How do I stop living in the past when I have a history of trauma?

UAlberta psychologist Maddi Genovese shares some insight about how to move forward when you have a traumatic past.

Maddalena Genovese - 20 November 2020

This article was updated with additional resources on July 11, 2022 (original article: November 20, 2020).

Dear Maddi,

I have a lot of past trauma and now good things are finally happening but I am scared because it doesn’t feel real. How can I stop living in the past?

Signed, Sincere

Dear Sincere, 

Feeling stuck in the past may suggest you’re experiencing what we call traumatic stress symptoms. Most people who go through traumatic events have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and support, they usually recover naturally. For some, this recovery process is interrupted, leaving them “stuck in time” reliving old memories and fears months and sometimes years after the event. When this happens, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may be present.

PTSD is a mental health condition which some people develop after experiencing a terrifying or disturbing event. You may have experienced a traumatic event directly, or you may have witnessed one. If you are suffering from PTSD, you may notice intense and upsetting thoughts and feelings related to your experience which have lasted long after the traumatic event has ended. You may experience several symptoms: unwanted memories of the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of it, feeling sad, scared or angry, and/or detached from other people. You might also feel on guard, always waiting for the other “shoe to drop” and you can find yourself having strong negative reactions to normal situations. All in all, recovering from a traumatic event, makes it difficult for people to leave the past behind. If anything, ongoing symptoms are a sign that the trauma is “unfinished business.” 

There are a number of reasons why you might be having a hard time moving on from your past and trusting your gut about what is real. Here is one explanation. When you face a serious, or possibly life threatening event you are likely to experience a very strong physical reaction called the fight, flight or freeze response. When this happens, your body is preparing to fight or flee danger, or to reduce both physical and emotional pain by freezing. These strong adrenaline-rich responses get quickly paired with cues related to the event that were previously insignificant. When you encounter these reminders after the event, your nervous system senses these cues, which could be a sight, smell or even a time, and reacts as though you were in danger again.

If you don’t avoid those cues, these reactions typically fade over time because your body learns these are not accurate danger cues and there is no reason to be alarmed. But if you avoid them, which by the way is a very normal and human response, the fear will not go away and you may have false alarms going off frequently. Soon enough, it becomes difficult to trust your own senses or judgment about what is and isn’t dangerous, and too many situations will seem threatening when they are not, including those “good things” you’re currently experiencing. 

Another way to explain this phenomenon is by looking at the impact of trauma on the brain. When you are exposed to a traumatic event, or series of events, the high level of stress has a significant impact on the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus, which is responsible for recalling memory and distinguishing between past and present experiences, shuts down during trauma. On the other hand, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotional memories (i.e., remembering how something feels) goes into overdrive. 

Because of these neuropsychological changes, trauma memories are encoded differently than non-trauma memories. Leading to unwanted memories and rumination over what happened, as well as difficulty telling the difference between what is just a reminder of the past versus an actual danger in the present. And so you keep trying to protect yourself as if the fears of the past are just around the corner, and what is in front of you can’t be as good as it seems. 

Fortunately, much research and study has gone into understanding how people can recover from trauma. Many highly effective treatments have been developed that can help people put the past where it belongs, in the past. Helpful treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Treatment (EMDR), Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD (CPT), or Prolonged Exposure (PE) can facilitate this healing in a safe and predictable way and they can help the brain recover from the impact of trauma. You will then be able to stop living in the past and free up more time and energy to enjoy your present AND your future.

Lastly, it is worth noting that this article does not constitute a formal diagnosis of your concerns. If you suspect you may have PTSD, it is important to seek out an assessment. The psychologists at Counselling and Clinical Services will be happy to help you with this or point you in the direction of appropriate treatment. 

Thank you for your letter Sincere, please do not hesitate to reach out again. 

Written by Maddalena (Maddi) Genovese, Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Science and edited by Suman Varghese, Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Faculty of Arts. 

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