Dealing with a trunk full of “rattlesnakes”
I had a college professor once who said that many people deal with traumatic memories as we would a trunk full of rattlesnakes. We keep the trunk tightly locked because we believe that if we open it, danger will quickly overtake us.
I have thought about that for years, wondering if keeping those rattlesnakes in the trunk is a good—or bad—idea. Are we truly safe leaving them in there or will, eventually, we find that they have worked their way out and we have no idea where they are—or if they’re ready to strike?
Would it perhaps be better to open the trunk and deal with them when we’re better equipped and ready, especially if perhaps we’ve requested someone to help us, to not open that trunk alone?
Of course, the trunk full of rattlesnakes is an excellent metaphor for traumatic or similar experiences. Everyone deals with those experiences differently but is there a better way to face and manage difficult memories.
Brooke Brown, clinical director for Diakon Family Life Services – Capital Region, which offers services to address traumatic experiences, below shares professional thoughts on trauma and how to address it in a healthy way.
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I think that historically, we (that is the general population, not us therapist-types) have not really known how to deal properly with trauma and traumatic experiences. We have thought about trauma as a physical issue, like a car accident or something requiring medical attention. Or we have convinced ourselves that not dealing with traumatic memories is best because, after all, no one can see the wounds if we don’t talk about them.
One of the most glaring examples is how veterans have dealt—or not dealt—with the traumatic experiences of war, and the level of support provided to them to do so. In fact, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has gained quite a bit of notoriety, in part because of the many soldiers who have it—diagnosed and undiagnosed—and how PTSD has affected them and their families.
Because of this, PTSD has gained a sense of “validity” in the public eye. There is still work to be done in this regard, as with mental illness in general, but we are beginning to acknowledge the depths of psychological wounds and illness and offer assistance in dealing with those wounds.
A key thing to understand is that trauma can be experienced by anyone.
You could witness something violent or frightening. You could be a victim of sexual assault, rape, violence or aggression. You could experience natural disaster, domestic violence, sexual or physical abuse, loss of a loved one, car accidents, fires, tornadoes, floods—and that’s just the short list.
These devastating occurrences happen every day and, unfortunately, they do not discriminate.
What is important to know is that stuffing the trauma into a metaphorical box will not help you heal. It might keep you from thinking about it—for a while—but your thoughts and feelings, how you respond to the world and people around you, how you perceive others and their intentions, what you believe about yourself … all of these things are affected by the trauma until you choose to deal with it directly.
By no means is dealing with trauma an easy task.
It is a courageous step to seek help and treatment. But there are evidence-based treatments that help you learn about your trauma and its impact on your life—and help you learn how to deal with traumatic experiences in a way that puts control back in your hands.
Having experienced trauma, having PTSD, experiencing depression or anxiety does not make you less of a person, weak, broken or “damaged.”
People may tell you to “buck up,” “get over it” or “put it in the past and move on,” but that won’t make the feelings associated with the traumatic experiences go away. It takes a lot of courage to face trauma, push through the effects it has on your life in therapy and come out on the other side with the skills and knowledge that allow you to have control, rather than allowing the trauma to control you.
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