Finishing The Past
There has been a lot of good research done around trauma, but without a doubt, the most valuable and also probably the least recognized is the work of John Bradshaw on the inner child, addiction recovery through clearing toxic shame and finishing the past. “Finishing the past” means that trauma, at its core, is an unfinished mental process. A process that got stuck before reaching completion and it’s up to us to get back to that process and finish it. Until we do that, it’ll haunt us. Inside of us, there’s a part that’s screaming, crying, and begging for our attention. Constantly trying to be seen, and impatiently waiting for us to do the work and bring this open wound to finally close and heal.
Healing trauma is a difficult and gruesome process. So many people would rather spend endless amounts of energy avoiding their trauma and triggers, just so they won’t have to deal with these inner demons. But if you do manage to muster some courage, time, and energy, nothing else is more worth doing. The impact of trauma on one’s life is extremely detrimental, and finishing the past will not only release that mental energy and make it available to you once again, but it also shows phenomenal success in regaining an overall sense of fulfillment, ease, and happiness back into one’s life.
The other reason people decide to avoid their traumas rather than finishing them is that they simply don’t know what trauma is, how it works and what is it they’re supposed to do with it. I hope this article can at least help you with that part, and make the process of finishing the past as quick and painless as possible.
Note: this article was written about what’s commonly referred to as PTSD (maladaptive patterns caused due to a specific short-term exposure to a stressor), not C-PTSD (maladaptive patterns caused due to continuous emotional or physical abuse). Even though the two have similar names and share some symptoms, they are fundamentally different and should be addressed differently.
How Do We Learn?
To demonstrate how the traumatic conditioning mechanism works, first, we must understand how the mind learns. For the sake of the example, let’s use Bob the Caveman.
Bob lives a simple life, and what he likes to do most is wander around and explore his environment.
One day, as he wanders around the wilderness, Bob suddenly notices a new animal that he has never seen before. He gets a little bit closer to investigate this big, furry, brown animal, but as soon as the animal notices him, it immediately jumps and tries to attack him. Chasing him, scratching, biting, making loud sounds and all the other scary things that wild animals do.
Luckily, Bob was quick enough to escape from the animal’s claws and climb up a high tree, dramatically jump off a cliff into a river, or hide in between the root system of a conveniently located ancient old tree where he remained hidden until the vicious animal gave up and went away.
Deeply shaken up by this close encounter, Bob finally calms down. And as soon as he’s relaxed, his mind starts processing the incident in an attempt to learn from it, to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. The learning process of the cavemen, just like the modern man, includes 3 distinct and independent stages:
1. Correlation (Pairing Reaction to Stimulus)
The first part of learning is the process of classical conditioning which I am sure you’re all familiar with from Pavlov’s research on dogs (and humans). In this part of the learning process, the individual fabricates assumptions regarding certain correlations between two separate elements. This knowledge of correlation allows individuals to pair an existing reaction with a new stimulus, and by that, quickly analyze and react to familiar situations.
With classical conditioning, a newly encountered stimulus is paired with an existing unconditioned stimulus to which the organism already possesses a predefined and innate response. In Pavlov’s research, the dog paired the correlated ring of a bell with the appearance of food. Learning to salivate and prepare to eat when hearing a bell ring. In the same manner, Bob the caveman would pair the newly encountered predator with the response of fear and avoidance. So that the next time Bob encounters this specific animal, he will immediately feel fearful and run away, well before he is attacked.
2. Generalization (This is the Same As…)
For the learning process to be efficient, another part of learning must take place, and that is the generalization process. This stage of learning is usually taken for granted, but it is impossible to fully understand traumatic behavior without it.
In this part of the process, the new conditioned stimulus (in this case the animal) is generalized. It becomes a type, rather than an individual. Meaning that the next time Bob will encounter not only this specific animal but also any similar animal (same size, shape, color, etc.), he will react to it in the same way – as if it’s the exact same animal.
