Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I had a lot of stress and anxiety because of a traumatic event, but I got rid of it all with counseling. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” Do you agree with them? If you’re troubled by excessive fear and anxiety because of some unpleasant experience, can you realistically expect to “get rid of those emotions”? Can you delete them from your mind? Don’t bet on it.
When Robyn was a first-year college student she became romantically involved with a senior student. The relationship began well and provided Robyn with 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 began to feel traumatized and felt increasingly trapped by this a guy 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. Over the summer, Robyn 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. She socialized and went to parties, but she avoided “getting serious” with anyone. She 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 in college was gone forever. She had moved on.
In her mid-30s she met Steve 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 dinner check; he liked to do the driving; he wanted to 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 and I start gasping for air.”
Her friend almost laughed: “My god, Robyn, don’t you see that he reminds 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 a**hole 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, that he has to treat you like an equal or the relationship won’t work!”
Great advice. 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 emotionally enslaved by her college boyfriend were reawakened in Robyn’s consciousness.
Robyn took her friend’s advice and she and Steve talked everything over. They 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 Robyn’s 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 by deceiving yourself into believing that you will never again be affected by residual effects of the trauma, even though it occurred long ago. 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 Court records, 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. You can’t delete it.
Given that reality, what is your best strategy? First, accept that the event occurred and that it makes you permanently vulnerable in ways you were not before the event. Second, just like Robyn did with Steve, follow a coping plan that allows you to integrate the event appropriately into your current reality. Finally, practice actions that are counter to the core fear. Once Robyn talked things over with Steve, she was able to behave independently without fear of rejection. Her actions allowed her to symbolically wrap the core conflict up in a box and put it on a back shelf in her mind to gather dust.
Just remember, the reality of the event is there; it doesn’t disappear, but is put off to the side so it doesn’t dominate your life. Accept that you are permanently vulnerable to some future event that can remind you of the original trauma, re-awaken the original anxiety, and require you to re-package it and store it away once again. Being aware of that 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 leaves you vulnerable, not to dominate you or to define your life and who you are, but possibly require you to deal once again with core emotions associated with the event. That realistic awareness will help you be better prepared to face future crises that might awaken the earlier emotions.
Listen to a 35-year old woman in psychotherapy: “It has taken me years to come to grips with the fact that I was sexually abused by my father when I was 8-years old. I spent my youth denying it, pushing it back in my mind, refusing to think about it so the memory would go away. But it never went away, and it almost destroyed my life and my relationships with men. I have finally accepted the reality of it; yes, it happened; I am a victim. But that doesn’t make me deserving of any special treatment. I can’t wear it on my sleeve like a note that says, ‘Treat me gently because I was sexually abused as a child.’ No, I can’t expect anyone to pad the corners of my world for me. It happened but it will not dominate me because it was not my fault and I should not feel any personal shame for it. I have finally tucked it away in a closet in my mind. It’s there and if something should happen to open that closet door, I’m ready to deal with it.”