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  • Tara Ferguson, PhD

Leave the Past in the Past?

4 Reasons You Might Benefit From Going Back to Move Forward With Trauma Therapy.


Leave the past in the past, they say. And I have to agree with “them” about 9 out of 10 times. One of my few exceptions? Trauma therapy. Why, you ask? And I’m sure you do, because all of my clients want to know! In their natural resistance to doing trauma therapy, which just sounds scary, they grill me and drill me to make sure there is good reason for what they are about to put themselves through.


Well, here are 4 reasons why trauma therapy is different than traditional talk therapy and why it CAN be beneficial to bring up the past for the purpose of revising what you learned from it and therefore, changing the basic patterns you keep repeating that you don’t seem to be able to change through conscious effort.


Maybe it will help if I start by explaining what is happening in the brain that causes “trauma” in the first place. It all starts in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Among other things, the hippocampus is responsible for consolidating memories – taking pieces of sensory information along with the who, what, when, where, how and why of each moment– to create a coherent narrative (a story you could tell) that can be filed away in the long-term memory. The problem is that the hippocampus also has another very important job – putting out the stress response, kind of like a firefighter puts out a fire. So, what this means is that when you are stressed, the hippocampus is busy doing something else and memories do not get encoded correctly.


This is how I explain it to my clients: Imagine the hippocampus is a factory worker responsible for putting together a fancy piece of furniture (a memory), where all the relevant parts of said furniture (information from the senses + attributions, evaluations and conclusions) come in from various directions via several conveyor belts all at the same time The hippocampus grabs each piece as it comes in and puts them together into something that makes sense, is solid and functional and serves as a useful foundation for your body and life. Suddenly, a fire breaks out in the work room. Hippocampus grabs the fire extinguisher and works to put out the fire. Thank god, right!? Don’t want to burn the place down! But while s/he is doing this, more pieces of information are continuing to come in on those conveyor belts and, while hippocampus is busy putting out that fire, the pieces are falling all over the floor and they are making a mess. When the fire is out, there is no time to pick them up because new pieces of information are constantly coming in that need to be put together. Therefore, these pieces lay all over the floor, unprocessed and dangerous. …..they become a trip hazard.


So what happens next is we start tripping over the pieces of unprocessed information that lay on the floor. We are just trying to live and move forward but the past is stored inside whether we like it or not and it keeps creeping up on us through our patterns and automatic reactions. Sometimes we are so busy we don’t even have time to look down to see what we are tripping over. It’s exhausting. This is where trauma therapy comes in.


1) TIME to process: Trauma therapy allows us to freeze time for a moment and go back to pick up the pieces. As we do this with the freedom of peace and quiet and stillness in the therapy room, which allows a space where there is no new incoming information to process, we can look at each piece in detail. We examine it and put it together with the other pieces along with the what, when, who, where and why. After we are done, we sit on it and see that it is solid and has a function after all. We have learned something from it and have mastered it in our mind as something that happened and is over now. No need to trip over that mess anymore.


2) SAFETY to process: The special thing about reliving the past in trauma therapy is that the therapist is specially trained to make sure that, while picking up the pieces, arousal stays under the level required for the hippocampus to remain in processing mode instead of switching over to the mode of having to put out the stress response again. This is why it is important to work with a well-trained trauma therapist. Just talking about the past with no solid container or plan for what to do with it can actually be retraumatizing, even intensifying the dysfunctional pathways in the brain and exacerbating symptoms. Good trauma therapy keeps track of your arousal levels and stops for grounding and re-centering when needed.


3) LEFT-RIGHT BRAIN CONNECTION to process: Without the solid container of therapy and skills of the therapist to keep you calm, another problem that can occur when talking about the past is that you can become so activated that you are not able to engage in the whole-brain processing that is necessary for memory integration. This is an oversimplification but just for the sake of explanation – when we are emotionally activated, we are primarily using areas in the right side of the brain that deal with images and emotions; when we are using logic and reason to make sense of things and explain them through language, we are primarily activated in the left side of the brain. This is why many people have a hard time putting feelings into words or talking when they are feelings strongly - because when the emotional areas in the right hemisphere are strongly activated, the reasoning and language areas in the left hemisphere go “offline.” The most effective trauma therapies will find a way to help activate both the left and right hemispheres of the brain at the same time when processing trauma, and in fact, EMDR is a trauma therapy that uses bilateral stimulation to do this effortlessly. The addition of reasoning, understanding and words to explain the emotional experience and images in your mind is necessary for that coherent narrative the brain wants to create to be able to “file the memory away.”





4) USING THE BODY to process: One reason that trauma occurs is because, due to dysfunctional processing of the hippocampus under times of stress, which results in not being able to see the whole picture clearly, the lessons we learn from these overwhelming experiences are typically not accurate or consistent with survival needs. For instance, if one learns “I’m bad” from a parent’s constant criticism, and yet works hard to be a good person every day, the inconsistency of this experience and belief will create emotional distress in the body every time the trauma and accompanying belief are activated (such as when receiving criticism from a boss or partner). We get stuck on this inconsistency because it just doesn’t add up. Our body keeps protesting and then our mind keeps analyzing it and trying to figure it out. But unfortunately, people with trauma can’t talk themselves out of the feeling no matter how good their logic is. They KNOW they shouldn’t feel that way but they just can’t help it. It’s so frustrating! But it’s also great. …..Wait, hear me out before you reach through the screen and try to strangle me. The body is trying to tell you something. It is telling you where the need for healing is. It has stored a “memory” of these overwhelming experiences in the body in the form of a lesson/conclusion/belief meant to guide your life and, when something is awry with that, such as when it doesn’t match up with reality, the body creates a distress signal to try to get your attention. It’s kind of like a treasure map! Following that feeling in trauma therapy is the key to activating the related historical experience it is tied to, along with the maladaptive beliefs and unprocessed details. Once they are active, they can be “tinkered with” – changed and reconsolidated to the view of a healthy and calm adult who can see the full picture now and who has an objective ally – the therapist – to support them in moving those maladaptive beliefs out of the way.


If you need trauma therapy, you will be in good hands at Place of Peace. May you have the courage to heal and find the peace you are looking for 😊

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