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.
Many trauma survivors I’ve worked with described the strength they found as they faced their trauma and told their story. They said they felt like they could face anything, as they saw their fear lessen and found greater freedom in their lives. It takes courage to tell your story, and witnessing your own courage shows you that you’re not only strong, but also whole.
5. The trauma memory becomes more organized.
Trauma memories tends to be somewhat disorganized compared to other types of memories. They’re often stored in fragments, disconnected from a clear narrative and a broader context.
Existing research suggests that these differences are detectable in the brain, with unprocessed trauma memories showing less involvement of areas like the hippocampus that provide context to our experience.
Recounting the trauma begins to organize the memory into a story of what happened. We can see that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that it happened at a specific place and a specific time.
We can better understand the events that led up to it, and our own reactions at the time and in the aftermath. By putting a narrative frame around it, the memory can become more manageable and less threatening.
6. You begin to make sense of the trauma.
The biggest benefit from sharing our trauma stories may come from starting to make sense of a senseless event. “As humans we gravitate toward processing and trying to make sense of our experience.” Dr. Powers said, and that need is especially pronounced following a trauma. “That’s why treatment is often geared toward finding a sense of meaning.”
While PTSD treatment shares elements with the treatment of anxiety, such as phobias, Dr. Powers pointed out that it focuses more on meaning than does treatment for anxiety. “We don’t see the same type of drive to make sense of one’s fear in panic disorder or spider phobia.” he said. “The person doesn’t tend to say, ‘I really need to understand my fear of spiders. But that does seem to happen in PTSD, that our brains need to process what happened.”