Posted on 09 October 2018
Most of our life is lived in the present. If we are, for example 40 years old, we tend to behave and act as a 40-year-old. If we think back to last year we remember being 39 and if we look forward we know we will be 41 next year.
Yet sometimes this comforting, common sense view of where we are on our own timeline in life can slip, what seems certain and obvious becomes lost. Time no longer seems linear, but more like a tangled ball of wool or a crazy pattern on a path.
I see this a lot in my cognitive hypnotherapy clinic for sexual abuse. Recently I recognised this on the television as I watched the agonies and the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford as she testified to the American senate committee about supreme court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Intruding into the present
The young frightened teenager and the middle-aged professional, successful woman were both in that hearing. They were both present at the same time and in my view, it was this, above all, which made her testimony so compelling. From what I saw, she was not merely remembering, she was actually reliving her experiences. She was literally her teenage self. She was there at that suburban teenage party: in real time, in her own present.
I was watching, along with millions of others, an important news event. But I was also seeing something with which I am very familiar through my clinical practice.
What I was seeing was what happens when we recall a traumatic sexual encounter. It’s the nature of trauma. Trauma does not respect our internal timeline, it rips up the common-sense perception of how we move through our own lives. It is always right here, right now, in the present.
This matters a lot as it one of the reasons sexual trauma is so destructive and can be so life destroying. It is one of the reasons why post-traumatic stress disorders are so common following sexual assault.
We can compare how we remember normal experiences and how we remember traumatic experiences to understand this better. Normal experiences fade away from us as we move along our timeline of life, they become normal memories. They may be tinged with a variety of feelings, they are often slightly fuzzy, somehow coloured differently from our experiences in the now, in the present. We can revisit these normal memories, we can learn from them if we want to or if we need to. Or we can ignore them, put them aside or say: ‘not now, I’ll come back later’.
Traumatic experiences are not like this at all. They are more like someone smashing into your living room uninvited, standing right in front of you and shouting at you until you react.
Every part of your being behaves as if what is happening is real. Your nervous system goes into high alert, your hormone levels get messed up, you feel stressed and your emotions may feel out of control. Feelings of calm and peace disappear. You cannot concentrate, you cannot focus on your everyday life. The traumatic experience floods and obliterates your whole present. If this sounds true for you personally then you need help.
How we hold memories
And help is here. Let me explain.
This is all about how we hold memories. It is relatively and surprisingly easy to change and influence this in a positive way. Experts like myself can work with you to put those traumatic memories in their proper place, which is back along that timeline. It takes expertise and targeted work, as we need to take into account your unique ways of dealing with what is going on. We would use a variety of specialist trauma techniques which can change and alter how you hold those memories until they become part of your life narrative rather than something you carry day to day, even without recognising it.
One heartening thing is that Professor Blasely Ford has a great knowledge of these processes through her own professional background. I think we have watched her fight and can take a lot of heart and learn good lessons. It is not easy, but survival and growth are possible. Our past traumatic experiences can intrude into our present life, but we are not powerless. We can fight back and get the professional help we need to rebuild our lives and happiness.
If you have experienced sexual trauma, then you may have found the wall to wall coverage of these issues difficult. It may have triggered emotions and feelings which you are finding painful and hard to cope with.
If you have any concerns, or if you are finding things overwhelming at the moment, then please contact me. I can help you. Often a couple of sessions can make a real difference. You can be living in a peaceful and calm present.
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