Trauma: It happens to the wealthy and the poor, the young and the old. It tends to strike out of the blue and leave us struggling with this difficult and unjust truth: bad things happen to good people. Who don’t deserve it. And it happens for no particular reason.
What happens, then, for those who must face these realities but feel unprepared or unwilling to do so? How do problems in living develop for some who experience a critical incident, but not for others?
One of the primary struggles for those facing trauma-related concerns is what we in the mental health fields call avoidance. Avoidance is a normal, adaptive response that humans instinctively have in response to pain or potential pain.
How Effective Is Avoidance?
Here’s a tricky thing for trauma survivors: after the circumstances of the original traumatizing event pass, the pain they are trying to avoid is inside of them. They carry it with them wherever they go, whomever they are with. They can’t really get away from it, though they may desperately wish to.
So, in engaging a natural and instinctive response to pain, they begin to make their worlds smaller. They cut out activities that they may once have enjoyed, but now remind them—for reasons big or small—of the things they don’t want to think about, the things they don’t want to remember. They eliminate certain places as options for them to visit or pass by—too painful, too triggering, too many reminders.
Certain topics of conversation are now off limits; particular people may be unwelcome company. Television shows, movies, and books are potentially fraught with hazardous triggering material. Crowded rooms can become overwhelming; sudden noises trigger painful downward spirals and so must be avoided, even at high cost. “Safe” options become fewer and fewer, and the world, for this now-struggling trauma survivor, becomes smaller and smaller.
The thing s/he most wants to avoid cannot be forgotten, cannot be eliminated from daily reality, because it is inside. It is a memory, a belief, a part—however unwelcome—of this person’s mental landscape. And while cutting out many of the external realities that remind this person of the traumatic event may be temporarily effective in reducing distress, the memory itself will not be excised.
It can be avoided with some success, but not forever, and not with satisfactory levels of success. So the avoidance becomes a brutal and demanding cycle that, in itself, begins to cut the survivor off from the world s/he once knew. There might be some pleasure out there, there could be some healing in going out into the world, but the price to be paid is too high, the potential pain too overwhelming. The avoidance has become its own demanding task that isolates and limits the trauma survivor in its own right.
What Therapy Can Do to Help
If this cycle of avoidance is something you are personally familiar with, please know that a skilled therapist can help. A therapist with skill and experience in trauma-related concerns can help you identify this cycle, and help you with the delicate process of beginning to reverse the trend. We cannot take away the awful thing that has happened to you, or the pain it has brought you. But we can help you begin to make sense of it in a way that doesn’t cut you off from the world or other people.
We can help you identify coping skills, your own strengths and resources, and sources of support. We can help you through the tricky process of coming to truly believe that contact with the once-terrifying triggers and events of the outside world is manageable, and that contact with your own internal world—the memories, the beliefs, the sensory experiences—does not have to be destructive or overwhelming.
You can successfully confront the memories you struggle with, the story you’ve come to tell yourself, without being overwhelmed. Those memories can be integrated into the overall story of your life in a way that allows you freedom from them and choices about them. I know this to be true, because I have seen it happen over and over again. It certainly takes courage and hard work, as well as a willingness to persevere when it gets bumpy, but it can be done.
As a therapist, I have rock-solid faith in this truth because I have seen it bear fruit for people who have moved from serious struggle to integrated wholeness. We as a community of therapists invite you to share this faith, to borrow ours when necessary, and start the journey back towards a full and free engagement with the world around you.
Your ‘New Normal’
You will never return to the world you knew before the trauma changed how you understand the world and other people—you won’t “get back to normal”—because you can’t unlearn what you have learned from this trauma; you can’t unlearn what you now know.
However, you can take that knowledge and integrate it into your understanding of yourself, the world and others in a healthy and functional way. You can find a new normal that, while somewhat different from how you understood the world before, nonetheless allows you meaningful opportunities for engagement, pleasure and satisfaction without unnecessarily shrinking your world.
Avoidance, while a normal response to pain, can sometimes become its own very nasty cycle. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The world is still out there, and waiting for you.
It’s not always an easy journey to start or to take, but it’s worth it. Finding a skilled therapist and talking with him or her about how to find your way back to a full and fulfilling life may be the first step toward your “new normal”. I invite you to consider it.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado
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