Our Early Life Experiences Shape Who We Are, how We Think, how We Feel, how We Process Stress and Inform Our Beliefs and Behaviors (Part II)
“It takes courage to confront our actions, peel back the layers of trauma in our lives, and expose the raw truth of our past. But this is where the healing begins.” – Oprah Winfrey
Most of us revisit the past with reluctance and tend to blame it on other people or external circumstances. While the past is not an excuse, it is an explanation that sheds light on the questions so many of us ask ourselves: Why do I behave the way I do? Why do I feel the way I feel?
The memories of past traumatic events – which are embedded in our brains – create powerful mental associations that influence how we deal with stress and conduct our daily lives. These long-standing associations exist, and we cannot undo them. What we can do, however, is stop judging and blaming ourselves for the way we react because of our history. Doing so will help silence the inner voice that keeps telling us that something is wrong with us. It frees up a lot of energy that becomes available for self-regulation: a source of hope – we can heal!
Trauma leaves an imprint on the biology of our brain and body
The loss of a loved one, an accident, a natural disaster, a war, or simply a traumatic event related to one's subjective experience are all traumas that leave imprints on the mind and body.
Unresolved past trauma, if left untreated, can have lasting effects on our emotional and physical well-being and is encoded in our bodies as traumatic memory.
Many survivors of unprocessed trauma carry on with their lives for years before they become aware of the emotional and physical scars that the trauma has inflicted on them. These scars eventually appear emotionally in the form of difficulty experiencing joy or intimacy, or physically in the form of recurring pain, chronic headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune disorders, chronic illness, and even death.
One of the main characteristics of victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the chronic dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), known as the "fight or flight" system, which results in a state of heightened "alertness." This condition of hypervigilance is often associated with a latent sense of insecurity, as if a danger or threat were about to occur at any moment, no matter how many years have passed.
When a person primarily operates in “fight or flight” mode, it becomes increasingly difficult to return to a state of homeostasis or balance.
Awareness of problem areas allows for corrective action
Revisiting past traumatic experiences is like a home inspection: by asking about the "history" of its construction – the question "What happened to you?” – helps to identify the most likely problems. By identifying the problems and developing a "rebuilding/renovation" plan, we can reconfigure and reset systems that have been dysregulated by adversity and trauma.
For most of my adult life, I struggled with the "fear of abandonment", a feeling I now blame on what I perceived at the time to be a personal deficiency – "not being enough". As a result, I became extremely demanding of myself to overcome this shortcoming and succeed. I later understood the deeper meaning of my relentless drive to succeed at the expense of a normal, peaceful life. Making this connection and realizing that I would never be "good enough" was a game changer.
Connectedness to other people is key to healing
At the same time, I realized that the connections we have with other people can facilitate healing from trauma and counteract the effects of adversity. It is essential to find your loved ones, your community – a natural healing environment of healthy relationships with people who are present, supportive, and nurturing. They will help you revisit and rework your traumatic experience. The healing process is based on a multitude of brief and powerful “therapeutic moments” that allow us to periodically reset our sensitized stress response system. It was these therapeutic moments, spread over 40 years, that really helped me rebuild a healthier inner world from the rubble of my traumatized 14-year-old self.
Therapeutic success is more about creating new mental associations, new and healthier default pathways. According to Dr. Perry, "It's almost as if therapy is taking your two-lane dirt road and building a four-lane freeway alongside it. The old road stays, but you don't use it much anymore. Therapy is about building a better alternative, a new default." This takes repetition and especially time.
Mindfulness as powerful tool for effective self-regulation after trauma
Mind-body interventions, such as the practice of mindfulness, are essential to release the high-energy imprint of trauma and prevent complications related to chronic dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system, thereby restoring balance.
Mindfulness plays an important role in identifying and acting on emotions to promote effective self-regulation after trauma. By redirecting our attention to the outside world, the practice of mindfulness allows us to escape the unfolding of our negative thought loops or pain and discomfort. By thwarting past thought patterns, we calm the breathing and slow the heart rate, which helps to relax the body, before it is flooded with more pleasant neurotransmitters. This in turn creates a positive feedback loop.