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How to Start Healing After Personal Trauma

New brain research reveals how you can heal a fragmented sense of self.


The experience of trauma takes a hold on us in different ways. Sometimes it occurs immediately, like when we lose a loved one. At other times, it occurs more slowly, as when our hearts are broken over and over again. In each instance, it disrupts our sense of internal continuity—our sense of self.

The fearful fragmented self: When your core sense of self feels fragmented, it fears further annihilation. As a result, it metaphorically contracts like a snail, withdrawing its head from any pertinent threat. It feels no need to be in the uncertainty and ambiguity of relationships.

For this self to emerge again, it must first feel more coherent. Then, slowly, it will begin to express itself more fully in this life.

The questions about fragmentation: How do we work with the feeling of fragmentation? Is there a way in which we can begin the coherence process? And how might we change our lives to feel more whole and ready to emerge again?

A solution to fragmentation of self: In my new book, Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, I describe some brain-based and counterintuitive ways to help the self feel more complete and whole again.

Where is the brain's core self circuit? There are two parts of yourself: the conscious self and the unconscious self. One major component of the unconscious self circuit in the brain is the unfocus network (also called the default mode network or DMN) Although this is not all the self is, the brain's unfocus circuit will help you feel more whole.

How do you turn the self circuit on? Contrary to popular belief, isolated focus will not activate the self circuit. Rather, it is unfocus—breaking away from the routines and humdrum of your day—that will turn on the self circuit.

What should you do when you break away? You will feel more complete when you unite your past, present, and future selves in the brain. To achieve this, practice the following:

The Past—Activate intangible and hard to define memories: When you activate mental time travel to the past, you will be able to shuttle memory fragments to the present. To do this, mind-wandering is helpful.

In the mind-wandering state, your brain becomes a memory-hunter, looking for and metaphorically unearthing memories under every rock, and in every nook and cranny of the brain.

So plan a mental expedition off your focus leash for 15 minutes today. Walk in the woods. Wander safely.

Movement is actually closely connected to thinking. As you walk, the cues in your environment will likely stimulate thoughts about yourself because your mind is open to them, and not focused on the rest of your day.

The Present—Practice mindfulness with a different understanding: Mindfulness, the ability to close your eyes, focus on your breath, and ignore mental chatter, is often described partially. People describe it as the stillness that comes from the focus on your breath. Yet many experts now believe that it is not only the breath-focus, but the toggle between your mind wandering and focus that will stimulate a restful and present brain.

Mindfulness improves memory. And it connects the brain's unfocus network to a network that helps you become more noticeable to yourself. In this state, you will feel more present.

The Future—Stimulate your imagination: If you asked yourself, "What might I be?" your logical brain would likely only take you so far. Rather, it's your unfocus brain networks that will stimulate your imagination far more.

To activate this network, take your mind off tasks. Doodle on a page. Instead of plodding on with your day-to-day tasks, be wishful. I call this possibility thinking.

You don't need data to wish for what you could be. Unfocus from your reality for just 15 minutes. When you believe in a possible future self, it will likely de-stress you (since it increases brain opioids) and it will also make you feel motivated and rewarded (since it increases brain dopamine.) This will contribute toward a sense of cohesion and healing.

Getting a start today: When trauma results in fragmentation of the self, there's no point in only using effortful thinking to heal. Your brain has amazing ways of helping you if you learn to hit the pause button.

Choose three fifteen-minute periods this week. In the first period, walk on a natural path. In the second one, be mindful (watch your thoughts, but don't judge them.) And in the third time-off, take a break for possibility thinking. Then notice how each of these techniques has helped you create a more coherent sense of self.

To read more about unfocus techniques that will help you feel more coherent, check out Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind

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