Words are useful tools. They let us have conversations with our friends; share thoughts and ideas with others; express love and hate, adoration and disapproval. They let us share our stories, and when we’re able, ask for help when we’re hurt. So why is it so hard to find the words we want when we’re trying to talk about our trauma?
1) We’re not sure who to trust with these experiences. Let’s face it, not everyone can handle hearing about traumatic events. Period. Parents, best friends, work wives/husbands can be great for gossip, moral support, and even deep philosophical conversations, but when it comes down to it, “trauma buddy” just may not be a skill in their toolbox. That’s okay! But it can make dealing with trauma isolating. After trauma even the “small” task of trust can feel like a risk. Making the decision to ask for help can sometimes be the hardest decision we ever make. And if our words seem to fail in those exact moments when we need them most (see #3 for who to blame. Hint: It’s not you!), it can be even more isolating.
2) We are taught not to talk about it. No matter the nature, trauma is a deeply personal experience. For a million reasons (society, family, personality), the shame that often follows trauma has this uncanny ability to make us think that we have to bear these loads by ourselves. Our childhoods and pasts may have given us the same messages. Maybe we were taught that bearing our hurts silently was the only way to be strong. Maybe we were raised in environments that actively discouraged discussing difficult things. Many of us may have even learned that the vulnerability shown by asking for help was a sign of moral weakness. As a result, many of us can get caught in the spiral of what I like to call the “Trauma Olympics”—the idea that someone else has gone through much worse, so we don’t deserve the gold medal of getting to ask for help. Except that we do. YOU do.
3) Trauma recall happens in the visceral, visual parts of the brain. When we have traumatic experiences, we often find that we cannot immediately make sense of those events in words. You ever notice how sometimes when trying to recall those memories, your heart races, your breathing may increase, you see only images? Our brains store intense memories like trauma in our limbic system, especially a tiny part called the amygdala, which is in charge of warning us of impending danger and activating our stress systems. When we remember those experiences, that danger center activates. Studies have also found that the area of our brain that takes in and processes visuals is stimulated when we merely remember traumatic events—almost as if we are experiencing them again. The area of the brain that goes silent? The area that processes language and produces words (specifically, Broca’s area). So when we try to talk about what we’ve experienced, we may get only flickers of light in an otherwise dark memory, or maybe even images that are incredibly clear—and may be replayed when we least expect or want to see them. But, we can’t help it! Literally blame our brains.
“Ok, great,” you may be thinking. “But how do I get the words and how do I know what to do with them?” In short: with help. Finding the right kind of care in these moments can be crucial. Trauma-informed counseling is centered around creating a safe environment where no one is pushed to find those elusive words before you’re able. Whether we have experienced trauma once, twice, or throughout our lives, feeling secure and equipped enough to learn how to form relationships where we can trust and feel heard again can be the first step to healing. It can help us focus on understanding the toll those experiences can have on us so we can finally give ourselves a voice.
Trauma-informed counseling can help us redefine strength, to decide for ourselves if and when we talk about difficult things, and to realize that the ability to lean on others is not a sign of weakness but one of power and connection. It’s tough to finally make the decision to tell someone else the story of your life and of your pain. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable takes a lot of guts. And even if you can’t find the words now, with help, you eventually will. No one has to do it alone.