ARE THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA PERMANENT?
Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I had a lot of stress and anxiety problems because of a traumatic event, but I got rid of it all with counseling. I don’t have to worry about that anymore”?
Do you agree with them? If you’re troubled by excessive fear and anxiety because of some experience, can you realistically expect to “get rid of it”? Can you delete those unpleasant emotions from your mind? Don’t bet on it.
When Robyn was a first-year college student she became romantically involved with a senior. The relationship began well and provided Robyn with a lot of security as she began the often-troubling college adventure. After a few months, however, things soured. The guy became overly controlling, and physically and emotionally abusive. Robyn was traumatized and felt trapped by this dominant presence in her life who seemed to exert absolute control over her.
Robyn nearly transferred at the end of her first semester, but she stuck it out and decided to wait until the end of the year. The guy graduated and basically disappeared from her life. She opened up about the true nature of the relationship to her parents and some friends. With their help she decided to return to the same school because she liked her major, the professors, and many other aspects of her college life. Besides, her tormentor was gone.
Robyn had a successful post-tormentor college experience, graduated with honors, and began what turned out to be a successful career with a small company. As far as she was concerned, the anxiety and stress of her first year was gone forever. She had moved on.
In her mid-30s she met a guy and became romantically involved. She began to believe that Steve was “the one,” except for one part of him that made her uncomfortable: he loved doing things for her; he always wanted to pick up the check; he liked to do the driving and be in charge of making plans, reservations, and other small day-to-day things.
One day Robyn confided to her old college friend: “He’s such a great guy but I’m getting really anxious about the way he wants to be in charge. He’s doing it because he loves me, but it’s starting to scare me. I don’t know why. I love this guy so much but……I’m feeling trapped, suffocated, overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to go into a complete panic.”
Her friend smiled and almost laughed: “My god, Robyn, don’t you see that he’s reminding you of that f….er in college who ran your life into the ground? Yeh, he means well, but he’s bringing back all the anxiety you suffered when that asshole was running your life! I was there! That s..t nearly ruined your life. My God, you have to talk to Steve and let him know that you can’t have him doing everything for you….he has to treat you like an equal or the relationship won’t work!”
Great advice. (Her friend must have been a psychology major!) Robyn didn’t realize that the emotional residue from her trauma of years ago wasn’t gone; it was merely dormant, latent, lying just below the surface of her conscious mind ready to pounce when prompted. Steve’s well-intentioned actions served as that prompt, and the visceral fears and anxieties of being enslaved were reawakened in Robyn’s consciousness.
Yes, they talked it out, discovered new things about each other, saw the need to allow each other to be autonomous and independent partners in the relationship, and moved their bond to a deeper level of understanding. The friend was Maid-of-Honor a year later.
Traumatic experiences change you for the long run; the effects of trauma, to one degree or another, are permanent. You can’t expect to eliminate those effects so they’ll never bother you again. The effects may be subtle, but they are there nevertheless. That being the case, you will not do yourself any favors to deceive yourself into believing that you will never again be affected by residual effects of the trauma, even though it occurred long ago. In a sense, carrying such a belief is a form of denial, a type of “expunging the record,” so to speak, and moving on as if the event never occurred. That may work with an adolescent shoplifting conviction that is expunged from the record, but it won’t work with the emotional baggage of a traumatic event.
The event did occur, and that will be your reality for the rest of your life. Given that reality, what is your best strategy? First, accept that it occurred and that it makes you permanently vulnerable in ways you were not before the event. Second, follow a coping plan that allows you to integrate the event appropriately into your current reality. Finally, wrap it up in a box and put it on a back shelf in your mind where it will gather dust.
Just remember that the reality of the event is always there; it doesn’t go away. That presence makes you permanently vulnerable. And that vulnerability can allow some future event to remind you of the original trauma’s presence, re-awaken the original anxiety, and require you to re-package it and store it away once again. Being aware of your vulnerability will make you better able to cope with these new challenges based on old anxieties.
So skip the fantasy-like belief that, “I will never again be bothered by that crisis!” Be realistic and admit that the event can leave you vulnerable, not to dominate you or to define your life and who you are, but require you to deal once again with core emotions associated with the event.