When memories or triggers crash in on 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 the Power of 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 the key to taking back your life after trauma. But as you use the concept of surrender, you’ll learn to understand when and what to fight. It all begins with permission.
There are two main parts of the brain that are critical for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to understand 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 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 can’t force you into behaviors.
The limbic system can’t move your arms, legs, hands, or feet. That part belongs to the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the conscious part of the brain that helps you reason and think through emotions. For us to act on triggering thoughts, our frontal lobe must give permission to the limbic system.
Consider this example:
Sarah has been dealing with triggers due to her childhood sexual abuse for quite some time. When 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 frontal lobe, 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 run away from the triggering thought by eating. However, Sarah, using her frontal lobe, takes a step back and becomes aware of her surroundings, acknowledges the limbic system’s wants and fears, and says this:
“Oh, that’s my limbic system trying to take care of me by avoiding reality because my reality is causing me some pain right now. My limbic system wants a candy bar and why wouldn’t IT? IT’s just doing what it was meant to do. I don’t need to be angry or frustrated with IT. I’ll just let the limbic system be and do nothing with the thought and craving.”
She then 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 frontal lobe and not give permission to her limbic system. In turn, Sarah can find some peace and healing through surrender by letting IT be.
As you use the concept of surrender, you’ll learn to understand when and what to fight.
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 unconscious. 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 acknowledge these thoughts peacefully, they tend to lose their power because you’re not fighting them. Such thoughts are simply treated as events to be experienced as part of being human.
Think back to Sarah’s example. She was able to find healing by 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 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, the more likely you’ll be able to find the healing you desperately want.
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