Your question reads: “I have experienced a lot of trauma in my life and I have just started reaching out for help. My problem is that I’m afraid to open up to others and really talk about what I experienced. I feel like I need to keep up this macho image, but inside, I am torn up. I hate to admit that I’m having any problems. I’ve reviewed suggestions online about how to deal with difficult memories and I see over and over that it is helpful to talk about your experience with others. Can you explain why this is helpful? I just don’t want to open up to people I don’t know. How could talking relieve my past and make it any better?”
That’s a very important question. When you’ve been through something traumatic, your mind continues to fear. As a consequence, it’s very helpful for you to be able to make sense or give meaning to those experiences. What happens in trauma is that it creates a lot of internal anxiety so you feel a lot of emotions, but it’s hard to make sense of them. The mind can run over and over and over those same thought patterns. You can wake up in the night with cold sweats. You can have panic attacks. Those are all common with individuals who’ve experienced high levels of trauma. Their minds have not had an opportunity to make sense of them. The reason that those articles that you’ve read and the research that you’ve done talk about the importance of opening up and talking about it, is because your mind needs to consolidate those memories and give meaning or language to them.
There is a lot of valuable research that talks about the benefits of making sense of your experiences. In particular, a book called Opening Up, by James Pennebaker. He says, in his research, that individuals should write or talk about their trauma. In particular, his research is with writing. When individuals write about their traumatic experiences for four days in a row for 20 minutes a day, he has found that they initially have an even more difficult time. Then, over time, even six months later, they report less depression and their immune system is actually stronger. There is tremendous value in opening up about your experience, in particular, in a safe place.
We often talk with our clients, as professionals, about the value of making sense of trauma so you don’t literally feel the emotion without any language to it. The researchers have continued to say that when you give language to a traumatic experience, it begins to lose its power. In a personal interview that I did with a professional neuroscientist, we talked about the memories we have of life experiences. He said that when we pull memories out of our memory bank and look at them, we change the memory. The value of changing these memories purposefully is that the memory loses its power. That is what we’re trying to help you do when we ask you to talk about your experiences. The value of opening up is that you can recreate your memories in ways that are beneficial. In talking about them, you help yourself heal.
On a personal note, I had an experience with a client who had, for 30 years, bottled up a traumatic experience that she had in her teen years. After a few sessions, she began to feel comfortable with me and she related abuse that she had experienced. It was the first time in 30 years and literally, her shoulders became more comfortable. They weren’t slouching. There was more confidence in her. In the next week after discussing that experience with me, she also told her mother and some of her family members. She literally, at the next session, glided into my office. I can tell you that there’s great value in opening up and sharing your experiences with safe people.
I encourage you to find a safe place. I would also encourage you to do some writing on your own. I would lead you to the article that I wrote, “The Power of Journaling.” It talks in depth about how to do that.
I also know that trauma in your past can affect your relationships now and in the future. My assessment at Discover and Change can help you still achieve the relationship of your dreams. I encourage you to visit the site now.