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Should We Stir up the past?

dog curled up napping in the sun

Below you will find an article from one of our professional counsellors, Barb Peck, who explains the impact of trauma and discusses how therapy can help survivors move from ‘surviving to thriving.’ We included Barb’s article in our August mail campaign because one of our goals with our thrice annual fundraising and newsletter mailing is to help our supporters better understand our work with survivors of sexualized violence.  Experiencing any form of sexualized violence can have a lasting impact on someone’s life. VSAC  provides trauma therapy, at no cost, to survivors of sexual assault and historic childhood sexual abuse. Special thanks to all donors who make our work possible. We are truly grateful for your support. If you have not yet had an opportunity to make a gift, there is still time to help us reach our $25,000 goal!

Should We Stir Up the Past?

By Barb Peck, MA, MSW

Is it a good idea to dig up painful memories from the past?   What is the point?  Shouldn’t we just let snoozing canines be?

These are good questions.  As with most good questions there is not a simple answer.

As much as we hear about violent situations in our news, there is an understandable societal tendency to try to keep harsh realities at bay.  Both survivors of violence and those who have not experienced trauma find ways to make horrible truths manageable.  A few of these ways include putting things away and not thinking about them, shutting off emotional responses, convincing oneself that the impact is not really that bad, or even discouraging others from bringing up painful issues.

This can work – for a while.

Although many wounds are healed by time, it is not always enough.  Consider how some physical injuries will get better on their own, but others need antibiotics – similarly, wounds affecting other aspects of our health (mental/ emotional/ spiritual) may also need intervention.

We all have some ability to deal with stressors but trauma can overwhelm our systems and disrupt coping systems.  For example, traumatic memories may not get fully processed.  Instead, they may remain in a fragmented state, stored in different parts of the brain than non-traumatic memories.  Those fragments might be emotions, sights, sounds, body sensations…anything that was part of the experience, but not necessarily pulled together in one coherent story, and not always accessible to our conscious minds.  They can be in stealth mode.  When they sneak past the defenses of the conscious mind it might look like intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares;  it might come out like anxiety or depression with no apparent cause; or, it might show in behaviours that are about attempting to avoid noticing/feeling these memory bits such as substance use, self-harming behaviour, or dissociation*.

Basically, if trauma is unresolved it eventually comes out, directly or indirectly.  So back to the question – is it worth it to poke at the sleeping dog?  It depends.

Trauma therapy isn’t for everybody.  It can be very difficult work.  Both the time and the approach need to be right.  If not, then opening up past hurts can actually be re-traumatizing, doing more harm than good.  Healing has to happen on a foundation of safety; this principle informs all of our counselling work and our programs.  (See our website for more information about the stages of healing and why we work the way we do.)  Humans are amazingly resilient and find ways to cope and survive.  A person might decide that the ways they are managing are good enough, and that connecting with painful emotions and being vulnerable will never be worth the potential pay offs.

At some point, managing might cease to be enough and one might wish to more fully embrace life.  Here is when trauma processing can become an important part of healing.  With a skilled trauma therapist and attention to safety a person might work through many things.  They might explore their past, connect with and process old feelings, examine how their life has been influenced by the past, let go of old unhelpful patterns of behaviour, make meaning of their experiences, understand the societal context In which violence happens, learn how to build healthier relationships, and strengthen their sense of self.  In essence, trauma processing may allow one to move from surviving to thriving.

So should one dig up the past?  First I suggest that you consider for yourself, why are you asking the question?

If you are asking because it is painful to think about violence and trauma and you would just like someone to get over it, I would encourage you to recognize your own challenges with the issue and deal with those.  Do not put that on someone else.  If you are concerned about a loved one hopefully this information helps you to understand some of what they are going through and be supportive of their decisions.  If you are asking for yourself and your own healing I hope you can take from this that the answer to the question very much depends on you and where you are at in your life, and that it helps you to make a choice that is right for you.

  • “…the term dissociation describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience.” Wikipedia

Additional information about trauma therapy:

http://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/talking-vs-processing-in-trauma-therapy/

http://traumaandresiliencyresources.org/resources/trr-resources/54-what-trauma-therapy-should-look-like-how-many-tools-are-in-your-toolbox.html

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