Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Author, Mental Health Therapist, Researcher, Expert in Attachment Trauma

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“Trauma Time”

file2841250394300Trauma survivors live with a difficult phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as “trauma time.”  Trauma Time is a phenomenon that has grabbed and deceived almost every survivor of trauma at one point or another. Traumatic memories are stored differently than normal memories.  They are encapsulated in unmetabolized form in the limbic, or emotional region of the brain—an area of the brain in which time has no meaning.  This is actually a good thing in the big picture of “mother nature,” with the many challenges that humans have faced through evolutionary time and the ultimate goal of human survival.

Consider this.  If I have experienced frightening or threatening events in my life, there is a good chance that I live in an environment that may also be unsafe for me in the future.  How am I to survive in such a world?  I must remain vigilant and reactive to suspicious sounds, smells, facial expressions, and actions.  I cannot allow myself to be fooled by the passage of time, because the dangerous element might be watching and waiting for me to let go of my vigilance. Never mind that the original source of my trauma is vanished from my life.  Never mind that I am older, wiser, or beyond its reach. These concepts mean nothing to the limbic brain.

It is one of many miracles of nature that the limbic brain is designed without a clock.  “Forever vigilant” is its motto.  Quality of life is of no concern to this part of the brain.  After all, what is quality of life if there is no life?

If I have suffered a trauma one, two, ten, twenty, or forty years previously, a sound, a smell, or a sight may remind my limbic brain of the original danger, triggering an immediate surge of cortisol into my brain.  The cortisol leaves my heart racing, my palms sweating, and my thoughts disorganized and fragmented.  In a split second I may find myself arguing and fighting or hiding in fear.  I may be as confused as others around me regarding my extreme behaviors, and later I may be overwhelmed by guilt and shame.

Some trauma survivors “dissociate,” meaning that the “front part of self” becomes separated from the “emotional parts of self.”  If suddenly I find myself operating from an emotional part of self that holds the feelings related to the trauma, I may truly lose touch with reality and forget the year, my age, and the passage of time.  I am there again–in the middle of the experience, as pictures flash in front of my eyes, and sounds bombard my brain.  It may take seconds, minutes, or hours until I remember where I am and who I am today, in present time.

To be effective, therapy must strengthen the “front part of self,” helping the traumatized individual develop skills for staying centered, self-aware, and tolerant of stress. After building skills, it becomes possible to help traumatized individuals bring “stuck” memories into the therapy office and integrate those memories with helpful information, work through the feelings in a safe, secure environment, and find a new present-day perspective with which to view the memories.  The therapeutic relationship is vital, for it is impossible to tolerate the vulnerability of the work without a sense of connection and compassion from a supportive other.

Therapies that reach into the emotional region of the brain are important to processing stuck traumas, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).  The EMDR therapist instructs the patient to watch her fingers as she moves them back-and-forth while bringing up memories.  This process stimulates important centers needed for processing the material located in the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Art, music, poetry and other creative methods for expressing feelings also help reach into the emotional brain, where memories are stuck.

It is important not to forget the family members of trauma survivors affected by “trauma time.”  Their feelings of powerlessness, fear, and anger need validation.  Psycho-education can help clear up confusion and anxiety in family members, and communication work can help open up new channels for understanding and support.


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