Escaping the past: Resolving historic trauma


Most people experience traumatic events in their lives – where a trauma can be defined as an encounter with a situation that is difficult to resolve and results in suffering. Whilst PTSD is a distinct type of response to extreme trauma, anyone can suffer a traumatic event and develop an unhelpful response pattern that impacts them throughout their lives.

Unhelpful responses can include constantly reliving the traumatic event, experiencing intense fear or anxiety, and avoiding triggers that remind them of the trauma. This can be a debilitating to those who suffer it, and it can impact people across their entire lives.  For people suffering from such outcomes to trauma, there is hope of learning new approaches and help is available. It can be worthwhile for people who feel stuck because of an unresolved past trauma to learn how to resolve the trauma and get free of its grip on their lives.

The time machine conundrum:

We do not have a time machine, so it not possible to go back in time and fix or stop the traumatic event at its source.  The value of therapeutic intervention is built around the idea of resolving your relationship with that traumatic event, to redefine it and to allow it to not be such a strong influence over your current or future actions. You cannot change the past, but you can change what you do today and in the future.

A useful fear response:

Learning from traumatic events and creating ‘fear’ is useful for people to help them avoid common dangers in their world. Consider when a child burns their fingers on a hot stove.  The pain acts as a powerful outcome that teaches the child that hot stoves should be avoided.  In future, the sight of a hot stove might act as a trigger starting a fear reaction that drives a hand withdrawal behaviour (outcome) – keeping the child safe from a predictable danger in future.

A problematic response:

In the same scenario, if the child learns the wrong things from this experience, then the response to this traumatic event could cause ongoing issues.  For example:

  • They associate the wrong trigger with the pain and fear reaction? Perhaps the child mistakenly associates the colour red with the pain response, rather than a stove element glowing red.
  • The reaction is completely out of proportion to the risk? Perhaps a hot element on the other side of the room is seen as incredibly high risk.
  • The behavioural outcome to the trigger is wrong for the circumstance or causes ongoing problems. Perhaps instead of simple avoidance, hot surfaces lead to sweating, freezing or a desire to vomit.

Each of these are the basis of much of the issues from unresolved trauma.

The trigger – reaction – outcome path:

We face novelty every day, which are just situations that we have never faced before.  Our way of managing is to use what we know and what we have learned in previous situations to provide the basis for how we operate. We have an unconscious bias of ‘generalising’ past events to help us know what to do.  Situations that are alike are ‘categorised’ into general groupings to allow us to easily identify what is happening and to guide us how to move forward with low cognitive effort.

People want to avoid traumatic situations, so whenever we have gone through a risky or bad situation we go to work to try and find a ‘cause’ that led to the negative ‘effect’.  Because we have been involved in the situation and it is novel, we may not be able to objectively define what led to the situation occurring.  However, we might ‘imagine’ what it was, and generalise out from there.  This means we create a false trigger, often over-generalised to include situations that have no risk. This is simply a way to avoid trauma in future, even if it over-plays the risk of many safe situations.

Because trauma is an intense experience, this rapidly trains us into a trigger-reaction-outcome loop.  We have a powerful trigger that rapidly kicks off an intense reaction that leads to the person trying to be safe – even when the behaviour is not effective or valuable to what is really going on.

Consider Sam, who did a few tours of Afghanistan.  He had a lot of trauma involving an enclosed vehicle (the back of a troop carrier that stuck a roadside explosive).   Now when he has to ride a bus or go in a lift, this enclosed space causes him to go into a complete panic.  However, the actual trauma he endured was specific to the location and circumstance (Afghanistan, a dawn raid, a roadside explosive).  However, his generalisation (closed spaces, being out of control of the movement) means that the impact of this trauma now pervades his life living in any modern city.

Consider Barry, who had a car accident on a street corner in the city.  At first, that street corner brought back terrible flashbacks.  Soon, he was avoiding that intersection completely.  He began to over-generalise the trigger, and soon he was avoiding the whole CBD grid, and then any major intersection as this brought on major stress reactions.  Even thinking about driving on busy roads became enough to trigger the stress reaction.  Barry couldn’t drive or be a passenger in an urban environment.

Consider Beth-Ann, who was involved in a clear air turbulence event on a plane.  She started avoiding the airline and route concerned, but soon she overgeneralised her fear so that she became physically ill when she saw an ad on the TV for any airline.  She felt it was impossible to go near an airport, an airplane or even consider any air travel.

Think of the impact that over-generalisation of the trigger has on their lived experiences. Barry cannot drive anywhere, Beth-Ann cannot travel by air (and her family are all based overseas) and Sam has crashing panic attacks when he is in enclosed spaces.

Overcoming past trauma:

Helping people deal with their past traumas requires a caring and strategic approach.  As we work through the nature of the trigger – reaction – outcome process, the aim is to intervene at any number of points:

  1. Define the client’s goals relative to the trigger and the reaction it generates.
  2. Change the way the person interprets the prior event, including any skills or capabilities they demonstrated at the time but discount now.
  3. Review and specify the trigger – remove over-generalisations and where possible, redefine the trigger to that one historic moment.
  4. Work at inserting a response of choice into the process, rather than simply and automatically defaulting to the reactive state.
  5. Help change their understanding and relationship to the past event or events.
  6. Understand the value on changing the elements of the process to get a different outcome.

Working with individuals who have suffered past trauma requires an empathetic and highly individualised approach.  Helping them ‘learn’ a new and more valuable process for understanding and responding to their trauma can really set them free. For example, Barry now happily drives his new sportscar around the city and beyond, Beth-Ann has flown back to her country of origin to introduce her new baby to its grandparents and extended family. Sam now comfortably travels in buses and lifts and works in a tall building in the city.

If you want to explore where a past trauma has made you feel stuck, then get in touch.  We can discuss your circumstance and how we might approach its resolution.  Interested?  Contact me now.