Opinion

Speaking up about Trauma

By Amarachukwu Okpunobi

It is no doubt that sometimes we can’t control what happens in and out of our lives but how we react to those events is certainly under our control. Whether to stand or stay down, fall or rise, give up or keep our heads up high and furge ahead. It all depends on us. These events are so clearly written and documented, every bit of it in our minds that we most times leave our lives on the basis of these memories, refusing to let go and so it is with traumatic events that happen to us or around us.

When we’ve survived an extremely upsetting event, it can be painful to revisit the memory. Many of us would prefer not to talk about it, whether it was a car accident, fire, assault, medical emergency, or something else.

However, our trauma memories can continue to haunt us, even—or especially—if we try to avoid them. The more we push away the memory, the more the thoughts tend to intrude on our minds, as many research studies have shown.

One helpful way to set our lives going again is to talk about these traumatic events. It’s not always easy and it’s also by choice. You can decide to bottle it up and move on if you can but can as well dare to talk about and feel more comfortable with life.

Here are some benefits of talking about events that happen to us especially if it’s that that have caged our lives into believing that life will continually treat us the way it did previously.

  1. Feelings of shame subside.

Keeping trauma a secret can reinforce the feeling that there’s something shameful about what happened—or even about oneself on a more fundamental level. We might believe that others will think less of us if we tell them about our traumatic experience.

When we tell our story and find support instead of shame or criticism, we discover we have nothing to hide. You might even notice a shift in your posture over time—that thinking about or describing your trauma no longer makes you feel like cowering physically and emotionally. Instead, you can hold your head high, both literally and figuratively.

  1. Unhelpful beliefs about the event are corrected.

Many people experience shifts in their beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world following a traumatic event. For example, a person might think they’re weak because of what happened, or that other people can never be trusted. When we keep the story inside, we tend to focus on the parts that are most frightening or that make us feel self-critical.

I’ve often been struck during my work with trauma survivors by the power of simply telling one’s story to shift these unhelpful beliefs. These shifts typically don’t require heavy lifting by the therapist to help the trauma survivor recognize the distorted beliefs. Instead, there’s something about opening the book of one’s trauma memory and reading it aloud, “from cover to cover,” that exposes false beliefs.

For example, a person who was assaulted might believe they were targeted, because they look like easy prey; through recounting what actually happened, they may come to see that it was due to situational factors (“wrong place, wrong time”), rather than something personal and enduring about themselves.

  1. The memory becomes less triggering.

Revisiting a trauma memory can be very upsetting, triggering strong emotional and physical reactions and even flashbacks to the event. Those reactions can stay in place for years if we have unprocessed trauma memories, especially when we’re trying to avoid thinking about the trauma.

Through retelling the story of what happened, we find that our distress about it goes down. The first time, it’s likely to be very upsetting, even overwhelming, and we might think we’ll never be able to tolerate the memory. With repeated retelling to people who love and care about us, though, we find the opposite—that the memory no longer grips us.

  1. You find a sense of mastery.

As we talk about our trauma, we find that we’re not broken. In fact, we can come to see that our reactions to trauma actually make sense. For example, it’s understandable that our nervous systems are on high alert, since they’re working to protect us from similar danger in the future.

Many trauma survivors I’ve worked with described the strength they found as they faced their trauma and told their story. They said they felt like they could face anything, as they saw their fear lessen and found greater freedom in their lives. It takes courage to tell your story, and witnessing your own courage shows you that you’re not only strong, but also whole.

  1. The trauma memory becomes more organized.

Trauma memories tend to be somewhat disorganized compared to other types of memories. They’re often stored in fragments, disconnected from a clear narrative and a broader context. Existing research suggests that these differences are detectable in the brain, with unprocessed trauma memories showing less involvement of areas like the hippocampus that provide context to our experience.

Recounting the trauma begins to organize the memory into a story of what happened. We can see that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that it happened at a specific place and a specific time. We can better understand the events that led up to it, and our own reactions at the time and in the aftermath. By putting a narrative frame around it, the memory can become more manageable and less threatening.

  1. You begin to make sense of the trauma.

The biggest benefit from sharing our trauma stories may come from starting to make sense of a senseless event. As humans we gravitate toward processing and trying to make sense of our experience, and that need is especially pronounced following a trauma. That’s why treatment is often geared toward finding a sense of meaning.

Important Considerations

It probably goes without saying that not everyone is the ideal person to share your trauma with. Some people may have a hard time hearing it based on their own trauma history. Others might respond with blame or criticism, or other non-validating responses. Choose carefully so that the person is likely to meet your story with understanding and compassion.

Timing is also important. It may take time before you’re at the point where you’re able to put the trauma into words. Be patient with yourself, recognizing that “not now” doesn’t have to mean “never.” Again, you get to decide when, where, and how you tell your story, which is a crucial part of owning the events of your life.

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