Are You Responding to the Past or to the Present?

For good reason, trauma memories are highly charged and easily recalled. This is an adaptive reaction to detect and protect against future trauma.

For example, if someone was attacked by a tiger, then that person would be very aware of anything that could possibly be a tiger. If the person walks into a room that has an orange carpet, this could trigger a perception of danger. The person may have a racing heart, shallow breathing, and an intense sense of fear. Logically, there is no danger. The person knows that the orange carpet is not dangerous. However, it plugs in a neural network activating memories of near-death experiences, and the person responds as if he or she is in extreme and overwhelming danger.  

Similarly, a certain smell, sight, or sound—or being in certain places, or around certain types of people—can trigger a trauma neural network and evoke the same response of fear of imminent danger.

The COPE strategy can be used to help a person come back to the here and now, breathe, get grounded, and reassure the self that he or she is safe. COPE stands for:

  • Cleansing breath (deep breath in through the nose, and exhale out with a sigh)
  • Observation (scanning the environment, observing one’s reactions)
  • Positive self-talk (I’m ok, this will pass)
  • Explanation (this is only a trigger)

COPE is effective at helping someone calm down from a trigger, intrusive thought, or sudden bout of anxiety. With practice, the fear reaction will start to shorten in duration, lessen in intensity, and may even occur less frequently.

However, the neural network is still intact. So how does one go about changing the network of associations especially of highly charged emotional experiences?

First, let’s explore how these networks are formed. As discussed in the previous post, learning occurs by linking information in networks. A more developed and complex network leads to deep learning or nuanced learning. New experiences can reinforce learning which can strengthen an existing network, or a new experience that does not fit with the old model can cause shifts, exceptions, new branches, or other alterations from the original network.

In other words, neural networks are formed, maintained, and altered by experience. This is a learning model that references a vast reserve of memories (learned material) and is simultaneously interacting with new experiences on a daily basis. For efficiency, we tend to disregard a lot of information and tend to clump things together within existing networks. We use various cognitive short cuts called heuristics to help us generalize and process information more efficiently.

One of the heuristics that we use, I call experiential holograms (see Katz, 2005). Experiential holograms are formed through experience and become a filter or lens through which we anticipate, assume, interpret, and respond to life (more to come on experiential holograms in future posts). We have expectations about how things will be in the future based on how they have been in our past. Therefore, we respond to our perceptions of the present but it is filtered through our experiences of the past.

Circling back to the person who walked into a room with orange carpet, this person was responding to images of an attacking tiger from the past, not necessarily to the carpet in the present. In this way, our holograms, albeit efficient, keep us responding relative to past experiences. I ask my class of students, “What does your future look like if you are responding from the past?” “What does the future look like if you are fully in the present?” 

In order to change a neural network, new learning has to occur.  When we are focusing on experiential or emotional learning, then the learning has to engage the emotional system. In other words, logic in and of itself, does not change a trauma network. The person standing on orange carpet logically knows there is no danger, it is only carpet. But the emotional system is responding to images of the past. The person can use COPE to calm the nervous system but the network is still intact.

There are many ways to engage emotional learning such as new emotionally dis-confirming experiences, insight that changes perception at the emotional level, and using imagery to induce a new emotional experience.

Daily challenge:  Are you responding to the present or the past? The next time you notice yourself having an emotional experience, ask yourself, “does this current situation remind me of something from my past?  Does this emotion plug in a string of memories for me?” If you are responding to something from the past, how can you make it better this time? Life presents opportunities to practice new responses and thereby, rescript (rewrite) old patterns.

Neural networks, triggers, and holograms.
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What does your future look like if you are living from the past? Here's how trauma holograms keep us stuck.
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Katz, L. (2005). Holographic Reprocessing: A cognitive-experiential psychotherapy for the treatment of trauma. Brunner-Routledge, New York.

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Are You Responding to the Past or to the Present?