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Why Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

Why Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds


    (Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Francine Shapiro, PhD, author of Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Shapiro is a senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, director of the EMDR Institute, and founder of the non-profit EMDR-Humanitarian Assistance Programs. As the originator of EMDR, she is a recipient of the International Sigmund Freud Award for Psychotherapy of the City of Vienna, the American Psychological Association Trauma Psychology Division Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology, and the Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award, from the California Psychological Association. As a result of her work, over 70,000 clinicians have treated millions of people during the past 20 years. For more information please visit http://www.emdr.com)

    If we cut ourselves, unless there is an obstacle, we tend to heal. If we remove the block, the body goes back to healing. That’s why we’re willing, to let ourselves be cut open during surgery. We expect incisions to heal.

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    The brain is part of the body. In addition to the millions of memory networks I’ve just described, we all have hardwired into our brains a mechanism — an information processing system — for healing. It is geared to take any sort of emotional turmoil to a level of mental health or what I call a level of adaptive resolution. This means a resolution that include the useful information that allows us to be more fit for survival in our lives. The information processing system is meant to make connections to what is useful, and let go of the rest.

    Here’s how it works: Imagine that you’ve had an argument with a coworker. You can feel upset, angry or fearful with all the physical reactions that go along with these different emotions. You can also have negative thoughts about the person and yourself. You might imagine how you’d like to exact revenge, but let’s hope you resist those behaviors; among other things they would probably get you fired. So you walk away. You think about it. You talk about it. You go to sleep and maybe dream about it. And the next day you might not feel so bad. You’ve basically “digested” the experience and now have a better sense of what to do. That’s the brain’s information processing system taking a disturbing experience and allowing learning to take place. Much of it goes on during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Scientists believe that during this stage of sleep the brain processes wishes, survival information and the learning that took place that day. Basically, whatever is important to us. The bottom line is that the brain is hardwired to do that.

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    After uninterrupted information processing, the memory of the argument has generally linked up with more useful information already stored in your brain. This can include past experiences you’ve had with this coworker and others. You may now be able to say, “Oh, that’s just the way John is. I’ve handled something like this before with him, and it came out fine.” As these other memories link up with the current disturbing incident, your experience of the event changes. You learn what is useful from the argument and your brain lets go of what’s not. Because the negative feelings and the self-talk are no longer useful, they’re gone. But what you needed to learn remains, and now your brain stores the memory of the event in a form where it is able to successfully guide you in the future.

    As a result, you have a better sense of what you’re supposed to do. You can talk to your coworker without the intense emotional turmoil you had the day before. That’s the brain’s adaptive information processing system taking a disturbing experience and allowing learning to take place. It’s doing just what it’s geared to do.

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    Sadly, disturbing experiences, whether major traumas or other kinds of upsetting events, can overwhelm the system. When that happens, the intense emotional and physical disturbance caused by the situation prevents the information processing system from making the internal connections needed to take it to a resolution. Instead, the memory of the situation becomes stored in the brain as you experienced it. What you saw and felt, the image, the emotions, the physical sensations and the thoughts become encoded in memory in their original, unprocessed form. So, whenever you see the coworker you argued with, rather than being able to have a calm chat, the anger or fear comes flooding back. You may try to manage your feelings out of self-preservation, but whenever the person appears, your distress goes up.

    When reactions such as these refuse to go away in the present, it’s often because they are also linking into unprocessed memories from the past. These unconscious connections occur automatically. For instance, your immediate dislike of a person you just met may come from memories of someone in some way similar who hurt you before. Also, consider the case of a woman who was raped. Years later, she is in bed with someone she knows is a very loving partner. But when he touches her in a certain way, her emotions and body respond automatically. The terror and feelings of powerlessness she had during the rape flood her. If the information processing system did not function properly after the attack, a touch similar to the rapist’s can link into the memory network and “trigger” the emotions and the physical sensations that are part of that stored unprocessed memory.

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    The disrupted information processing system has stored the memory in isolation — unintegrated within the more general memory networks. It can’t change since it is unable to link up with anything more useful and adaptive. That’s why time doesn’t heal all wounds, and you may still feel anger, resentment, pain, sorrow or a number of other emotions about events that took place years ago. They are frozen in time, and the unprocessed memories can become the foundation for emotional, and some times physical, problems. Even though you might not have had a major trauma in your life, research has shown that other kinds of life experiences can cause the same types of problems. And since the memory connections happen automatically, below conscious level, you may have no idea what’s really running your show.

    (Photo credit: MousyBoyWithGlasses via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

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    Last Updated on February 25, 2020

    5 Rules for Overcoming Adversity and Emotional Pain

    5 Rules for Overcoming Adversity and Emotional Pain

    “Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose.” – from the popular show, “Westworld”

    It’s different for us all. My personal quest for purpose began with five stages of grief and one startling realization that everything’s endlessly fragile. Adversity, as it happens by rule, found me terribly unprepared, so I decided to take my time. Today, I can honestly say that I’ve grown.

    Ugliness and beauty, good and evil, pain and laughter – everything in the universe consists of two forces that are opposing but complementary. In the face of difficulty, that is the only mantra you need.

    Here’s how I learned it and why you should too, with five simple rules.

