The Cumulative Nature of Trauma (using a Semi-Truck Metaphor)
I was recently at an EMDR conference in Massachusetts where a presenter used the fantastic metaphor of a tractor trailer full of packages when describing the cumulative nature of debilitating, unresolved traumatic memories. As an individual (the truck) goes through life, they often encounter difficult experiences that are not properly processed or resolved and are thereby placed into the person’s “trailer” where they are stored away and never to be discussed again. These traumas, (the packages) come in all different shapes and sizes with some being small and seemingly innocuous while others larger and more profound. Some people with long histories of trauma and neglect even have tandem trailers, back-to-back mobile storage units all full of burdensome material packed away and not to be thought of or bothered with ever again as they navigate through life. When the load gets too heavy, or there is a relatively steep hill, the engine may struggle a bit more than normal. Sometimes the truck runs out of gas more quickly than expected from pulling a heavy load for too long. All is relatively-manageable until one day they pick up a package that is too large to throw in the back and everything comes spilling out.
Unfortunately I see this as a all-too-common occurrence, with individuals accumulating layers and layers of traumatic material over their years. Often, a recent traumatic event serves as the straw that broke the camel’s back leading an individual’s past to spill out into the present, and they are suddenly left to face years of old painful stuff. This is true for many of Parkland shooting survivors that I have been treating who have prior histories of trauma. Old memories, previously kept at bay and wrapped up tightly in little boxes that were stored on the shelf never to be seen or thought about again, have surfaced as a result of going through the school shooting and now they are facing the psychological brunt of it all.
Some are more prone to layers of traumatic exposure as a result of their careers. First responders see horrific things on a daily and often hourly basis through their normal tasks as police officers, EMT’s, firefighters, etc. Mental health professionals as well are exposed to the myriad traumatic stories of those they are trying to help. These professionals collect numerous “packages” every day to be placed in their trailers lest they stop to dwell on the past and allow it to hinder their ability to perform their duties. Others who may have childhood trauma and neglect find themselves in reenacted abusive relationships as adults and subsequently continue to load up their trailers as well.
There are well-known concepts in trauma therapy such as kindling and sensitization that describe an individual’s progressively-increasing reactivity over time to reminders and repeated exposure to traumatic events. We know that a history of past trauma is a risk factor for the development of PTSD, and it is not hard to imagine the impact it has to a person’s system when their trailer is too full of burdensome packages. So what can a person do to lighten the load?
Working with a skilled trauma therapist can help to clear away layers of traumatic material from the past so that a person can be in optimal functioning and not weighed down by old stuff showing up in the present. There are therapies, such as EMDR, that can help the brain process old, dysfunctionally-stored trauma memories which often leads to significant improvements in overall functioning and quality of life.
How full is your trailer?