Move on From Trauma and Choose to Be Happy

We don't have to let traumatic experiences darken the rest of our days.

Posted Dec 10, 2019

Source: klimkin/Pixabay

Some of us have been through a lot. Maybe you’ve experienced significant depression, anxiety, trauma, or loss. Perhaps you, like some others I know, have not had just one but multiple adverse childhood experiences.

I’m taking a course right now that focuses on the connection between traumas of various kinds and chronic health conditions (I’m not sharing specifics about the course until I’ve completed it, as I’d like to properly vet it first). Much of it focuses on the habitual thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that insidiously hijack your brain and way of life after you’ve been through something really difficult. 

These start out as survival mechanisms. The brain or body develop these as coping or protective tactics when we’re going through something really challenging.

The problem is, they stick around after the urgent need has ended. They cripple us. A cloud hovers over our lives. We get so used to it, we hardly notice how dark things have gotten.

Some of us, on a deep level, haven’t fully absorbed that the threat, trauma or terrible event is behind us. We are safe. We don’t have to keep carrying it with us from moment to moment. (Note: This isn’t the case for everyone, as some people are tragically exposed to ongoing trauma, but I’m speaking here to those of us for whom the trauma has passed.)

I have experienced a variety of difficult life events, and multiple kinds of mental health challenges (anxiety, depression, burnout, PTSD). I’ve come a long way from the hardest days, and love to teach others about a hope-filled, whole-person approach to mental health.

That said, until I took this course I didn’t realize how much those previous traumatic experiences were still affecting me, day to day. Unexpected events of the last decade, that had piled on top of other things from my past, had shaken me more deeply than I'd realized.

I was shocked to discover that there were all kinds of things I was avoiding (though when questioned, I would brush it off, as if it was normal or no big deal). There were still lots of things that triggered me. I’d just gotten used to living that way. To adjusting myself and my life to all of that.

As part of this course, I took a closer look at my thoughts and mindset. Really close.

A subtle, Eeyore-like negativity had crept in about life (as a result of the difficult experiences). Fundamentally, my outlook toward life had been changed. 

I haven’t been clinically depressed or anxious in years. I have a good life, that I enjoy. But I’ve been looking out at life through a dirty window. One that hadn’t been cleaned in years. The more negative things that I experienced, the dirtier it got. I got used to functioning at a high level, while squinting through my grimy windshield.

The premise of the course I mentioned, is that after you experience a type of trauma (this can be physical, emotional, physiological, etc.), your limbic system holds on to the memory and develops all sorts of reactions and strategies to protect you. In case it happens again. Your fight or flight system gets activated. All the time.

This may serve an adaptive, protective purpose in the short term (if you’re in actual danger). For many of us, this heightened limbic activity never gets turned off. Our brain has gotten cross-wired, and we react with fear or stress to things that shouldn’t feel threatening.

We live within a chronic stress response. We’re haunted by a constant vague sense of fear. We continue to be restricted by thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and reactions that were conditioned by exposure to the trauma. Long after the trauma is gone.

There is a heaviness that remains. A sense of restriction, of loss of freedom, of loss of joy. We’re weary of it all. Something has happened to us, and we—and our world—will never be the same again.

That doesn’t have to be our truth. That’s what I’m discovering. Our brains are exceptionally “plastic” (able to remodel and adapt). You can permanently shift (read: heal) a brain that has become used to being hypervigilant, to identifying as a victim, to feeling unsafe, to feeling sad and grieved about all that has gone wrong.

We can wipe clean those grimy windows and wake ourselves up to the beauty and positive truth that’s all around us. Intentionally. Over, and over again. As a new way of life. We can bring our brains forward with us, into the truth of today’s safe reality. We can embrace freedom and hope again.

Just because bad things have happened along the way, doesn’t mean we have to stay stuck in what happened. We can choose to think differently. To react differently. To interpret our world differently. To see our futures differently.

We can choose to be happy. We can leverage the good and joyful things in our lives, to re-teach our brains how to embrace joy again.

This isn’t meant to judge someone who is struggling, in a “pull up your socks” kind of way. I would never diminish the reality of what you’ve been through—or how hard it may still be, right now.

But there is hope. Our brains are so capable of change and of healing. Your traumatized brain doesn’t have to stay that way. You can find your way back to yourself again.

Hopefully, this been encouraging to you. There is a neuroscientific foundation for all of this; it isn’t just wishful thinking.

© Copyright 2019 Susan Biali Haas.