The generalization of correlation allows individuals to associate reactions they have just learned with a wider array of stimuli. Making the learning process much quicker and more efficient. Thanks to generalization, Bob the caveman won’t only know to stay away just from this one specific animal he encountered, but from all big brown furry creatures alike, even those he has never encountered before. A great skill that would help him make sure that this kind of incident won’t happen again.
In Bob’s case, since he’s a caveman, the generalization might be a vague collection of similar indicators, but in more evolved city-humans generalization means that the learning will be triggered by a concept, or a type. We’d name this type of animal, and then attach the newly learned to all animals within the same category. E.g. lions, spiders, dogs, etc’.
3. Distinctions (Discrimination & Causation)
The third and last part of the learning process is discernment, and this is where things usually go wrong. This process is quite the opposite of the previous one, and due to that, one of its purposes is also to restrain, inhibit, and moderate the newly acquired generalized reaction. That’s the part of the learning process that’s in charge of making sure that the newly learned reaction will not be triggered when it isn’t supposed to.
In this stage, the mind tries to come up with a certain set of rules that could explain why, where, when, and under which conditions these two elements correlate. Making these distinctions allows the individual to know when this correlation is relevant, and under which conditions it isn’t. Allowing them to refine the acquired reaction, and invoke it only when it is indeed relevant, appropriate, and necessary.
But unlike the previous two stages, which happen pretty much automatically and unconsciously, this stage requires high mental engagement (aka ruminating). To come up with accurate distinctions, we must think about the event again, and again, and again. Imagining the entire variety of variations and their possible effect on the outcome. Unfortunately, when it comes to emotionally intense situations that people would rather refrain from remembering, this stage cannot be completed.
Without the required distinctions to moderate the newly learned reaction, the individual will acquire an overgeneralized, uninhibited, and often inappropriate reaction.
In our example, perhaps the animal only attacked because it was hungry, injured, tired, startled, or trapped. It might be completely safe and even friendly in any other situation, but without ruminating over the situation, how could Bob ever know?
What is Trauma? Limited Processing Capacity & Over-Generalization
Before we go on, let me break one of the most commonly believed mistakes about trauma: Trauma is NOT an event, but an individual perception of an event. When a person encounters a situation which overwhelms their perception and they can’t find the capacity to consciously process it, a traumatic conditioning is created.
When encountering the exact same situation, some people may be traumatized, while others won’t. Especially in younger ages, when the brain is not yet fully developed, making the necessary distinctions and arriving at proper conclusions can be incredibly difficult, or even impossible. Children can develop trauma from situations and events that adults wouldn’t even perceive to be disturbing. And highly sensitive people or people lacking emotional skills can be overwhelmed and traumatized by events that people with high emotional intelligence and ability for emotional regulation wouldn’t even think twice about.
Just because a person finds a certain situation to be traumatizing, it doesn’t mean others will. The person’s level of self-awareness, their mental patterns, and the methods they use to manage their emotions and come to conclusions, all play a role in determining their processing capacity. When this capacity is overloaded, the rational mind becomes confused, anxious, and overwhelmed. In such situations, the rational mind is incapable of fully processing the experience and has no other option but to ignore it completely. Until the person acquires the necessary mental and emotional skills needed to successfully cope and process the situation, the disturbing experience must be shut out of conscious awareness.
Experiences that overwhelm the rational mind are Traumatic Experiences, and the mental process that keeps them out of conscious awareness is the mechanism of Repression. And when these two come together, a trauma is created.
Trauma is essentially an incomplete learning experience. An experience in which the unconscious mind has gone through the process of conditioning and generalizing, but the conscious mind has yet to catch up and come up with the necessary distinctions. This results in an overgeneralized reaction – a reaction to a vastly high number of situations which indeed share some similarities, but yet, far from being the same. Moreover, as the memory of the traumatic situation has been rejected from conscious awareness, the conscious mind is unaware of the true reason behind the reaction, leaving it incapable of managing or regulating the situation.
