How trauma leads us to sabotage our thinking, just when we need it most!
Brain freeze, foggy thinking, going blank, these are familiar experiences for many of us when we are under pressure. We remember exam nerves and our worry that we will forget everything that we learned. Fortunately, for most people these unpleasant moments don’t come along very often.
But, for some people, they are a regular occurrence, sometimes being a daily blight. What is going on?
When we think about trauma we may often think about the physical and emotional aspects- the body going into shock, feeling numb and disconnected, or experiencing intrusive images. However, trauma impacts our thinking too. In fact, the trauma doesn’t have to ‘seem like much’ for it to produce this effect.
Example- you go into a shop, a customer who you don’t know appears to look you up and down. You have to wait a moment to be served and in that time the words you had ready for the shopkeeper disappear and are replaced by nothing. They disappear and you are left with a blank mind. Noticing your blank mind panics you; you feel unable to recover the situation, so you leave the shop.
When faced with an interpersonal threat (not being approved of, in the above example) some people will brush it off ‘I’m not bothered if someone looks at me in a funny way. It’s their problem’.
However, for people who have prior experience of this, especially with people who mattered such as family members or teachers, it can feel impossible to ignore it or dismiss it. When we have had the experience before- belittlement, humiliation, being shown up in public- and it has not healed, then the wound remains open. An open wound is always painful when touched.
In the above example, the person’s mind shuts down because it perceives the situation as threatening. The mind is, of course, correct, but it is not helpful to the person. In fact, it leaves the person stranded.
The mind says “I just shut everything down so you wouldn’t have to experience that unpleasantness again. No brain, no pain, you might say”. Except that, instead of the injury ending there, insult is added to it because now the person feels bad about themselves “I can’t believe that happened. How could I be so stupid. I’m really angry with MYSELF”.
So, the anger, or at least displeasure, at someone else’s rudeness is now turned inward, and the upshot is that the person will feel less trusting of themselves in future similar situations.
In that example, the person’s mind froze. Another way we can sabotage our own thinking is when underlying beliefs about ourselves produce fog in our brain. A really common one is people getting foggy headed when faced with maths or diagrams for assembling IKEA furniture (furniture fog/ mobel dimma in Swedish). Women particularly acknowledge this, but men often struggle with foreign language learning but don’t label themselves as stupid. Well, we are told from a young age how important maths is, but other languages are often under valued by English speakers!
What could help?
The first thing to know is that ‘micro traumas’ are very common. Actually, I hesitate to call them that because they can have a huge impact on people’s lives. I prefer to think of them as ‘subtle traumas’ because they can go unnoticed, even by ourselves.
The second thing to know is that ‘objective awareness’ is crucial. This is observation and awareness of what is happening to you without judgement of yourself. Typically we judge ourselves in these situations, and this leads into a spiral of negativity directed at ourselves which only keeps the wound open. Objective awareness means noticing what your reactions are and asking yourself questions such as ‘Could I have stayed in the shop and brought my voice back. If I had given myself a little more time to recover I might have been able to stay’ or ‘what would I want to do differently next time to help myself?’
The third thing to do is to know that reversing a pattern takes time and conscious effort. Be kind with yourself and keep a spirit of open enquiry as you help yourself. Keep in mind that it is you who has received unwarranted negativity; you haven’t done anything wrong!
Fourthly, ‘subtle traumas’ often have family history too. A parent, grandparent or other relative may well have struggled with the same issue or experience. Sometimes we are carrying unprocessed hurt for our living and deceased relatives, as well as for ourselves. Taking time to imagine what it might have been like for that loved one to struggle with similar can reveal helpful insights and be surprisingly freeing to us.
Lastly, our minds are wonderfully willing to learn. Given direction and help from us, they can achieve much more than our limiting beliefs would have us believe. Even mobler lycka (furniture happiness) is possible.