What does it mean to be defined by your past? The answer lies in the brain. The brain’s primary function is to keep you alive and safe, and that function will override any and all other functions when it perceives that you are in danger. When I use the word perceive, I mean that over the course of your life, your brain has learned what is dangerous, physically and emotionally, so whenever a situation presents itself, your brain immediately recalls whether any danger has been associated with this type of situation in your past experiences or learning. If so, your brain will react protectively.
Learning in the Brain
Your brain learns every time you encounter a dangerous situation. For example, the first time you were burned with fire, your brain learned that fire was hot, painful, and dangerous. This programming is deep and long lasting. For the rest of your life, you will always have some level of fear around being burned by fire. The same type of learning happens with emotional danger, particularly when shame is involved. Brain imaging suggests that when a person is overwhelmed with shame, it acts protectively in that same way it would if you were dying. This suggests that the brain does not distinguish between shame and death. This further suggests that we learn to defend against anything that the brain perceives as shameful. This may include performance, looks, perceived competence, social behavior, status, and more.
Trauma is any event or sequence of events, physical or emotional, that has permanently raised the brain’s and body’s awareness and preparedness for danger beyond normal levels. After a traumatic event, there are often permanent changes. A person’s heart rate may permanently increase or decrease, they may become hyperaware of any potential danger, have an increased startle response, have unexplained anxiety, have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, and perhaps most troubling of all, they may have a difficulty maintaining healthy relationships. In this way, our past is defined by trauma, holding us back like a ball and chain shackled to our ankle.
Getting your Life Back
To restore the person you were, or perhaps discover the person you never had the chance to become, the brain needs to learn that you are now safe, and it needs to learn how to lower its defenses when they are not necessary. The brain will not let its defenses go lightly as its primary function is to keep you alive and safe. It takes time, and it usually requires professional help. As the brain’s defenses begin to lighten up, you are freed to find yourself. This happens naturally since your faculties are no longer bogged down by the need to be constantly on guard. People who recover from trauma find that they feel new peace and enjoyment in life, greatly improved relationships, and perhaps most of all, they feel that they are no longer defined by their past.
If you feel like you are defined by your past, if you are having trouble moving forward, or if you just need to get a few things off of your chest please contact our office today. We have a team of experts who are ready and eager to help you move forward. We will help you recover from your mental trauma.