The Birth of a New Trauma
To demonstrate this, let’s get back to Bob the Caveman.
Bob was absolutely terrified during his latest near-death incident. He’s not sure what happened, his memory is fuzzy, and he can’t quite understand why this vicious predator attacked him. Incapable of making any distinctions, or supplying any explanations, he obsesses about this incident for days and days, until he finally declares: “I can’t handle this!” Anxious and confused, incapable of thinking straight, the only thing he can do now is to try and forget all about it.
Without any distinctions, Bob is unable to discriminate between different incidents and experiences. Causing overgeneralized learning, which in this case, would make him create a belief that goes something like – “All furry animals are always out to get me”.
Time goes on, and about a year later, Bob notices something moving outside his cave. This thing seems to share some of the characteristics of the animal that attacked him last year and left him traumatized. It looks quite furry and has about the same color…
In this situation, which could possibly mean imminent death, the conditioned reaction is immediately triggered. The mind reacts to the current incident as if it is the exact same incident from the last time, and induces the same fearful emotional reaction. Even though this time, it’s just a little cat or a squirrel.
When this happens, the conscious mind is baffled. Since the conscious mind has never processed the experience, it has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Completely unaware, it fails to understand what this furry brown object is. All it knows, it that an intense emotional reaction is taking place, so something really bad must be happening. At this moment, all that Bob knows is that he is absolutely terrified and he’s compelled to run – but he has no idea why.
Without finishing the learning experience, and without being able to access the traumatic memory, the conscious mind’s response cannot be trusted. In this potentially life-threatening situation, instincts, urges, and conditionings take over, as the amygdala hijacks the rational mind and assumes full command. Resulting in an intense instinctual and unsupervised reaction that’s clinically referred to as PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Creation of a Mind Story
The traumatic conditioning has activated the fight or flight response, and due to that, the rational mind has completely lost control. When in such a situation, there are two things a person can do. The first is to stop, take a deep breath, try to calm down, and invalidate the inappropriate reaction. Second, to fabricate a fictional story to fill in the gaps and support the dreadful feeling. Of course, disengaging the fight or flight reaction and acting to calm oneself sounds like a favorable solution, but it’s easier said than done.
The problem is that consciously overriding the fight or flight response would mean that it has been triggered incorrectly. In such a case, the repressed content will be pushed back into conscious awareness to be reexamined, so that the conditioned reaction could be corrected. But, that also means that all the anxiety and confusion it holds will come back with it. So, as long as the person doesn’t have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the traumatic memory, surrendering control and allowing the unconscious to run the show is their only option.
To keep the traumatic memories from resurfacing, the trigger has to be handled as is – without questioning or invalidating it. Due to that, when experiencing a traumatic reaction, the traumatized person usually won’t act to counter the effects and suppress the emotional surge. Instead, they act to justify the reaction by creating a mind-story.
Artificially weaving the raging emotions together with various parts of the present experience in order to come up with a satisfactory alternative explanation. Manipulating perception, distorting cognition, and filling the gaps with somewhat acceptable guesses and assumptions. Everything is forced together into a partially rational mesh in order to validate the inappropriate emotional reaction while keeping the actual cause well hidden. Much like the creation of a dream, part real and part imaginary, a mind-story is being fabricated.
The Price of Unhandled Trauma – Emotional Addiction
Another lesser known side-effect of trauma is emotional addiction. To be clear, emotional addiction doesn’t suggest that a person “loves feeling bad” or even wants to feel that way, not at all. But yet, with emotional addictions, just like other addictions, if the person would stop using the substance (in this case the emotion), they would have to face a harsh adjustment period. Causing the addict to keep perpetuating the same behavior patterns, simply to avoid the withdrawals, which in this case means remembering, reliving, and processing the traumatic memories.
As things go on, to keep traumatic memories at bay, multiple reenactments of the same traumatic emotion in different situations must be created. Every time the traumatic experience is triggered, and the memory threatens to rise into awareness, the individual must fabricate yet another mind-story as a diversion. Over time, making one’s life seem like a never-ending sequence of very similar events, containing very similar emotions.
