Imagine a lighthouse and how firm it stands in the midst of a storm. Though waves crash upon it, the lighthouse remains grounded. It continues to give light and hope to sailors who depend on its guidance.
Have you ever wondered if it is possible to find that kind of hope and peace after trauma? Is it possible to remain grounded while triggering memories enter your mind? The answer is yes. Yes, it is possible!
First, you need to accept that recovering from sexual trauma is an ongoing process and not a one-time fix. You won’t be able to keep the past from coming up from time to time because of the way the brain works.
However, you can learn how to manage those memories and triggering thoughts by acknowledging your feelings and staying connected to the present moment. You will also need to develop a relationship with your limbic system, or as Jack Trimpey explores in his book Rational Recovery, a relationship with “IT.”
The subconscious part of the brain known as the limbic system. IT has three main functions: survive, avoid pain, and seek pleasure. When the developing brain is traumatized, IT stores memories to help protect you from danger in the future. IT also tries to soothe you or bring pleasure when you are triggered or in pain.
Consider this example:
You are at a movie theater waiting for your movie to start. Suddenly, you see an individual walk into the theater that reminds you of your abuser. IT (the limbic system) most likely sends a signal of immediate alarm that you are in danger. IT cannot differentiate the past from the present and is just doing ITs job to warn you of perceived danger. You walk out of the movie theater before the movie starts. You drive away distraught and frustrated that you cannot find peace.
According to IT, IT has successfully kept you away from danger. At the same time, the conscious part of your brain, the frontal lobe, is telling you that you were never in danger. The problem when dealing with trauma is that IT has all the control. Your job is to learn how to manage IT.
Important Truth to Accept about IT
Think about the last time you were triggered by a feeling or memory and insisted or demanded that it go away. What happened? Most likely, it only increased in power.
This is because you were trying to control IT (your limbic system) with rational thought, and rational thought cannot crush IT. Memories and triggering thoughts may always come and you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you can learn how to manage IT.
Acknowledge What Happened
In order to change and grow it is necessary to acknowledge what happened to you. This might sound frightening, but learning to be aware of, and then acknowledge, your raw feelings is what helps keep you safe when IT, the limbic system, perceives a threat. Then awareness and acknowledgment allow you to consciously choose how to manage these raw feelings.
Consider this example:
Like before, you are at a movie theater waiting for a movie to start. You see an individual enter that theater who reminds you of your abuser. IT (the limbic system) screams that you are in danger, but you take a moment to be aware of the present. Then you acknowledge the feelings that IT is having. After assessing all of your feelings, your prefrontal cortex (the conscious and reasonable part of the brain) decides that the individual you are seeing is not your abuser. You are not in danger.
You refocus your thoughts by employing some grounding techniques and continue waiting for the movie. The result is you have accomplished some level of healing through awareness and acknowledging your feelings. The perceived danger did not derail your day. You successfully finished seeing the movie and left the theater empowered by your ability to manage IT.
Though it might be difficult, helping your body feel again after trauma by acknowledging what happened to you will help empower you to manage your triggers and memories when they do appear.
Memories and triggering thoughts may always come and you won’t be able to stop them. Instead, you can learn how to manage IT.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over IT
It’s common for those in recovery to become angry or feel guilty for having a triggering thought. Triggers are what they are and nothing else, and they can’t make you do anything. All you really need to do with a disturbing memory or triggering thought is to acknowledge IT and then just let IT be. If you acknowledge IT and let IT be without yelling at IT or giving IT full attention, ITs power will begin to dissipate. With practice, you will be able to learn how to manage IT.
In time, you will become like that lighthouse. Though the waves of past memories and life may continue to crash upon you from time to time, you will be grounded and they will have no power to harm you. You will have found peace despite the storm that might rage around you.
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