When we fail to deal with our trauma, whether by taking on blame, disassociating, trying to bury our memories, or repeatedly reliving the deep emotional pain, we are not making sense of what happened to us and, thereby, falling victim to our past in the present. When our traumas are unresolved, our brain isn't fully integrated.
You are not what you've been through and your trauma doesn't have to control your life or define who you are. Instead, you can integrate your trauma and allow it to be just a part of your story. Creating a coherent narrative around our trauma helps us promote emotional regulation.
Dr. Jack Kornfield recommends an approach called “RAIN,” to help us mindfully deal with these triggers. The steps include:
Recognize – Pause and notice what you’re feeling.
Accept/acknowledge/allow – whatever strong emotion is occurring in the moment.
Investigate – Start to investigate your internal experience. Try what Daniel Siegel calls SIFTing through your experience, noting Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that arise.
Non-identification– Don’t allow the thoughts, feelings or experiences to define you. If a memory arises, remember that the memory is not happening to you now and does not define who you are.
When we learn to approach our memories with calmness and curiosity, we are less likely to be triggered. We’ll also start to notice our triggers more quickly, which diffuses their intensity.
The concept of “name it to tame it” refers to the fact that when we identify our emotions in this way, we tend to not be ruled by them. For example, if your two-year-old is throwing a tantrum and all of a sudden you feel yourself panicking, it may be triggering an old feeling or memory from your own experience. Perhaps your parent would “lose it” with you when you’d get upset as a child. Identifying where this heightened emotional reaction is coming from can help you differentiate the past from the present and feel calmer and more centered in the moment.
It’s often the case that, when we make sense of trauma, something clicks and we’re able to calm down and choose our actions and reactions more wisely.
Our experiences may shape who we become, but we get to shape our own story. We can’t control what happened in the past, but we can control the hold it has over us in our current lives.
Charlotte McKernan is a couple and individual therapist in Fort Collins, CO.