This is the pattern of emotional addiction, and it is the price a person must pay in order to keep traumatic memories from being uncovered. Ironically, as long as the person wishes to keep the trauma from resurfacing, they must keep experiencing it. A debilitating process that ends up making one’s life turn into a continuous manifestation of the things they wish to avoid the most.
As life goes on, the initial traumatic memory continues to replicate and collects more and more copies of itself – More and more semi-traumatic events that had to be fabricated in order to to keep the original one under wraps. Slowly but surely, making one’s life into a hell of a mess.
The longer the person maintains the avoidant behavior, the more traumatic manifestations they collect. Until eventually, even if they decide to deal with their trauma, it becomes almost impossible to locate the event which started it all. But without uncovering the root of the trauma, full healing is not possible.
Healing trauma without first understanding how it works is a long process of trial and error. In many cases, it can even take decades of therapy and intense psychological work until finally getting it right. From the extensive excavations of my own traumatic past, in therapy as well as on my own, I’ve managed to distill a set of tools, or cognitive razors, that eventually enabled me to cut right through the clutter and reduce this entire process to just a single, while rather intense, afternoon.
The main obstacle when dealing with trauma isn’t really a singular event. It’s more like a seed. As life moves on that seed grows and takes hold of us. Making trauma into something that looks more like a massive tree, and the longer you carry your trauma around, and the more attention it gets, the bigger it grows. At first, when trying to take down this tree, I always started from the leaves and branches and slowly made my way down. But now that I know how unnecessary that was, I go straight to the root. There’s no need to dwell and ruminate on all of your traumatic experiences. Once you address the earliest and most well-hidden part of the trauma, the rest goes right with it.
Finishing the Past: Step 1 – Keep Calm & Make Yourself Feel Safe!
The first tool a person needs in order to access and release trauma is calmness. To correctly handle trauma, you must use your highest brain capabilities, and when stressed, these aren’t operational.
It is impossible to look into traumatic memories when fearful, stressed, tensed or alarmed. Make sure you acquire and use some technique of self-relaxation, such as meditation, breathwork, or anything else that can keep you calm, focused, in control, and clear of the fight or flight response.
If during the process you feel that you’ve lost your cool, immediately stop, take a break and re-center yourself. Try to remind yourself that you’re safe, and that memories can’t hurt you. Only move on once you feel safe and fully relaxed, because this is not something you can do right when operating from the amygdala.
Step 2 – Locating the Chronological Root
To cut down the tree of trauma, first, we need to dig out its root. To find that root, we must look at the traumatic pattern chronologically. Incident by incident, going back through time, all the way to the earliest event that I can remember – the first memorable incident in this specific pattern of overwhelming emotions. This event is the trunk of the trauma, and the root hides right beneath it.
Once I located the earliest incident, I let all the others go, because once we take care of the root, the whole tree will come down on its own. So from this incident, the digging begins. Now, focused on the first chronological incident, I only look for its cause and completely forget about the rest. The mind will resist and try to offer alternative explanations, but if the explanation didn’t happen in an earlier time period, don’t ever take it!
Remember, it’s not about finding the best explanation, but about finding the first explanation. In this stage, chronological order is the key.
Step 3 – Remain Calm & Anchor Your Safety
Once you’ve located the root, the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s very difficult to work with.
When trauma voluntarily rises into conscious awareness, it usually does so after something has changed in the individual’s personality that would now allow them to better handle this trauma. But, when instead of waiting for the trauma to expose itself, we actively look for it and force it into the open, the psyche is usually still lacking the capacity to process it and would once again become overwhelmed and traumatized.
Due to that, when trying to override the natural process and extract traumas prematurely, we must make some cognitive adjustments in order to keep the psyche from being overwhelmed again.
