When I first consult with a person who is struggling with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) they sometimes feel that it’s a bad idea to intentionally revisiting the events that led to the PTSD. They will say:
“Why would I willingly revisit the very event that is causing me so much trouble?”
“If revisiting the memory would help, I’d be better already because I relive that event every day!”
“What I really want to do is forget about it and not have to think about it ever again!”
Is focusing on the trauma that created the PTSD really a good idea? No. Yes. It depends. All the above. There is no one definitive answer. So, lets look at why it can be a bad idea, why it can be a good idea, and what determines if revisiting the traumatic experience is helpful or harmful.
It’s A Bad Idea
- Re-traumatizing: Going back into that memory, reliving it, again and again can actually create more trauma and make the symptoms that a person is struggling with worse.
- Nothing Changes: Retelling the same story, over and over doesn’t change how we experience the memory. We can come to feel like we are reciting a script, we use the same words every time and they never make it any better.
- Feel worse: Not only does it not make us feel any better, it opens up an awful can of worms that we might struggle all day to re-contain.
- Negative Focus: When we focus on awful events we can ruin our whole day. Not only because we feel worse, but because when we are thinking about negative things we are more likely to notice other negative things. All the bad stuff will stand out like it’s lit up with neon and the positive stuff will recede and go unnoticed.
So, if all these negative things can happen from revisiting past upsetting events, why would we ever do it? Well, we do it because there can be a great deal of positive outcomes from revisiting those past experiences.
It’s A Good Idea
- New Perspective: When we revisit past experiences that were traumatic we can gain new perspective on what happened and come to see it differently.
- Stops Intruding: When we have successfully revisited those past experiences, they stop demanding our attention and popping up at the worse times.
- Release Painful Emotions: Revisiting our past pain can help us let go of the painful feelings that are attached to those experiences.
- Removes Landmines: Upsetting events in our past can be triggered (brought to mind) by things in our current lives. In order to reduce how often we think about those past awful experiences, we shrink our lives in hopes of avoiding those landmines. Revisiting our past can make it so those current day triggers stop blowing up our lives.
- Opens New Possibilities: Living our lives in order to avoid stepping on the landmines of our PTSD puts huge limitations on our lives. If the landmines have been removed, we can create fuller lives for ourselves.
- See Clearer: Unresolved painful past experiences can tint or twist how we perceive the world. Revisiting those events can allow us to untwist how we see the world. (example: a war vet may find the whole world threatening and dangerous, healing can allow them to see that there is danger but that there is also safety and joy).
Now that sounds great. But the other stuff sounds horrid, so how do we avoid the negative outcomes and achieve the positive ones? That is where the “It Depends” part of the possible answers comes in.
On What Does It Depend
- How we revisit: This is the most important part (and unfortunately the most often missing part)! How we are when we revisit those past experiences will determine if we cause more trauma or create healing. Healing can only occur when we revisit those past traumatizing events without being in a danger response (Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn). We also must not be totally disconnected from the emotions of the event. We must be in touch with the emotions but not overwhelmed by them. We must be in touch with the memory while still present in the current moment. For many people struggling with PTSD, creating this ability to revisit a traumatic experience without being in a traumatic state must happen before revisiting those memories.
- What we do when we revisit: If we think back to a traumatic experience and simply pay attention to how bad it sucks we are far less likely to create change then if we think back to that event and allow our mind to integrate it into our history (EMDR therapy is great to tool for this integration). As we integrate the experience into our history our experience of it will change.
- How we contain it between: When we are revisiting traumatic events, we must be able to shut it down between visits. Before I work with clients to heal from traumatic events, I will work with them to build skills for containing and managing their experiences between sessions. Healing from past trauma can be a bit of a rough ride at times, particularly at the beginning when we are still working to build skills. As skills are built and the past is successfully revisited things start to improve and the changes can be dramatic and wonderful.
Revisiting the past events that led to a person’s PTSD can be, when done right, a very beneficial experience. When done wrong it will not be helpful and can even create more problems. The best way to ensure that this work is successful is to find a therapist that is skilled in working with trauma and PTSD.