Q&A: When we have current stress should we focus on present stress and ignore past trauma?

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If we are in a difficult and stressful time in our life should we place our attention on our current stress and ignore our past trauma?

Those who read my thread yesterday will know I'm going through a stressful time at the moment. Moving to Germany for girlfriend, girlfriend breaking up with me, given a month to move out, having to move back to England with no job/home. So I picked one of the topics I'd listed in past traumatic events to write about.... and I just felt overwhelmed. In short, twas about a certain song people made about me when I was younger, I can only remember one line of it, and I'm sure thats the worst of it. The pain in my left hand has gone completely, the pain in my right is still their, trying to ignore it. However, pain has 'magically' appeared in my right elbow.. and writing about the pain has made it increase slightly. Which leads me to believe more in the TMS diagnosis. It increases when I think about it...... its not logical that pain would get worse just by recognizing it if it was an actual injury. I think for the journal activities I'll modify it slightly to meet my current situation, reawakening old memories when I'm in a difficult time in my life at the moment doesn't feel like a good idea to me. But will suppressing those memories so I don't have to think about them make this worse?


Answer by Peter Zafirides, MD

An image of Practitioner Peter Zafirides
Practitioner Peter Zafirides

Who's Who page / Profile Page / The Invisible Gorilla and TMS / The Monkey Trap / Psychophysiologic Disorders Association (PPDA) Board Member / Website

This is a great question. The correct answer will vary based on the individual's experience. It is really impossible to actual "ignore" our past.For example, when I say "Do not think of a pink elephant", what happens? It is impossible not to think of a pink elephant, right? Our past is part of us - the good and the bad - for better or for worse. We really can't get away from it, but we can learn to not fear it and give ourselves the compassion and forgiveness we deserve.

In TMS/PPD, our mind realizes that certain emotions are getting close to the surface. In an attempt to protect us, a physiologic response occurs to create pain as a diversion away from those feelings. Although quite painful, the symptoms do have a purpose - namely to protect us from what may be an even more painful emotional response. And so, we hurt.

But how do we resolve the symptoms of PPD? We do so by acknowledging that our mind will do what it has to do to protect us from uncontrollable/unacceptable feeling of rage or anger. We respect and acknowledge that the mind is doing this. We also tell ourselves that it does not have to be this way. We forgive ourselves and have compassion for ourselves. We also instruct our mind (through meditation) that we are aware of this process of PPD and reassure our mind that it doesn't need to do this anymore. (an excellent resource for this program of mindfulness and meditation is Dr. Schubiner's book: Unlearn Your Pain. it is an amazing book.)

Specifically, I would ask you to just observe the thoughts you are having. Do so without judgement or fear. Be there in your mind simply as an observer. Observe and examine the thoughts almost like an experiment. What thoughts dominate? Keep in mind that the thoughts of the past (like your trauma) may also be serving the same purpose as the physical pain of PPD - as a distraction. It may be that the mind has chosen the conscious presence of those past issues of trauma as a shield against the current life stressors you are facing because the current stressors are so demanding. If that is the case, the thoughts of the past should serve as a signal for you to re-evaluate how you are dealing with your current life-stressors. Let those past issues serve almost as a signal, a clarion-call, a protective warning if you will, to look at current stressors and evaluate how you are dealing with them. In this fashion,the past memories serve a purpose to you. They aren't just painful memories to be experienced.

It is so important to be able to just observe the thoughts without the need/impulse to judge or worry. Don't fear the difficult memories, allow them to just be, without a need to do anything. Try not to suppress these thoughts because a) it won't work (i.e. pink elephant)and b) it will likely manifest in another way - including pain.

Most importantly, have compassion for yourself. Forgive yourself. You are doing the best you possibly can. This is absolutely true. Allow yourself to accept this....truly. This is so critical. You don't have to have all the answers right now, this minute. You are moving through the process and have chosen to take an active role in healing yourself. This is testament to your true strength and resilience. All the strength you will ever need to get past these difficult times is within you already. Being here in this forum and willing to understand how PPD works is proof positive of your belief in yourself.

Keep moving through the PPD process. Take the time to read Dr. Schubiner's book and do the meditations.

You can ABSOLUTELY triumph over your pain.

Never doubt how truly powerful you are....

Peter Zafirides


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