Sarah Ogden reviews evidence that healthy relationships can help to reverse the negative changes that our brains make after a trauma.
Let’s face it: most of us have survived a trauma. Many of us have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. And others among us have experienced other traumas too—the kind we often forget can impact us: witnessing a car accident, undergoing a surgery, surviving a hurricane or another natural disaster.
When trauma is such a common occurrence, you’d think that we’d have a stronger infrastructure to talk about it. You’d think we’d have the tools to acknowledge that it’s real.
But we don’t. And we’re even more lost when it comes to learning how to heal from trauma.
One of the most damaging parts of the traumatic experience, even beyond the trauma itself, is the isolation that accompanies it.
The fear, the guilt, and the shame are incredibly isolating and have the potential to sever important relationships with loved ones.
The anxiety that exists after a trauma makes crowded spaces hostile—bars, clubs, crowded apartment parties all become more anxiety inducing than fun.
For a trauma survivor, it is often easier to be alone than to be with others.
It’s almost inevitable—after experiencing a traumatic event, our brains rewire themselves to be ready for an attack. There is a physiological, biological shift in our bodies that begs us to be ready for danger at all times.
Understanding that our bodies remain on high alert after a trauma, the post-traumatic experience looks exactly the way we’d expect: agitation and irritability, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, nightmares, uncontrollable flashbacks to the event.
To speak more scientifically about these experiences:
- The prefrontal lobe changes, impacting our capacity for language. If you find yourself having extra difficulty finding the words to describe your trauma, this may be why.
- Have you felt overly emotional? Have your emotional responses surprised you, or seemed out of character? The amygdala steps into overdrive, making it virtually impossible for us to regulate our emotions.
- Have you been misplacing your keys or forgetting appointments? Sometimes we experience shifts in memory, likely due to the actual shrinking of the hippocampus.
- Have you felt more jumpy than usual? Are you more easily startled? The medial prefrontal cortex, which controls our responses to fear, changes also.
It happens to our brains and our bodies, and we can’t stop it from happening. But we can work to correct it.
Surviving a trauma calls us to find a new path for life. Most of us don’t want to lead our lives in fear and mistrust. So what’s the alternative? Love.
The decision to trust someone, to tell someone our story, to share part of our own truth, comes from a place of love. When we do this, we open ourselves to receive love. This reciprocal experience is corrective, both emotionally and physically.
Any therapist will tell you that the simple act of relating to another human is curative. There is incredible power in the decision to trust another person, and there is no better way to overcome internal struggles than to use our voices to name those struggles.
Unfortunately, we need to pick our trusted person carefully, as victim blaming and other insensitivities run rampant and can be heartbreaking for a survivor to hear.
But once we have selected a trustworthy person, we can begin to heal by telling that person about our experiences.
How many among us have felt better after sharing a secret with a trusted friend or have felt relieved after telling another how we truly feel?
The idea is the same after a trauma: the act of love, or trusted connection, is healing.
Although forming a connection with a therapist would be ideal, there are cultural, social, and economic barriers to seeing a therapist that make it an impossibility for a lot of folks.
But love extends beyond these barriers—love is possible for everyone. Whether that love is shared with a partner, a best friend, or a kind stranger on the internet, the health benefits of connection are impossible to ignore.
Healthy relationships can help to reverse the negative changes that our brains make after a trauma. The field of mentalization focuses on how relationships improve the physical health of our brains, and believes that love and connection are the best predictors of healthy brains.
Trauma begs us to renegotiate our relationships, first with ourselves, then with others. We find ourselves in a position where we have lost touch with our bodies and our minds. We felt powerless in our bodies in those traumatic moments, but we can reclaim that power.
We can redefine ourselves as masters of our experience when we submerge ourselves in our own interdependence and make meaningful connections with others.
We will each find our own ways to do this. Part of the healing journey is the process of finding our own voices and authentically reclaiming our experiences.
It is impossible to provide a 5-step solution or recovery plan that is guaranteed to help all survivors of trauma. Humans are too complex for that.
Instead, I will list below a few phrases that I have used and heard others use to bring up the incredibly difficult and loaded topic of personal trauma.
These ideas will not work for everyone. Some may mix and match phrases, others will see these and throw them away completely. That is all fine.
What matters most is that we start to imagine what it would be like to say and hear that we and the people we love have experienced trauma.
- Do you remember that time I saw a plane crash? I keep having nightmares about it and I think it freaked me out more than I realized at first.
- I was raped last week and I feel really confused. If I talk, will you listen?
- I need to tell you something really scary that happened to me. It’s not a problem that anyone can fix, so I just need you to listen.
- Last year something bad happened to me, and I am still feeling afraid. I just need to hear myself say it out loud to someone who I trust.
- I really need your support after experiencing that fire. Is it okay if we just talk tonight?
Please remember that while healing from trauma is often a difficult, long process, there are people who both want to and are skilled at helping survivors.
You are not alone and you can heal.
Originally appeared at Everyday Feminism
Sarah Ogden is a Staff Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a graduate student in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is focusing on clinical work with survivors of trauma, works at a domestic violence agency as a therapist intern, and volunteers as an abortion and pregnancy loss doula. Previously, she’s worked for a suicide and rape crisis hotline and as an emergency room advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Follow her Twitter @xsogden.
Photo: Flickr/^@^ina (Irina Patrascu)