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On Black Boxes, Brains and Being at Our Best after Trauma

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Posttraumatic Stress Disorder » Featured Article

By: Dylan Mariah, LMHC, RN

Dylan Mariah, LMHC, RN

Black Boxes

If Captain Jean Luc Picard gets a little jumpy every time he sees a black cube, you have to forgive him. As the only person who has been assimilated by the Borg and lived to tell, we can assume he has some residual trauma symptoms, as would we (see "Star Trek, The Next Generation", the last episode in season three and the first in season four, "The Borg"). With greater trauma, the residual symptoms are likely to be worse. If Picard had been taken multiple times for a longer duration, he might start seeing black boxes where they didn't exist, dream about them endlessly at night and end up with an impulse to turn the ship around whenever he sees anything black out the window. For a starship whose mission is to explore the rest of the galaxy, this would be a real problem! The Enterprise can't just be going around and around in circles!

Around and Around

Yet, it does happen with trauma, even for those of us who are earth-bound. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by shock, our emotions are so intense, or we are so challenged by absorbing the truth of what has happened, that we simply cannot process it. We circle around and around in our memories, haunted by flashbacks and unwanted memories. At other times we seem more able to take traumatic events in stride. Depending on the severity and amount of trauma we experienced, how we felt about it and how much it hurt us, we each react differently. Beyond that, some of us appear to be more stress-resilient than others. Some people never seem to recover while others who experienced the same or a similar thing seem to move on easily from past hurts. Why are there such a wide variety of reactions? Why do some people appear to stay stuck in the past after a trauma?

What Makes It Hard

Just by their nature, some things will hit all of us harder than others. Events that leave us with a permanent disability never seem to go completely away because of the constant reminder of what happened. Harm done by people we still need to interact with continues to feel fresh because we may not have had the space we needed to process it and create our own "inner distance" from it. Trauma that went on for so long that it seemed to become a part of us is always harder to resolve. Trauma that came unexpected, turned your life around in unwelcome ways, is equally hard to come to terms with.

Those whose self-esteem is damaged by the event, whose belief in the goodness of other people is lost, and whose "worst fears" happened, don't tend to do as well. Those who already experienced a lot of trauma in the past may not have the inner resources to cope well with more.

I recall a doctor once telling me that the people who have the hardest time recovering from a brain injury are the over-achieving independent Type A personalities. They are particularly challenged because their self-worth depends so much on functioning in certain ways; ways they no longer can. Their self-recriminations about "going too slow", "not getting enough done", or "not being smart enough", can slow down their recovery significantly.

Recovering from trauma also requires support. Active, consistent, loving, patient, attentive support. Health care. Knowledgeable helpers. A lot of people just don't get the help they need. They are under insured, uninsured, live alone, or perhaps have an antipathy toward feeling like they are dependent on anyone else, causing them to resist help.

What Works

If you are dealing with recovery from trauma, here are some suggestions about what tends to work well:

~ Support ~

More than being helpful, getting support is necessary. The kind of support you receive makes a difference as well. I recall doing some work in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina and seeing how devastated people were about their losses. Just seeing us show up at their house to help out put a smile on everyone's face. There's something deeply healing just knowing that someone cares enough to go out of their way for you. When it's someone who doesn't know you, isn't being compensated for their work, lives 6 states away and travelled all that way to help you, it makes it seem just miraculous. It rejuvenates your faith in people and that makes it easier to move on.

~ Slow and Steady ~

There is no hurrying recovery from trauma. You can't. Because you're traumatized, any feeling of being pushed, or rushed may make you feel more upset. Go easy and take your time. Maybe getting right back on the horse isn't the best approach to coping with your fear. Sometimes taking a breather is better. Keep your expectations manageable, and go at your own best recovery pace.

~ Self Care Matters ~

Simple things, like resting when we need it, eating well and exercising, aid trauma recovery. Support groups are a way to take care of ourselves as well. If we could manage everything on our own, we might feel a boost to our self-esteem, yet it's not the way we're built. We can't see half the things about ourselves and our own behaviors that a total stranger can because we are in it and living it. Talking to others helps a lot; a fresh perspective, a compassionate listener who makes no demands on you to reciprocate can turn around a low mood and a hopeless attitude. EFT, Tapping and Hypnotherapy can help, as well as other "de-sensitizing" tools.

~ Brainwork~

It also helps to focus some of your recovery efforts on healing your brain. Research shows that the brain of trauma survivors is altered due to the stress they experienced, resulting in emotional and cognitive impairment. Even a single instance of severe stress can lead to brain changes. One study found increased electrical activity in a brain region known as the amygdala (a part of the brain which plays a central role in the processing and memory of emotions, especially fear). Some research indicates that brain size is smaller in both people who grew up in stressful situations and those with depression. A smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain located in the temporal lobe of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion) appears to be associated with trauma history and in people with a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.


To support brain health, make sure that your diet is healthy, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and establish a daily relaxation or meditation practice. All of these things will support brain health. To read more about optimizing brain health, follow this link:

More Black Boxes

The black box in the cockpit of an airplane is a tool for helping people figure out after the crash what the heck happened. Also called a flight data recorder (FDR) or cockpit voice recorder (CVR), it gives an actual recording of data and I think having something like this would be a really useful tool for trauma recovery. One of the problems we face after trauma is how distorted our view gets. For example, after a physical trauma, such as a car accident, we may take on the incorrect belief that we are not safe, or not safe driving through intersections, or may even adopt the belief that driving blue cars is bad luck. We may think that we "caused" the accident or injury, or believe that we are always going to be "powerless" because we were overcome at the time of the trauma, and were, in fact, powerless at that time. We can come to a place of just not being able to see things clearly any more.

When recovering from trauma, reality testing is essential. When we beat ourselves up for our failure to achieve a certain thing, we may need a reminder that we are doing our best and being successful in other ways. When we feel small, we may need to be reminded of our strength. Feedback from others helps a lot to re-establish a more accurate view of ourselves.

Moving On

Moving On from a traumatic experience can and will happen if we allow ourselves the gift of going in our own right direction, with appropriate support, at our own pace. Each person's process is unique and requires a gentle attitude with perseverance to succeed. We will not arrive exactly where we were before the trauma, but we will arrive where we need to be today. Recovery will not happen by hiding, minimizing or denying past hurts and it won't happen if we drink or drug our feelings away. There are healthy alternatives to old coping habits and counseling is a great place to learn about them.

Counseling is also an important place to receive support for the frustrations of trauma recovery. Professional help from a compassionate person who understands makes all the difference in how we feel about ourselves.

Hey, even Captain Picard needed to chat with Guinan every once in a while.

About the Author...

Dylan Mariah is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Registered Nurse, Certified and Registered Experienced Yoga Instructor, Writer and Health Educator who offers Counseling, Workshops, Classes, and Health Services in Rochester, NY. Her counseling and coaching services reflect a deep commitment to compassionate care informed by many years of study and experience in traditional and alternative methods. Her workshops and classes reflect a dynamic blend of traditional practices with a contemporary interest in facilitating personal growth and fostering spiritual wellness. All of her services are geared towards inspiring and empowering participants to make positive, sustainable changes. Dylan is available for individual and couples counseling sessions, consultation and life coaching, health education classes and workshops and trainings, yoga and fitness classes at her private office and in the community.

Click here to contact or learn more about Dylan Mariah

Last Update: 9/5/2017

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