When past memories or triggers crash in upon you there are three choices on how to respond. You can 1) run away from them, 2) fight them, or 3) simply acknowledge them and let them be through surrender. Only one choice has proven to be effective in the long run. That is to acknowledge memories and triggers as they come and choose to let them be.
It might seem counter-intuitive that surrendering is actually the key to taking back your life after trauma. It is known as a paradox, which is a statement that leads to a conclusion that seems senseless and logically unacceptable. But as you use the concept of surrender, you will learn to understand when and what to fight. It all begins with permission.
The Power of Permission
There are two main parts of the brain that are critical for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to understand in order to overcome their trauma. The first part is the Limbic System, the unconscious part of the brain. The limbic system controls our survival needs as well as all of our physical desires. This instinctive part of the brain can exert a powerful influence on a person’s behavior due to triggers and cravings. However, it cannot force you into behaviors.
The limbic system cannot move your arms, legs, hands, or feet. That part belongs to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the conscious part of the brain that helps you reason and think through emotions. For us to act on triggering thoughts, our prefrontal cortex must give permission to the limbic system.
Consider this example:
Sarah has been dealing with triggers due to her sexual abuse for quite sometime. Whenever she sees something or someone that reminds her of her trauma, her limbic system screams at her to run away from the triggering thought by eating some type of food to help relieve the pain and help her escape from reality. While the limbic system is screaming, the prefrontal cortex in the midst of chaos decides to give the limbic system the permission it needs to keep Sarah safe. Sarah then eats the candy bar, thus creating a cycle that perpetuates the trauma without finding true healing.
But what if Sarah did this exercise instead?
She sees something or someone that reminds her of her trauma. Her limbic system screams at her to runaway from the triggering thought by eating. However, Sarah using her prefrontal cortex takes a step back and becomes aware of her surroundings, acknowledges the limbic systems wants and fears, and says this:
“Oh there is my limbic system again trying to take care of me by avoiding reality because reality is causing me some pain right now. My limbic system wants a candy bar and why wouldn’t IT. IT is just doing what it was meant to do. I don’t need to be angry or frustrated with IT. I will just let IT be and do nothing with the thought and craving.”
She then just sits with the feeling for a few minutes and the thought eases up. Through this exercise she was able to give more power to her prefrontal cortex and not give permission to her limbic system. In turn, Sarah is able to find some peace and healing through surrender by letting IT be.
What It Means to Let IT Be
A person facing disturbing memories of the past must remain aware that trying to crush, kill, destroy, and run away from unwanted thoughts tends to make the thoughts stronger because they are coming from the survival, unconscious limbic system. You cannot reason with that part of the brain.
By gently acknowledging the thoughts and learning to let them be, those thoughts will dissipate faster than any other method. Letting them be is completely different than giving the thoughts your full attention or denying them.
You might ask, “How am I supposed to surrender to these thoughts without letting them take over?” The paradox is that when you learn to peacefully acknowledge these thoughts, they tend to lose their power because you are not fighting them. Such thoughts are simply treated as events to be experienced as apart of being fully human.
Think back to Sarah’s example. She was able to find healing through gently acknowledging the triggering thought and letting it be. She didn’t act on it, and she didn’t give permission to her limbic system to take over. She just sat a let the thought be.
Power is gained from surrendering and accepting that triggering thoughts are not bad. Every time a trigger hits, all you need to do is become aware of your surroundings, acknowledge your feelings and thoughts, then let them be. The more you practice this strategy, you will be able to find the healing you desperately want.