healing effects and it may loosen its grip
Many of us would prefer not to talk about it, whether it was a car accident, fire, assault, medical emergency, or something else.
However, our trauma memories can continue to haunt us, even — or especially — if we try to avoid them.
The more we push away the memory, the more the thoughts tend to intrude on our minds, as many research studies have shown.
If and how we decide to share our trauma memories is a very personal choice, and we have to choose carefully those we entrust with this part of ourselves.
When we do choose to tell our story to someone we trust, the following benefits may await. (Please note that additional considerations are often necessary for those with severe and prolonged experiences of trauma or abuse, as noted below.)
1. Feelings of shame subside.
Keeping trauma a secret can reinforce the feeling that there’s something shameful about what happened — or even about oneself on a more fundamental level. We might believe that others will think less of us if we tell them about our traumatic experience.
When we tell our story and find support instead of shame or criticism, we discover we have nothing to hide.
You might even notice a shift in your posture over time — that thinking about or describing your trauma no longer makes you feel like cowering physically and emotionally. Instead, you can hold your head high, both literally and figuratively.
2. Unhelpful beliefs about the event are corrected.
Many people experience shifts in their beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world following a traumatic event. For example, a person might think they’re weak because of what happened, or that other people can never be trusted. When we keep the story inside, we tend to focus on the parts that are most frightening or that make us feel self-critical.
I’ve often been struck during my work with trauma survivors by the power of simply telling one’s story to shift these unhelpful beliefs. These shifts typically don’t require heavy lifting by the therapist to help the trauma survivor recognize the distorted beliefs. Instead, there’s something about opening the book of one’s trauma memory and reading it aloud, “from cover to cover,” that exposes false beliefs.
For example, a person who was assaulted might believe they were targeted, because they look like easy prey; through recounting what actually happened, they may come to see that it was due to situational factors (“wrong place, wrong time”), rather than something personal and enduring about themselves.
Telling the trauma story to a supportive therapist is one of the key components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I recently explored the latest findings on PTSD treatment research with psychologist Dr. Mark Powers, Director of Trauma Research at Baylor Scott and White Health.
As we discussed, effective CBT typically doesn’t require an intensive examination of the survivor’s beliefs and evidence for those beliefs, as is often done in CBT for other conditions. Instead, insights about the truth of what happened emerge just through talking about what happened and what it means.
3. The memory becomes less triggering.
Revisiting a trauma memory can be very upsetting, triggering strong emotional and physical reactions and even flashbacks to the event. Those reactions can stay in place for years if we have unprocessed trauma memories, especially when we’re trying to avoid thinking about the trauma.
Through retelling the story of what happened, we find that our distress about it goes down. The first time, it’s likely to be very upsetting, even overwhelming, and we might think we’ll never be able to tolerate the memory. With repeated retelling to people who love and care about us, though, we find the opposite — that the memory no longer grips us. As Dr. Powers noted, we find that the memory no longer controls us. It will never be a pleasant memory, of course, but it won’t have the same raw intensity that it once had.
4. You find a sense of mastery.
As we talk about our trauma, we find that we’re not broken. In fact, as Dr. Powers pointed out, we can come to see that our reactions to trauma actually make sense. For example, it’s understandable that our nervous systems are on high alert, since they’re working to protect us from similar danger in the future.