PTSD and the science behind why you can’t just “get over it”

This question comes up a lot. If it’s something you ask yourself, please read this. If other people ask you why you aren’t over it yet – please share this with them, and maybe it will help them to understand.

Trauma memories aren’t like other memories – they don’t fade over time. Every time you think of them, they feel like they just happened yesterday (or worse – like they’re happening now).

Here’s why, in a nutshell:

Think of your brain as having two main parts:

Part 1 is your “Thinking Brain”. The thinking Brain is smart, rational and fact-based. We’re conscious of the thoughts it comes up with. It plans, organizes, and problem-solves.

When it stores a memory, it’s like a librarian – it organizes by theme and date. So, its memories of your senior year of high school might include the music you liked that year; the person you had a crush on; the part-time job you worked; and, oh dear, that goofy haircut you had that was so stylish back then. Remembering these memories feels like you’re looking through an old photo album – there’s a distinct sense of “me-now” remembering what happened to “me-then”.

Part 2 is your “Threat-Response Brain”. We’ve talked about this one before, here, here, and here; it’s not smart, it’s not rational, and you’re not consciously aware of what it thinks.

Your Threat-Response Brain stores memory very differently – and it does so on purpose.

Pretend you touched a hot stove once, as a small child; you burned your hand and cried.

To be good at predicting future threats, your Threat-Response Brain needs to know that “hot things hurt“. Time and context don’t matter: you don’t want a Threat Brain that thinks “Yeah, I hurt myself on a hot stove – but it was Grandma’s old gas stove, back when I was a kid, and she was cooking breakfast; I’m an adult now, in my house, making dinner, and my stove is electric, so let’s try touching it, because maybe it’ll feel good.”

Yeah – that really wouldn’t help much, now would it?

The way the Threat-Response Brain works is: “Every time I see/hear/smell something that reminds me of the time I got hurt, there might be danger.” The threat brain also generalizes to similar threats – so, if you hurt yourself by touching a hot stove, you don’t need to also touch a hot iron, and stick your hand in a campfire – your threat brain learns that hot = pain.

This is why memories of trauma stay fresh and vivid in your mind, even years or decades later: they are kept in a different part of your brain than other memories. The point of the Threat-Response Brain is to protect you – so it makes sure you remember danger as if it had just happened.

So – how do you cope with this stuff, when it gets triggered? You use grounding skills. Remind yourself that feeling triggered means that your Threat-Response Brain is reacting to a memory – it doesn’t mean that you’re in danger now. Tell yourself, “my threat-response brain is reacting right now because this looks/smells/sounds similar to my trauma – but that was years ago, and I’m here now, and that’s not happening anymore.” This helps you refocus on the here-and-now.

To fine-tune your Threat-Response Brain’s reactions, there are no quick and easy tricks I can teach you in a blog post – but, there are specific therapies out there (EMDR or cognitive processing for example) that can help with that.

Please feel free to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by M & C Charbonneau, and I’d like to thank them for generously allowing me to use their work. Please do not copy photographs from Coming Back Home without permission.

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5 thoughts on “PTSD and the science behind why you can’t just “get over it”

  1. Thanks for this great post, Dr. Dee! You’ve got a talent for making complicated processes easier to understand.

    Glad to have you back on the blogosphere!


  2. Well written article my friend! Thank you for laying that aspect of the trauma out in an easy to read and understand manner!

    The way my therapist explained it to me once, not all that long ago, was this…

    He held one fist up and said, here’s your overwhelming, and overpowering emotions, bred of a 5 year old little boy, so so deeply traumatized, that he could not possibly begin to understand them…

    Then he held up the other fist, and said, Then here’s your 34 year old rational, reasonable adult mind, trying to use rationale, and reason to resolve a deep seeded emotion born of a complete lack of any rational and reasonable thoughts… Even for that of an adult.
    You cannot fight these sort of deep seeded emotions with rationale or reason… You have to learn to separate the two.

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