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.”
Accordingly, effective therapy for PTSD includes not only revisiting the trauma memory, but also exploring its possible meanings. The meaning doesn’t come “off the shelf,” of course, but can only be arrived at by each individual. According to Dr. Powers, “At best we can help guide them through that discovery process.”
It probably goes without saying that not everyone is the ideal person to share your trauma with. Some people may have a hard time hearing it based on their own trauma history. Others might respond with blame or criticism, or other non-validating responses. Choose carefully so that the person is likely to meet your story with understanding and compassion.
Timing is also important. It may take time before you’re at the point where you’re able to put the trauma into words. Be patient with yourself, recognizing that “not now” doesn’t have to mean “never.” Again, you get to decide when, where, and how you tell your story, which is a crucial part of owning the events of your life.
A Note About Complex PTSD
As noted above, the points raised here are based for the most part on work with discrete types of trauma — for example, a one-time car accident or violent assault.
Other considerations may be necessary for those experiencing more complex forms of PTSD, such as those with a history of severe childhood maltreatment. The National Center for PTSD provides additional information on complex PTSD.
The full conversation with Dr. Powers is available here: The Best Tested Ways to Treat Anxiety and Trauma.
- Abramowitz, J. S., Tolin, D. F., & Street, G. P. (2001). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression: A meta-analysis of controlled studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 683-703.
- Amir, N., Stafford, J., Freshman, M. S., & Foa, E. B. (1998). Relationship between trauma narratives and trauma pathology. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 385-392.
- Brewin, C. R., Gregory, J. D., Lipton, M., & Burgess, N. (2010). Intrusive images in psychological disorders: Characteristics, neural mechanisms, and treatment implications. Psychological Review, 117, 210-232.