When we suffer a great trauma, one of its effects can be to greatly reduce the sense of control we have over our lives, making us feel extremely vulnerable, and, sometimes, leading us to become preoccupied with central questions to our existence such as whether we are a good or bad person if we are making the right choices, whether we are fulfilling our responsibilities, lack of justice in the world, the meaning of life, religion, philosophical beliefs and so on. For many, this can be a torment. Signs that we may be overthinking include:
- constantly feeling anxious
- fear of failure
- tense muscles
- exhaustion/constant fatigue
- inability to live in the present
- overanalyzing ourselves, other people, situations, the meaning of behaviours etc.
- constantly second-guessing ourselves
Remaining stuck in their unpleasant and intrusive thought processes for months or years, feeling constantly victimized, helpless and unable to rebuild our lives can lead to heavy drinking, drugs, over-eating etc. in an attempt to reduce the mental anguish that this over-thinking inevitably leads to.
Feeling dominated by feelings of anger:
Often, in the aftermath of trauma, the person who suffered it finds that his/her thinking becomes very angry. Frequently, this anger is not only directed at the person/s who caused the trauma but, also, at others for their perceived insensitivity to how seriously the person’s life has been affected by the trauma. We may become angry that they do not offer enough support, don’t show sufficient empathy, have failed to grasp the enormity of the trauma’s impact, and so on. We can fall out with these people and become isolated, feeling that others have abandoned us.
Recovering from trauma takes time. We can only re-order our lives gradually, step-by-step. Those we feel are not supporting us may believe we should be able to bounce back quickly and, when we don’t, run out of patience. But this is unrealistic, and, frequently, based on a lack of knowledge about how severe and long-lasting effects of trauma, especially childhood trauma, can be. Even with therapy, people can take years to even start to come to terms with their experiences and may never get over them completely. Unfortunately, the medical profession often treats the person suffering from the effects of trauma with medication. Whilst some find this of help, many others would be better treated by psychological means.
STOP OVER-THINKING :
Ways to stop overthinking about traumatic experiences: Over-thinking about the trauma we experienced often does not move us forward or gain us any insight in relation to what happened to us, but, instead, clouds our mind and keeps us ‘stuck’ in a cycle of futile, self-damaging thought processes. However, we can help ourselves break free of being ‘trapped in our thoughts’ in various ways.
These include :
– telling ourselves we will not let those who caused our trauma ‘win’ by letting the effect they had dominate and destroy our lives
– realize that we may never find answers to the questions that we are tormenting ourselves with, accept this and ‘cut our losses’
– mentally ‘step-back’ from what happened to us – constantly seek out soothing and comforting ways to occupy our time
– stop telling ourselves ‘we will never be happy again’ (as this is a prediction, caused by depression, for which there is no evidence)
– stop isolating ourselves (it is vital to undertake activities which act as positive distractions, and this will often involve interacting with others)
– writing down our feelings if we feel overwhelmed by them – this helps to ‘get the feelings out of our system’ and puts boundaries around them
– accept we may have to live with some emotional pain but that this should not stop us taking steps to reclaim our lives
– connected to this, we need to stop telling ourselves we should be ‘over it by now’ and accept that recovery is often a lengthy process
– rather than use up precious energy feeling angry with the person who caused our trauma, we need to redirect this energy into rebuilding our lives and protecting ourselves from further harm/emotional pain – if we have an ‘internal critic’ (thinking negative thoughts about ourselves) we need to realize this is likely to be the influence of the person who made us feel bad about ourselves and are therefore not a realistic reflection of us, and, in all likelihood, are utterly false.
Surprising Study On Reduction Of Negative, Obsessional Thoughts
As alluded to above, it is far from uncommon for those who have suffered significant childhood trauma to suffer obsessive, negative ruminations relating to the self as adults that become habitual and automatic. Frequently, too, these negative thoughts are irrational and unrealistic and researchers Gladding and Schwartz have referred to them as deceptive brain messages. In their book, entitled: You Are Not Your Brain, Gladding and Schwartz provide examples of such intrusive and obstinately tenacious deceptive brain messages that include :
- fixating upon specific fears and worries
They argue that in order to reduce such negative thinking it is necessary to take advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity (i.e. its ability to change itself) to ‘rewire’ it. In order to achieve this, they recommend their FOUR STEP treatment method. The four steps are as follows :
- RELABEL the negative thoughts in a way which disempowers them (i.e. by labelling them as deceptive brain messages).
- REFRAME attitude towards these deceptive brain messages by viewing them as unimportant and false.
- REFOCUS attention, even whilst being aware of these deceptive brain messages, to a productive and positive activity or mental process.
- REVALUE: adopt a dismissive attitude towards negative thoughts (aka deceptive brain messages) as having little or no value.
Of course, this is very much a simplification of their treatment method, and, to read about it fully, it would be necessary to read their book. Also, a caveat is that the researchers advise that the method is only suitable for those who are suffering mild to moderate symptoms, rather than those with very serious conditions. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, it is not necessary to have read about the method in great detail as I only wish to focus on a study, conducted at UCLA, that revealed that those suffering from OCD could be helped by the treatment method outlined above in a surprising (and very encouraging) way.
The purpose of the Four Step method is, as alluded to above, to rewire the brain in a beneficial way through the focusing of attention and, to test the hypothesis that this is possible, the study (referred to above) was conducted involving individuals who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD) and experienced continual, negative, repetitive intrusive thoughts which caused them distress.
These individuals were then split into two groups, as described below:
GROUP ONE: These individuals were treated with MEDICATION.
GROUP TWO: These individuals were treated by learning the Four Step method (described above).
In order to measure the effectiveness of the treatment given to the participants from each group, each participant underwent a brain scan BEFORE the treatment and, also, TEN TO TWELVE WEEKS after their particular type of treatment (either medication or the Four Step method)
It was found that GROUP TWO (the Four Step method group) participants’ brains were positively changed JUST AS EFFECTIVELY as the brains of participants in GROUP ONE (the medication group). These results add to the now overwhelming body of evidence that, due to its neuroplasticity, the brain can undergo beneficial biological changes in response to therapies that train the individual, over a period of time, to intensely refocus his/her attention.
SURPRISING FOLLOW-UP STUDY:
Even more encouragingly, a follow-up study conducted in Germany found that participants suffering from OCD experienced a statistically significant reduction in their symptoms JUST BY LISTENING TO A CD THAT EXPLAINED THE FOUR STEP METHOD. This finding adds to the pool of evidence showing that psychoeducation alone can be helpful to individuals suffering from mental health problems. This suggests that just understanding what our mental health problem is, and how therapy can potentially help us, in and of itself, may help to ameliorate some mental health conditions.
David Hosier BSc Hons ; MSc ; PGDE(FAHE).