Research from PTSD treatment shows us how useful it is to let our feelings out.
We’ve all heard the message that it’s better to hold your feelings in than to show them. It’s often so subtle that we don’t even know the message is being sent. You could even say that it’s adaptive. This is especially true at work where we don’t show our emotional buildup to avoid being seen as weak. We do what we need to do to stand tall and get by. But there’s a cost, as I’ve said before.
Rubin Khoddam is a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology as well as an Elyn Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and EthicsScholar at the University of Southern California. He researches genetic and environmental factors that contribute to drinking and drug use and has published on related topics in several peer-reviewed journals. Rubin also works clinically with families, individuals, and homeless populations dealing with substance use issues.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
We let things simmer until they boil. We don’t realize how we got to a boiling temperature when the heat was just being raised ever so slightly that we didn’t even have the chance to notice it was being raised. We get to the end not realizing how we got there. We’re depressed not knowing where on the journey we got lost.
It’s hard to talk about those difficult things when they happen. The more painful the experience, the more difficult to talk. But the irony is that, the more painful the experience, the more necessary it is to talk about it. So how do we take something so painful and beat past the barriers keeping us from talking? How can we let our emotions out so they don’t bleed into other aspects of our lives?
One answer resides in what trauma-focused therapists call a trauma narrative. The trauma narrative is essentially a story you create of what the trauma (or any meaningful life event) meant to you. Hopefully by reading, writing and elaborating on the story over time, you can become desensitized to reminders of the trauma.
We often associate the word “trauma” with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, war, and really horrible things. However, trauma is also relative to each person’s life. We each experience our own trauma and have our own triggers. The basic idea behind this trauma narrative is that we want to desensitize ourselves to the painful event. We want to take out the sting of it. This doesn’t mean we forget about it all together because that’s unrealistic. It doesn’t mean that the emotions will be gone from it completely, but it means that we can begin to transform our emotions.
As Deblinger & Heflin (1996) say, it’s difficult to talk about painful things and, to cope, we often avoid these situations. It’s easy to tell people to just put it behind you, forget about it. This is an especially dangerous message to send children. If we were all able to put the “trauma” behind us, we wouldn’t still be having problems with it.
Think of the trauma as falling off a bicycle. When we fall of a bike and skin our knee on the sidewalk, all the dirt and germs can get into the wound. With the wound, we have two choices: (1) ignore it or (2) put medicine on it. Sometimes just ignoring it and washing the wound off works fine. Other times, the wound is more severe and requires treatment or medicine. The key is in knowing when it requires treatment. If you try to put a band-aid on a bullet wound you’re not really treating the issue. And if you ignore the wound all together, it can become infected. The wound can get worse and worse until it supersedes the initial trauma.
Sometimes what you need to do is not just put a bandaid on the wound, but to clean out the wound. You need to get all the rocks, dirt, and germs that got into the wound during the fall. It is in the cleaning process that we begin to heal the trauma. But don’t think that it’s always going to be easy. Whenever you clean out a wound, it can become painful. However, as you clean it out the sting lessens.
When you create a trauma narrative you’re essentially cleaning out the wound. It might be painful at fist, but it’ll hurt less as you continually write, re-write, read, and re-read the narrative. This can be a long process and you don’t want to rush it. Every wound heals at its own rate. If you rub the wound too hard or too fast, it’s going to hurt more than if you were more gentle. Be patient with yourself. Express yourself and, more importantly, don’t let your feelings become infected!
How would writing a trauma narrative impact your life? What’s your wound that you’re healing from? Start by explaining your trauma. Talk about how it changed you and what aspects in particular impacted your life.