Getting Stuck in Trauma

Something that EMDR really revealed to me as an important concept is how we get stuck in traumatic memories. Under stress the brain neurons get gnarled up in a clump and the memory becomes physically frozen. When we play the memory, the story gets stuck at the most critical moments and we essentially only see that moment as the story. This would be the moment the tiger attacked and how we defended ourselves. A modern analogy would be surviving a terrible car accident and continually remembering crawling out the window. We assign great meaning to these moments because it defines our survival.

When I was processing my assault, the therapist and I went from the most stressful memory which was that of facing the attacker at the moment I thought I might die. When we were finally able to punch through the emotions and show the brain the entire story, frame by frame, did we reduce the intensity of the entire memory. Each frame presented different feelings and emotions that weren’t weighed into the final story. I learned things about the incident I “forgot” like I had more control of the situation than I realized and that I had made intentional decisions. The tiger attacked and I defended more deftly than imagined.

Eventually I realized I wasn’t a hostage of the situation and now the memory. I don’t think “cure” is the right word for EMDR processing but treatment is certainly it. I’d liken it to cleaning the wound and letting it heal on its own. Too bad it takes so long!

Lately I’ve been struck by certain memories or triggers, very specific snippets in time that seem to represent something greater. With a recent panic attack I was again presented with the distressing idea of reaching out to someone on the sidewalk to “help” me in my crisis. I thought I was just embarrassed by talking to people, as if shyness was the trauma. This didn’t seem to stick, so I “advanced the scene” frame by frame and asked what it would look like if I had talked to someone and how I would feel at each transition in the theoretical exchange.

I did not exactly arrive at an ah-ha moment, but I realized that there was something there about admitting guilt about my panic attack. I think this feeling has something to do with being closeted in the past and also juggling an alcoholic parent. Who could I tell about these deep dark secrets? Maybe I haven’t quite processed out these early defining feelings, certainly my earliest anxieties. One clue leads to another, which is at least a better situation than being stuck.

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