Avoidance...what’s it good for?
As human beings we seek pleasure and avoid pain. So it makes sense that we try to avoid painful memories and reminders of traumatic events. While this is fine and dandy in the short-term, more often than not this avoidance does not allow us to process through our thoughts and feelings about the event therefore creating “stuck-points”. Why do I have to “process” anything? Why can’t I just leave it in the past? Great questions.
Living through traumatic events has a way of changing the way we see the world and, very importantly, the way we see ourselves in the world. You survived the experience, and your brain has now “cataloged” everything it remembers about the experience under “these things are dangerous and need to be avoided.” Makes sense, right? Well, yes and no. Everything means everything: the actual elements that were dangerous (ie. the bear, a masked person with a gun, an explosive, the car accident); and the elements that were present but not necessarily dangerous in and of themselves (ie. the nature trail, the convenience store, the interstate and car...the time of day, the weather conditions, the song that was playing on the radio). Yes, we want to be able to quickly react to real danger cues. No, we do not want to quickly react to false danger cues. Avoiding the false danger cues tells our brains that these are actually dangerous when in reality they are not. Now, everytime I hear “that song” or go to “that convenience store” my nervous system goes into overdrive and my body and mind tell me to “get the hell out of here! It isn’t safe!” These are false cues. When we do not allow ourselves to challenge these false cues, we build on them and eventually they spill over into more and more areas of our life and ultimately negatively affect the way we function in the world. “I can no longer go to any store or listen to music at all because my brain is telling me it’s dangerous and creating a reaction in my body...ie anxiety, panic, depression, etc.
There are a couple ways to stop the cycle. And none of them include avoidance. It could begin by writing about the event, eventually adding details that can help you to determine both overt and covert triggers for anxiety, panic, depression, etc. Once everything is down on paper, talking through the event with a professional therapist can help to sort through which of your beliefs are accurate and which are inaccurate, develop a better understanding of how false these beliefs are negatively affecting you, and create more adaptive responses to situations, people, places, and things. Lastly, Imaginal (imagining fear images and or situations) and In Vivo (directly confronting a feared situation) exposure techniques can help you challenge automatic reactions and do not serve the purpose of actually keeping you safe.
Ready to begin the process of healing from your trauma? Call today to schedule an appointment and (re)Treat Yourself Well!