Digging into your past might seem counterproductive to healing, but it’s possible to be resilient in the face of past trauma or tragic circumstances. You are the author of your life story. That means you have the power to decide whether or not your trauma should even play a part in who you are.
The famed author Leo Tolstoy once wrote that “only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
Tolstoy knew about grieving. As a child, he lost his brother. As an adult, he lost his son to scarlet fever.
However, he also knew that he couldn’t be his best version of himself when he was in that state. He loved himself and his family too much to allow the sorry to consume him.
Grieving comes from not only a death, but also past regrets, losing a relationship, losing hopes and dreams, and losing yourself. It might be time to love yourself enough to give yourself permission to grieve your past — and then move forward.
Trauma: Then and Now
As you have most likely noticed, adults and children process situations in their lives differently. For example, the American Counseling Association notes that children between the ages of three and five who experience a loss might feel responsible for it; as children get older, their responses are different. Children between six and 12 years old might experience greater fear and sadness, along with a belief that the person who died may come back. Teenagers are more likely to internalize their grief, exhibiting their pain through uncharacteristic behaviors.
As an adult, you’ve seen that while traumatic situations still hurt, you’ve gotten to a place where you’re able to process the situation. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t mean that moving past the grief is easier. It does mean that you’re better able to learn that the five traditional stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) really aren’t sufficient. Time Magazine calls it the American Way of Grief, and they write about some of the myths, including the idea that grief never ends, with the first person to record the five stages noting that “the reality is that you will grieve forever.”
The good news? You don’t have to grieve forever in the same way. A 2002 study led by George A. Bonanno found that in a group of 205 elderly individuals, nearly half had no signs of depression, intrusive thoughts or anxiety in the six months after their spouses passed away. Yes, they missed their spouses. Yes, they thought about their spouses. But, as Time says, “most people respond to loss with resiliency.”
Guarded Grief: How Your Brain Stores Memory and Grief
Grieving doesn’t have to center on losing someone close to you, although that often brings with it a distinct level of grief. Abuse, disasters, unexpected life changes — all of these are forms of trauma that can cause you to grieve. Without you realizing it, grief can take on different forms.
A study by J. Douglas Bremner, M.D., found that “traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in [the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.]” Bremner’s report noted that from early childhood to the later years in life, each of our brains undergo structural and functional changes. He points out that limited research has been done on the different effects that trauma has on the brain’s microbiology depending on when the trauma occurred.
His study shows that early stress had lasting effects on the HPA axis and norepinephrine; even memory function is affected, as the amygdala, hippocampus, and medial prefrontal cortex all control and contribute to memories.
When you’re writing your life story, and want to include memories from your childhood, it’s important to keep in mind some of the research that has come out. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published a study, led by Takashi Kitamura, that questions the way memories are formed.
They note that the hippocampus stores short-term memories; the prefrontal cortex also holds traces of the memory, even though the memory itself lies dormant. In the long-term, the amygdala holds on to the memories, and cells that are “necessary to evoke the emotions linked with particular memories, communicate with [cells] in both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.”
As you can see, the three areas of your brain most responsible for safeguarding and recalling the memories you’ll either write about or want to heal from can be molded and changed because of any incidences of trauma and grief you’ve gone through.
However, Bremner said that the “hippocampus demonstrates an unusual capacity for neuronal plasticity and regeneration.” This means that, for you, you can find healing, strength, and peace, even when you’ve been grieving your past.
Dig Into Your Past
As you’re writing your life story, you might find that certain components of your life story make you extremely emotional; these often include traumatic events in your life. Incidents that occurred in your childhood can be the ones that sneak up on you during your adult years, often when you least expect it, and give you a painful bite that leaves a lasting impression and impacts your daily life.
Say, for example, you spent your childhood feeling lonely, rejected, and ignored. Repeated scenarios reinforced those memories — but the traumatic stress associated with them shaped your long-term recollection of what may have happened. Now, though, despite your adult perspective and ability to rationalize the emotions you felt with facts about your family and friends, you may still encounter periods when these emotions overpower your ability to think about the truth.
Digging into your past might seem counterproductive to healing. After all, you’re now intentionally looking to bring the pain to the surface and recreate the same uncomfortable and traumatic stressors that shaped your memories. This time, though, you can look at them from a healthy and detached point of view that will let you treat the hurt, pain, and grief with logic, reality, and rational thinking.
Give Yourself Time and Space to Grieve
Remember, the feelings you experience might be painful and hard to bear — but not unbearable. Writing about your grief and trauma is one of the most beneficial ways you can address the different types of trauma you’ve experienced, no matter when they happened in your life.
Ideally, you’ll start with freewriting, a technique that allows your brain and subconscious thought to dictate to your hand. In other words — just start writing. Let the words flow out freely, without worrying about grammar, spelling, or how the situations make you feel. When you take the step toward writing your life story, you’re also taking a step that leads toward healing from trauma. Neither step is easy. But when you write about the traumatic events that caused you so much pain, these incidents lose their ability to continuously hurt you.
There’s a difference between grieving your past and remembering your past.
As research has shown, it’s possible to look back on a terribly difficult situation without feeling grief over what happened. This should be your ultimate goal.
By writing about the traumatic memories, you’re exposing them, airing them out, turning them over in your more-mature mind, and deciding what to do with the incident.
Perhaps you want to learn from what happened. Maybe you want to focus on something good about the situation. You might even find that even if you can’t find a takeaway, you can now look back on what happened to you objectively, realizing that you are in control, not the traumatic stressor, and you can lead a joy-filled life in spite of what has happened to you.
When you’re at this point, you can see that, whether you processed in five stages of grief or jumped right to acceptance, whether your memories were accurate or not, or whether you now look back with a clearer vision, you have come to the point in which your grief has faded. The memory is just that, a memory, and you have the power to decide if this trauma is something that warrants space in your life story, or was just a terrible or unfortunate incident.
- Start by freewriting. First, write about the situations you remember. Describe the incident itself, along with the emotions you felt and the way you’re still impacted today. Then, allow your brain to stir up the memories you thought you’d forgotten, and give them the same space to come out. Even if these incidents won’t play a part in your final life story, they more than likely played a part in making you who you are today.
- Make a choice. Write down the feelings associated with that incident. List the way you felt when it happened, and the way it makes you feel. Then, look at your life. Do these emotions have space in your life? Are they accurate representations of how you feel? In the long run, do you want to continue to allow these thoughts to dictate your current esteem, relationships, and more?
- Let the trauma go. Once you’ve decided that you no longer want these incidents to keep hurting you, let them go. Feel everything you need to feel — and then talk yourself through each feeling. Give yourself evidence that tells the voices in your head and heart that you are through allowing the trauma to run your life and write your life story.
You are the author of your life story. That means you have the power to decide whether or not your trauma should even play a part in who you are. Look at your past, grieve your past — and then put your past behind you.
Fascinating further reading and listening on overcoming trauma and grief:
- The Sociopath’s Wife – Why Writing About Your Ex Can Change Your Life
- Doing Storywork With Your Pat with Rachael Anne Clinton
- Fostering Resilience Through Grief with Jeanette White
- A Safe and Proven Way to Recover From Your Traumatic Life
- Skeletons on Parade: Passing Down Your Unique (or Shameful) Family History