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How Telling Your Trauma Story in Therapy Helps


why tell your trauma story

In this blog, I'll explore the advantages of retelling traumatic stories with a mental health professional. You'll gain an understanding of how retelling traumatic stories in therapy can help.


How Unprocessed Trauma Memories Influence the Present

Past experiences of unprocessed trauma often have a significant influence on present behavior. For some, these memories manifest as reenactments, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and vivid images that can be distressing. In response to the intrusion of past trauma memories into present reality, individuals often employ avoidance tactics, such as keeping busy, turning to substance use, or avoiding intimate relationships. However, the failure of one set of avoidance strategies typically leads to the adoption of additional avoidance strategies, gradually shrinking a person's world. Consequently, unprocessed memories from the past end up exerting considerable control over the individual's present life.


Telling Your Trauma Story Guided by a Mental Health Professional

An aspect of addressing unprocessed trauma memories and symptoms of PTSD involves the retelling of traumatic memories with a professional. Therapists typically guide individuals through a process of revisiting past traumas, drawing from the principles of exposure therapy, notably as pioneered by Edna Foa. The aim of this is to assist the client in processing memories of trauma in a manner that empowers the individual to gain control over the memories rather than having the memories dictate their present life.


Why Telling Your Trauma Story Helps


#1 Retelling the Trauma Story leads to Mastery

Telling the trauma story fosters meaningful connections between your emotions and past experiences. Initially, confronting these memories rather than avoiding them may be distressing, yet with time, it can help ease the painful emotions linked to the memories. Language serves as a valuable tool for attenuating, regulating, and containing feelings. By retelling traumatic stories, individuals gain a sense of mastery over them, gradually reducing the memories influence and power, termed "deconditioning" or "habituation".


#2 Telling Your Trauma Story Restores Balance to Memory Systems

Memories are processed through both sensory-perceptual and verbal representational systems. However, during a traumatic event, the release of hormones reduces the verbal representational system and intensifies the sensory-perceptual system. At this point, the individual is in survival mode, which necessitates swift analysis and response to the immediate environment. This renders the process of labeling and verbally characterizing the event irrelevant and potentially counterproductive to meeting the demands of the moment. Consequently, verbal representation for the memory is not a part of the processing. The trauma memory remains fragmented, unprocessed, and lacks context.


An aspect of recovering from trauma involves restoring equilibrium between these two memory systems. Sensory-perceptual memories can make past events feel as if they are unfolding in the present moment, whereas verbal representations of events tend to be more abstract, potentially creating a sense of detachment from the emotional experience. Retelling traumatic stories helps to structure the sensory and perceptual elements of the memory. Fragmented images and sensations that intrude without rhyme or reason prior to therapy become arranged into a clear narrative. The scattered pieces of unprocessed memories gradually find their place and merge into broader framework.


#3 Retelling Your Trauma Story Gives Context

Picture memory as a set of filing cabinets. Each cabinet represents a category of memories, For example, birthday parties. Under this category you may have stored details such as what's suitable to wear, say, or bring to birthday parties. These memories have a clear structure—they happened in the past—and you draw on them to navigate future events. When you're not preparing for a birthday party or attending a birthday party, you can close that file drawer and move on with your life.


Similarly, by retelling traumatic stories, you give the memories structure—a clear beginning, middle, and end. This process allows you to understand what occurred, find meaning, and create a dedicated file for it. As a result the memories have a designated space, the individual gains a perception that the trauma belongs to the past and no longer poses a threat in the present. Additionally, there's an understanding of how past events have shaped the present, yet no longer have control over it. This understanding grants the individual freedom to make choices about their identity and actions in the present moment.


Conclusion

When you retell your trauma story in therapy, it's from a place of safety and security. You can gradually untangle your past from your present and acknowledging what happened. Bit by bit, you begin to make sense of the experiences and those feelings find a place, helping you understand how the past influences the present. Retelling the traumatic stories with a therapist is a process of integrating the past with the present, so that the past no longer has unpredictable sway over the present, and the individual can live fully in the present while being informed by the past.


If you are interested in learning about therapy or would like to setup an appointment with Person to Person Psychotherapy, serving New Jersey & New York residents, call 908-224-0007 or email Amanda Frudakis-Ruckel, LCSW at info@person2persontherapy.com

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