It is important to remember that the unconscious is incapable of perceiving time and doesn’t know what imagination is. It is completely incapable of understanding the difference between a thought, an imaginary scenario, a memory, or the present moment. The unconscious processes and reacts to whatever we’re currently feeding it in the exact same way, as if it’s actually happening right now – and that is something we must remember and address.
It is up to you, the conscious part of you, to maintain calmness and constantly remind the other parts of you that you’re not in danger! This isn’t real, it isn’t happening right now, and there is no immediate threat.
So, when feeling that the body becomes too reactive and defensive, remember to empathize that this isn’t real. It’s just a memory, it isn’t actually happening and it can’t hurt you. Don’t expect your body to just know that on its own.
During the process, always be sensitive to your condition – stress level, heart rate, and body heat. Don’t overreach your capacity. If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed or threatened, take a step back. Pause, breathe deeply, take it down a notch, and try again.
Many techniques can help with maintaining physical calmness throughout this process, from different chemical or natural substances, through meditations, hypnosis, and EMDR. All of those may be effective and can be used if the experience feels too intense.
Step 4 – Framing the Experience
In the beginning, when exposing a traumatic event, I would attempt to reconcile it, fix it, or improve it. Use my logic skills and common sense to come up with a tailor-made solution for each and every scenario. The problem with this method was that it took too many attempts, as most of the time, the trauma only transformed into a new traumatic learning, and wasn’t fully healed. I guess the majority of my experience with trauma can be attributed to this single fundamental mistake.
When exposing trauma, it is most important to not try and adjust it. Any adjustment of trauma results in re-traumatizing, so try not to manipulate it and avoid affirmations or NLP. Any distortion of the event or conclusions will always result in new maladaptive patterns. In fact, when working with people on uncovering trauma, more often than not that the trauma has already been accessed before, but the correction was inadequate. And after too many incorrect fixes, people start feeling helpless, disempowered, and reluctant to try again.
When working with traumatic memories, less is more. You don’t want to change the root memory, but only to frame it into the right context. To do that, we’re simply going to finish the last stage of learning – making distinctions. All you want to do is to make sure that the defensive reaction will not be triggered when it isn’t appropriate. To do this, all you need to do is allow the learning process to complete by adding the required conditions that will make sure this reaction will only be invoked within the appropriate context.
For example, modifying an overgeneralized belief such as “I can’t trust people” into “I can’t trust this person”, “I can’t trust this kind of people” or “in this kind of situation, I shouldn’t trust people”. Changing an overgeneralized belief such as “I’m a complete failure” into “I’m not good in this field” or “if I don’t believe in what I do, I’m destined to fail”. Or framing the context for overgeneralized beliefs such as “I’m worthless” into “I’m not good in certain areas, I should try to contribute in other ways.”
These distinctions upgrade our belief system from infantile, overgeneralized, all-or-nothing thinking into fully developed, mature, and accurate beliefs.
This type of closure preserves an accurate perception of reality and avoids distorting the past. Not judging or dismissing the innate reaction, but only rendering it inappropriate to present and future experiences that do not require it. Because the problem is never the acute reaction itself, but only the inappropriate and overgeneralized use of it.
An Alternative Approach to Trauma Healing
This is it, the entire mental mechanism behind trauma in a nutshell. I hope this makes sense to you and you can make good use of it.
It is important to remember that trauma doesn’t mean ‘a horrible event’. Being traumatized doesn’t mean facing a life or death situation, but merely an emotionally overwhelming situation. It can be caused by assault or sexual abuse, just as well as neglect or undetected emotional abuse.
Moreover, different people can go through the exact same experience, and only some will be traumatized by it. Children, for example, are much more sensitive and can get overwhelmed and traumatized quite easily, while fully developed adults (above the age of 30) will be able to remain untraumatized even through quite horrific experiences.
Hopefully, if more people would be aware of the symptoms and inner workings of this well-hidden disorder, more can be done to assist those who truly suffer from it. Finally, giving people the power to stop hiding from triggers, and bring the long-awaited closure and sense of safety back into their lives.