Our brains are information processing machines
and their job is to “process” these memories; they get a time code, so we know they’re in the past, and we learn from what happened so we can stay safe in the future. To do this our brain will bring the raw data
(smells, sounds, images) into our awareness during the day and while we’re asleep.
This isn’t very pleasant because until the processing is complete, the memories are vivid and it can feel like we’re right back in the frightening experience. But if we can allow the memories to come and go, then our brain will do its work and they’ll get filed away
. They’ll always be more vivid than non-trauma memories, but they won’t pop up unless we choose to think about them.
While this processing is happening, our minds are trying to make sense of it all. We’re a species of big thinkers, so we need to learn what the experience says about us, other people, and the world
. How well we do this depends on our thoughts and feelings before, during and after the traumatic event.
That’s why expectation, preparation and training are your Protective Armour
. If the experience was something you predicted and rehearsed, and you think you did your best during, then the processing and sense making is likely to be quite straightforward. However, even then it’s not unusual for you to ask questions like, “Did I do enough?
” “Why do things like this happen?
” “Could this happen to me or someone I love?
” and you may feel sad or worried in the days and weeks after a challenging job.
It’s hard to feel positive when we’re in danger and common for us to feel negative emotions like fear, horror, and helplessness during and immediately after a traumatic experience. These feelings
become part of the trauma memory along with all the sensory data and can make it harder to process
and understand the event.
- If we thought nothing bad would ever happen to us, then it can be hard to accept it did.
- If we thought that we could protect ourselves then we may feel like a failure
- We may blame ourselves for not being able to prevent it
- Now that this has happened, we may worry that it will happen again, and conclude that we’ll never be safe
As our brain processes the trauma memories, it revisits the feelings and thoughts we have about the experience. If we have the support of others, can think flexibly and are kind to ourselves then we have a good chance of making our peace with what happened. We may even experience something called post-traumatic growth when we have a greater appreciation of what matters to us and confidence in our own resilience.
Processing and understanding is more difficult if we don’t have good support (or worse, are blamed) or if we have fixed ideas about who we are, either positive or negative.
For example, if we had low self-esteem before the traumatic event then we may believe it confirms our weakness or lack of worth. And if we’ve experienced earlier traumas, we may be convinced that other people and the world are dangerous. On the other hand, if we felt invincible before the trauma, or have super high expectations of ourselves, then we may misinterpret our reactions as a sign of weakness or failure. The kind of social support we have plays a huge part in this.
We need to trust our brains and let them do their work by:
- focusing on our present safety
- tolerating and accepting our emotional responses
- allowing remembering and processing
- recognizing that our thoughts about us, others and the world may have changed