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    1. Embrace the Complexity

    Quite insidiously, adversities come in all shapes and sizes. Paralyzing physical disabilities, mind-wracking mental problems, ruthless emotional havocs, all leading to the same painful acknowledgement: all the beauty in the world cannot possibly make up for the ugliness that surrounds us. Shattered to pieces, helpless and bare naked, we sit in our therapy chairs, apologizing for being so negative.

    Eventually, what it all comes down to is the nature of negative emotion. Our positives overshadow our negatives, thus wrongly teaching us that the road to well-being is paved with nothing but positive feelings and thoughts. How utterly wrong!

    “If you’re not failing every now and then, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything innovative”, Woody Allen said.

    It’s a classic “learn from your mistakes” rule, but in this case, it implies growing from negative experiences. Make peace with your negativities and embrace beauty and ugliness alike! Accepting this marvellously complex world just as it is will allow you to find purpose in adversity and meaning in misery.

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    2. Find Balance, Regain Control

    Still, accepting adversity is only the first step toward eventual victory. One can endure only so much trauma in life; if we’re not prepared to deal with difficulties in a productive way, even the minor setbacks can get us off track. Our strengths come from learning, and the best way to learn is through a series of trials and errors. Just like phases of grief or stages of drug addiction, adversities suggest a disabling loss of control, so find your way to regain it.

    Some call it the coping mechanism; for others, it’s a spiritual will. However you choose to name yours, know that not all supporting systems are equally beneficial, though each is effective in its own way. Escapism was mine, but it only helped me retain the illusion of beauty. It wasn’t until I opened up toward the ugliness and accepted the naked truth that I was finally free. Whether you choose to dwell in art, religion and spiritualism, thus feeding your resilience from within or to reach out to others for help, choose wisely.

    Whatever the means, the second rule is a golden one: find your inner balance and stick to it. Eventually, it will lead you out of the vicious circle.

    3. Fight with Patience

    My bargaining turned in depression with a single touch. Fearless and free, my dance instructor timidly put her hands on my shoulders and I realized, for the first time, just how tense, stiff and cloistered I was. And just like that, I started letting go. Adversities have their sneaky ways, but in my experience, becoming aware is what hurts the worst. It took me a year to recover from this little moment of self-discovery, and I know remember it as the edge of the rabbit hole.

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    Some sufferings are impossible to console; I know that now. The only way to get through is to, well, get through. Depression and despair are only the beginning of the excruciatingly unnerving process that ravages the mind and shrivels the soul, and once they strike, there is no easy way back. So, fight them with patience. When your head starts spinning and your feet lose ground, go to your happy place. Over there, you’ll be reminded that nothing is forever, not even our little existential psychosis.

    Take a deep breath and say “om”. When things cannot be combated, they have to be endured, so practice patience and learn to let go. Finally, keep repeating to yourself that this too shall pass.

    4. Keep Swimming

    Nothing is impossible, in the end. Your negative thoughts will gently pour into your positive ones, just as two streams come together to become a river. In the event of the inevitable disaster, one can only be as calm as still water. Suffering teaches patience, and the latter gives rise to flexibility. Ultimately, what is life than a series of unfortunate events and a handful of bright moments in between? If adversities are impossible to avoid, than learn to glide through as smoothly and patiently as water does with rocks.

    Even if spirituality isn’t exactly your cup of tea, you have to admit that this is one solid metaphor. Staying adaptable in the face of change will soothe your panic attacks and keep you sane and sober-blooded. Even if you fail, you’ll know exactly how to breathe and face what’s in front of you once it eventually strikes again. Stay calm and visualize a better tomorrow; if anything else, it will give you strength to dive deep and weather the storm. And, in case there’s somebody’s hand to reach out to, grab it firmly and don’t let go.

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    Being flexible against adversities takes a lot of learning, just as staying brave demands a lot of courage. It’s a long, arduous step-by-step routine, and you can reach the end only by swimming on. Persist, even when you fall.

    5. Never Stop Searching for Inspiration

    And, if it’s a guidance you need, where else to seek it than in experiences of others? Find it in art, in people around you, in chance encounters. The pure beauty of perseverance can be discovered where you expect it the least, so never stop searching for inspiration. If self-help literature soothes your pains and clears your mind, don’t let cynics discourage you. Your path toward reconciliation is nobody’s but yours to choose.

    Ever heard of Nick Vujicic? Or Nando Parado? Inspiring people sound their yawps over the roofs of the world, sometimes voiceless, sometimes limbless, sometimes both. Born without arms, Jessica Cox became the most unusual certified pilot in the world, and you can rarely see her without a smile on her face. If you’ve already ripped all of your bucket lists and said goodbye to your dreams and plans, meet Sean Swarner, who’s officially became the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest. The stories just go on.

    Make your own guidebook! Pen down your positive thoughts, cover your walls with quotes and devise your personal mantras. Whenever things get hard, they’ll be there to remind you of what you need to do. It’s the simplest of all life hacks, and one of the most effective ones.

    Find beauty in the world, but never stay blind for its ugliness. However daunting, adversities and emotional pain challenge our inner strength, thus making us resilient and allowing us to grow. As soon as you recognize them as the wind in your sails instead of the devastating storm, the purpose will become simple and clear.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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