Certain family members have, in the past, objected to my preoccupation with my childhood. However, such criticism is predicated upon the fallacious notion that we can choose what we think about. We can’t. The most famous example which helps to illustrate this is that if you tell a person ‘not to think of a pink elephant for the next minute’ s/he will find it impossible to comply with the instruction. Feel free to test this out!
Indeed, telling me to stop thinking about my childhood was tantamount to telling me to stop thinking in English and to start thinking in Chinese instead. (You will not be startled to learn that I don’t speak a word of Chinese.)
Our constant re-experiencing of our childhood trauma and/or the feelings it engendered in us may take the following forms:
– intense, vivid, terrifying nightmares
– intrusive thoughts (ie. distressing thoughts about our childhood trauma which invade our mind against our will)
– flashbacks – these involve feelings that we are re-experiencing our childhood trauma or particular aspects of it
– emotional distress, especially when something happens that remind us of our childhood trauma (this reminding will frequently take place on an unconscious level)
– physiology – including raised heart beat, raised blood pressure, sweating, trembling, dizziness and hyperventilation.
So why do so many of us ruminate to the point of obsession about our childhood traumatic experiences? What purpose does it serve?
A major reason we can become preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and memories relating to our childhood trauma is believed to be because the brain does not process traumatic memories in the way it processes ordinary memories.
However, for us to achieve psychological health, the traumatic memories need to be properly processed and our preoccupation with them, including nightmares, intrusive memories and flashbacks represent the brain’s desperate attempts to carry out this processing. Our brains replay our trauma over and over again in order to help us gain a full sense of understanding about what happened to us and to help us manage, and gain control over, the feelings associated with trauma.
Relaxation techniques such as self-hypnosis can also help to calm us when we experience intrusive thoughts and flashbacks.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).