According to most psychological practitioners, the best therapy to deal with events that have caused emotional distress is to talk about it.
This is accepted science, well-worn territory, and seems to be obvious to the lay person; the only way to deal with your fears is to face them.
In order to heal from psychological and emotional trauma, you’ll need to resolve the unpleasant feelings and memories you’ve long avoided, discharge pent-up “fight-or-flight” energy, learn to regulate strong emotions, and rebuild your ability to trust other people. A trauma specialist may use a variety of different therapy approaches in your treatment.
Treatment in this case is often either Somatic Experiencing, where you focus on bodily sensations in response to stimuli rather than the emotions directly, and can include screaming and crying. This is helpful with situations of Anxiety, mourning, loss, fear, etc.
And then there is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helps you process and evaluate your thoughts and feelings towards trauma and providing an air of safety.
This never really sat well with me. Or at least, going through years of therapy to deal with traumatic events seemed like more of a form of desensitization through torture than actual cognitive treatment. Why bother reliving pain over and over again just to quantify feelings of normalcy?
Well, I may not have been too far off.
Recent tests and experts are coming to some surprising conclusions: the urgency to remember dangerous situations causes your brain to damage itself.
How? Or better yet, Why?
In order for the brain to access genetic instructions quickly from the mechanisms of memory storage, neurons and other brain cells “snap open” their DNA in their respective locations.
These are called DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) and are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline.
Imagine it this way: your memory is a vast collection of different flash drives. Every time your brain accesses information about a dangerous situation, the coding on the flash drive gets degraded. Your brain can run a CHKDSC and put the information back roughly the way it found the information, but eventually errors are going to accumulate in the programming.
While the breaks are repaired as part of the brains healing mechanisms, the more the memory storage gets broken into, the more they grow fragile and warped with age.
And this is part of a two stage process. The memories formed during a fearful response essentially become a form of break-glass-in-emergency pod. The prefrontal cortex (responsible for complex behaviors, including planning, and personality development) and the hippocampus (a complex brain structure embedded deep into temporal lobe that has a major role in learning and memory) are the two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. A memory created out of fear (such as prolonged sexual abuse or being held at gunpoint) create a double amount of these DSBs, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Genes responsible for synaptic plasticity.
Basically, that “emergency file” is activated every time you remember your traumatic event. And these in turn cause genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain.
Your brain reacts to the perceived danger, opens the emergency information pack that has dangerous contents, and then puts it back together improperly causing further problems down the road.
And that means that all the therapy regarding your childhood trauma could quiet possibly be causing you more problems than it is solving.
For me, this feels obvious. Just like learning has a level of memorization involved such as preparing for a play or remembering how many electrons get passed during certain reactions, you force stronger connections between synapses. To use another analogy is the road along a paved road. The more frequently you travel along the path, the deeper the ruts in the road get. Put on winter chains and chunks start getting pulled out, making the road unstable and full of bumps. To me, regular memorization is the plain tire and road, and remembering trauma is adding in the chains. The chains are useful during dangerous times such as icy roads but they don’t work if used all the time and cause more damage in the long run.
What’s the solution?
It may have to be keeping cognitive therapy short. For example instead of focusing on the memory itself, forcing conditioning thoughts to “cushion” or bury the thought; afraid of a dark tunnel because of a bad experience? Sub vocally tell yourself what the actual situation involves: “It’s a bright sunny day and the chances of something happening to me in a tunnel is minimal, so let’s be quick and just go through.”
Maybe that’s just me. I’ll have to ponder on this information for a while. Hopefully dwelling won’t cause more DSBs to happen.
Study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory,
Source: Picower Institute at MIT; NIH
Profiling DNA break sites and transcriptional changes in response to contextual fear learning (plos.org)