How Our Brain is Wired: Handling Trauma

Published on April 21, 2021
by Scott Palasik

Bowl of cereal in milk

Oh, the memories of childhood. We all have them, don’t we? Sledding down our favorite hill during the winter months. Playing board games or video games with friends and cousins. Hide and seek in the dark. And of course, eating some of our favorite breakfast foods, cereal. Before I continue, keep reading, don't stop.  There is a reason why I am sharing this very vivid childhood memory with you.

 

As a kid, my brother and I did not get much sugary cereal at home. However, my grandparents always had Captain Crunch or Fruit Loops in stock for when we ate at their house (I loved my grandparents). One special day, at the age of eight, I poured myself a nice big bowl of Fruit Loops. The anticipation for the multicolored cereal was mounting in direct proportion with the saliva in my mouth.

 

With my bowl overflowing, I made my way to the dining room table, leaving a trail of fallen Fruit Loops on the floor that I was willing to sacrifice for the cause.  I hoisted the gallon of milk with my thin arms and began to pour, letting the white liquid fill the little Os. It felt like Christmas morning waiting to open presents. I grabbed my spoon and plunged it deep into the sea of cereal. I leaned over my bowl to try and capture as much of the cereal goodness as possible (a trick taught by my parents).

 

Then…. it happened… as quickly as I put the spoon in my mouth, the food came back out into my bowl, along with some of my dinner from the previous night. It covered my cereal, spoon and began to drip on my pants. You may be asking, what happened? Simply, the milk was sour.

 

Have you ever drank sour milk? If you have, you know exactly what it’s like. You can remember every detail about the experience. You can smell the cereal, taste the retched sour milk. You might even feel your stomach flip and churn with the disgust of merely thinking about the past and drinking sour milk.

 

Welcome to your brain!

 

Our brain makes associations instantly with past experiences as it relates to language. Take this, for example, if I asked you to think of these words in your head, “Milk. Milk. Milk.” and then let them sit in your brain. What did you think of? I would imagine some of you thought of a white liquid in a tall glass. Some of you might have thought of cookies, cows, a variety of cereal, or even an array of different kinds of milk.

 

The point is our brain makes associations with objects and events with language. This is a language learning system called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). This is where our brain can compound these negative thoughts if we do not try to make new associations, new links, or new “frames” of mind to better serve ourselves. You might be asking:

 

  • “How might the above apply to our daily lives or a traumatic experience that happens more than once or occurs daily?”
  • “How might a series of negative experiences and thoughts (negative language) keep the traumatic experience alive emotionally and psychologically?”

 

Let me explain this further with an example from my life. I’ve stuttered since I was three years old. The negative thoughts about stuttering and speaking were historically associated with emotions like shame, guilt, anger, blame, disgust, fear, and anxiety.

 

However, when I began to adjust my perspective of stuttering as an adult (in college), it went from blaming stuttering for things I thought it took from my life to a new perspective. This allowed me to explore what stuttering might be giving me.

 

I discovered through a lot of self-exploration that stuttering had provided me a career path for helping people. It also has provided me with the opportunity to meet compassionate and kind friends. Furthermore, stuttering has allowed me the wonderful opportunity to travel around the world and meet terrific people from many countries. It has provided me with a unique life experience to build kindness toward anyone who may be different.

 

So that us to some questions:

  • How do you want to reframe some of the negative thoughts you might possess by thinking about what they MAY be giving you instead of what you think they are taking away from you?
  • How can you take ownership of the past without reliving it over and over?

 

If we can find ways to adjust our perspective, we can create a more open mind, and psychological flexibility for growth. Like Frank Zappa said, “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”

 

Thank you for reading, and keep being you!

 

With compassion and kindness,

Scott

Co-host of the “Act To Live Podcast”

Author of “Let’s Walk Together: The Act To Live Podcast Blog”

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