Why is that some negative experiences are fairly easy to forget about and move on from, while others can trouble us for years or even decades after? Keep watching to learn 5 reasons why you can’t just “get over” past trauma.
Hi folks, I’m Will Bratt from Heart & Oak Therapy, supporting better, brighter lives.
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We’ve all heard sayings like, “Let the past be the past”, or “That’s just water under the bridge”, or, “Live in the moment, not in the past”. Sayings like these have a positive philosophy about focusing on what’s in front of you and not getting tripped up by things that happened in the past. But anyone who’s had a traumatic experience knows that can be easier said than done.
Traumatic experiences aren’t like your run of the mill hard times or challenges. They’re profoundly upsetting or distressing on a deeper, more personal level, making them hard not to revisit as time goes on.
In this video I’ll explain why traumatic experiences can be so hard to move on from, and why it’s unrealistic to expect someone to just “get over” past trauma.
Starting off, it’s important to make it crystal clear what sets traumatic experiences apart from other kinds of adversity. We’ve probably all gone through hard times, where the things we were dealing with were upsetting or stressful. What distinguishes trauma from these kinds of experiences is the fact that traumatic experiences are profoundly overwhelming.
Traumatic experiences are intense and extreme, taking us way outside our challenge zones into terrifying danger. Of course, every traumatic experience happens within its own unique context, so the reason why we find them upsetting or distressing rests on the specifics of what happened and what the events mean to you.
The fact that traumatic experiences are different than other kinds of adverse experiences in the way they’re profoundly overwhelming should be reason enough as to why we can’t just “get over” them. But there are other valid reasons why “letting go” can be easier said than done.
1. One big reason is that trauma often relates to our safety, wellbeing, or mortality. Traumatic experiences tend to involve brushes with death – such as in the case of motor vehicle accidents or natural disasters – or interpersonal violence and abuse – like robberies, assaults, and abuse by partners or caregivers. If there’s one thing human beings are really good at, it’s learning. When stuff happens, we remember things, and we apply those memories to future circumstances to try for better outcomes. This is absolutely true of traumatic experiences. When we go through events that are intensely overwhelming and upsetting, we remember, and we try to keep those things from happening again. If we just “let it go”, we may not be as prepared to handle similar circumstances in the future.
2. Another reason why we can’t just “get over” traumatic experiences has to do with meaning. We typically think of meaningful experiences as positive ones, but as terrible as they are, traumatic experiences are meaningful in their own right. There’s a saying I use to remember the relationship between our experiences in the world and our responses to them, and that is, “The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling”. In other words, the more something matters to you, the stronger your emotional response to it will be. When it comes to traumatic experiences, the fact that we think about them, feel worry or despair in their aftermath, and even have nightmares, speaks volumes to the personal importance of our own safety and wellbeing.
3. A third reason why it can be hard to leave traumatic experiences in the past is because they’re often unresolved. Although this isn’t always the case, when we find ourselves revisiting traumatic experiences, it can be an indicator that we have unfinished business. On top of that, it can even be that the unfinished or unresolved aspect of the experience is what feels most traumatic in the present day. In other words, the lack of resolution or justice can be the most troubling part of the trauma, and that’s why we keep revisiting it. Of course, every context is unique, but this can speak volumes about our values, our sense of right and wrong, and our longings to be adequately and appropriately cared for.
4. The fourth reason doesn’t apply to every traumatic experience, but is still a really common aspect of a lot of people’s traumas. It’s called moral injury, and it applies to those who have done things that are profoundly out of line with their morals or values. The sense of moral injury is shared by people like soldiers and those who have killed in war, bystanders to acts of violence or disasters who chose not to act, or people who have had to do horrible things to survive terrible odds. You can think of moral injury as the other side of the unfinished business coin. We struggle to just “let it go” because we know we did something wrong and we long to be able to take it back or set things right.
5. The fifth and final reason that I’ll be touching on in this video highlights a common myth or inaccurate assumption about trauma and the struggle to “get over” it. Often what looks or sounds like past trauma is really not in the past at all – it’s still very much happening in the present day. I’ve met with a lot of people who, for example, describe the abuse they struggled against growing up, only to acknowledge that the abusive behaviour others subjected them to still goes on in present day interactions. In cases like these, terms like “Post Traumatic Stress” are really ill-fitting because the person has never actually stopped experiencing the trauma – so there is no “post”. Even if the person were to “get over” the trauma from years past, it’s only a matter of time until they’re met with more. I think it’s especially unrealistic to expect people to “let go” of something that’s still happening.
So there’s 5 reasons why it can be inappropriate or unrealistic to expect others or ourselves to just “get over” traumatic experiences. It’s one thing if it’s an everyday problem or a smaller kind of challenge, but when it comes to trauma, there are contextually relevant reasons why you might find yourself revisiting the experience across time.
Now I’d like to turn it to you, the Heart & Oak community: Can you think of other reasons why someone might struggle to “let go” of past trauma? How about things that you know can help ease the healing process? Make sure to let us know in the comment section!
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Take care until next time, and keep doing the things that help you live a better, brighter life!