As Walter Mischel says, distancing yourself from a traumatic event will help you deal with it better than continually reliving it obsessionally
It is a truth universally acknowledged that talking through your problems makes them go away. Well, not exactly.
Walter Mischel, the psychologist who put a marshmallow in front of four-year-olds and discovered that those who could delay the gratification of eating it went on to succeed more than their peers who scoffed it straightaway, has come up with another gem. He has discovered that talking about your trauma doesn’t, as is often advised, necessarily diminish the ill effects, but can make them worse.
Is this talk of aspirin and a stiff upper lip a terrible blow for us therapists? Not really, as we are well aware that there is a right and a wrong way to work with trauma. There is a fine line between processing the experience to make it manageable, and reliving it and re-traumatising yourself.
When someone is recalling something horrific, I encourage them to keep eye contact with me so that they don’t go back into the nightmare and they realise that this time they have control of it, rather than it having control over them. Once it can be put into words it can go into the past instead of being relived as though it is still happening. Facilitating this process is an art rather than an exact science, and there is no guarantee it will work every time.
Mischel has a good technique for this. He says the effect of the trauma is diminished if subjects take a fly-on-the-wall view and write an account of the bad experience, referring to themselves in the third person. This distances them from the painful event, enabling them to be more thoughtful about what happened without being self-destructive.
There is a type of talking about a traumatic event, usually a breakup or situation where the subject feels they have been wronged and are certain they were in the right, that sounds obsessional to the listener. When someone is obsessive about talking about their injury, it sounds like they are feeding rather than diminishing it. When we get fed up of our friends doing this we may say that they are “milking it”. This is the psychological equivalent of scratching a mosquito bite. If you don’t stop scratching it, it is going to continue to itch and may become infected. The cure for this is to develop self-awareness so that you can steer thoughts rather than being at their mercy, and you can move on rather than staying stuck.
So it’s not the talking through a problem that is bad. In the majority of cases it is a good, if not essential, thing to do. But what isn’t useful is if you keep reliving the trauma without learning to distance yourself from it and without gaining mastery over the memory.
It is important to put trauma into the past, otherwise a life can be lived as though it is still happening when in fact it is over. For example, if you were injured in a bomb blast during a war because you went outside, then subsequently repressed the experience in your mind, you may continue to be too scared to go outside even though the war is over and the streets are safer. You may even forget why you are scared to go outside but you still stop yourself. It is likely that you may become obsessional about other reasons why it is unsafe to venture out. If you process the experience in a way that puts distance between then and now, you can lead a fuller life in the present and be freer of your past.
I agree with Mischel that dwelling on trauma may do more harm than good. But burying your head in the sand isn’t going to help you get over it either. It’s complicated.