The continued influence of trauma after-the-fact is real, because the phenomenon of mental time travel is real. So if you’re trying to heal from trauma, have some compassion for the task you’re attempting. It’s not your fault that the past bleeds so easily into the present.
There is a part of the brain that is heavily associated with “mental time travel,” called the default mode network or DMN. In people who experience chronic post-traumatic stress symptoms, this part of the brain may be overactive. This potential connection is highlighted by drugs that reduce activity in the DMN (such as psychedelics being researched by the Federal government), which seem to facilitate improvements in post-traumatic symptoms related to mental time travel.
Whether or not you consider recent research, the psychological process of mental time travel is one main way in which trauma taints the present moment.
How to keep the past from tinting the present
If we didn’t have the ability to engage in mental time travel, we wouldn’t be able to “update information critical to surviving, thriving and dealing with changes in” our environment. We wouldn’t be able to plan, and we wouldn’t be able to learn.
However, the problem with our ability to mentally time travel is that it allows trauma to seep into our experience of the present. To minimize the impact of mental time travel on your day-to-day life, notice and reframe when it happens with the strategies below.
1. Focus on the feelings triggered, instead of on the traumatic event itself.
Instead of replaying the trauma in your head and comparing it to what’s happening now, focus on how your trauma made you feel back then, and how that connects to how you feel now. This can help keep your thoughts clear and productive, without having to re-live that past event.
2. Ask yourself how the current situation is different from your past trauma.
You can’t control whether you’re triggered. But you can control whether you listen to your brain’s over-active alert signals. When you are triggered, it’s important to ask yourself whether the triggering is actually helpful or not. Sometimes it is. But sometimes the situation is only partially parallel to your trauma–so if you go along with your triggering, your response might not fit your current reality.
Your path forward may be less controlled by trauma if you commit to noting the ways in which right now is different from the past.
3. Remain patient with yourself when the past does pop up.
No matter how much work you do to keep the past in the past, there will be times when it bleeds into the present. That’s ok. You haven’t failed.
Flashbacks may continue to occur, but trust that you can decrease their severity and increase the distance between them.
Trauma expert Robert Scaer, MD puts it best in an article for Psychotherapy Networker: “As we make our vital journeys back to the present, we’d do well to cultivate an attitude of gentle acceptance. For it’s quite possible that all the body-based therapy in the world, plus regular infusions of meditation, running, yoga, and other mindfulness practices, won’t be enough to keep us permanently anchored in the here and now. It seems we just aren’t wired to live there full time. But we can make extended visits. And when we do, we can explore the lush landscape of the present moment with more wonder, wisdom, and pleasure than ever before.”