This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 4: LEARN MY SUFFERING STORY which I use to make sense of my experience.”
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To understand how a trauma created a story “frozen in time,” it can be helpful to understand how trauma moves from an experience to a narrative. That journey progresses from (a) facts / experience, to (b) emotions / reactions, and then takes on (c) meaning / significance.
- Facts / Experience: This is what you began to sort through in step 2. Every story is filled with facts and events; people who do things, places where things happen, and things that are used for purposes. What happened? Who did it? How long did it take? These basic questions can become confused after a trauma because the experience is so surreal we wonder, “Did it really happen? Can this be true? Is this really possible?”
- Emotions / Reactions: This is what you began to identify in step 3. Emotions are part of the experience, but they are more subjective than the facts of the experience itself. While facts and experiences remain the same, emotions and reactions change with time. Perhaps you were terrified at first, angry as reality set in, and now ashamed. The narrative you use to explain the traumatic experience would likely change as these reactions changed.
- Meaning / Significance: Now in steps 4-6 you will articulate, grieve, and replace the way you understand your trauma. Who you see as guilty-innocent, active-passive, aware-ignorant, complicit-irrelevant, etc… changes the nature of each character and relationship in your story? What you believe is safe, possible, or warranted now is part of your story. How the experiences impact your future aspirations, how you answer the “why?” question, and how you believe other people should respond now is part of the story.
Whatever we come to believe at the level of meaning-significance becomes the background music of our lives. We perceive each moment or respond to each moment as if it adheres to the tone of this music. It becomes the assumed explanation, tone, or outcome for day-to-day experiences.
“One observer describes the trauma story in its untransformed state as a ‘pre-narrative.’ It does not develop or progress in time, and it does not reveal the storyteller’s feelings or interpretations of events (p. 175).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
“Life goes on, and so does much growth, but the trauma itself and the lessons derived from that trauma are sealed away, unaffected by new experience in information. I often tell survivors that it is as if part of their thinking got frozen in time (p. 133).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope
The result is that we get older and wiser. We gain new experiences, skills, and relationships. But when something resonates with our trauma experience, we have a strong tendency to allow our suffering story, the meaning we placed on our suffering, to explain, define, or consume that present moment. Whether it is as intense as a visual-auditory flashback or as subtle as a misplaced heightened sense of alarm, we revert back to the suffering story as our grand narrative.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.