Understanding the perpetuation of emotional pain.
In order to break free from chronic emotional pain, it is important to understand how and why the pain keeps persisting. There are many possible reasons why emotional pain can continue. In some instances, the person continues to experience intrusive recollections of previous traumatic events. These emotionally-charged memories can take the form of recurrent nightmares or distressing daytime memory images. The memories may either be triggered by something in your immediate environmental (which reminds you of the trauma) or they may seem to "pop out of nowhere." Some even experience "flashbacks" in which they relive the traumatic events as though they were actually re-occurring. While some people experience painful memories as intrusive and entirely uninvited, others seem to excessively dwell on these events. Past hurts, disappointments, and injustices are played over and over again in their minds. Often these scenes are elaborated upon and expanded. The person may fantasize what they might do to change or correct past hurts and wrongs. When anger is used as means of coping with these painful experiences, one's fantasies typically turn to revenge. Recurrent images and fantasies related to previous upsetting events serve to perpetuate and add more fuel to the emotional pain. In fact, it has been pointed out that the process of replaying painful scenes in the mind is one of the most popular forms of self-torture.
An interesting question is, why do some people who have experienced significant trauma in their lives seem to eventually get over it and go on with their lives in a healthy manner, whereas others who have experienced similar trauma seem to be stuck in the past? Some even appear to wear their past traumas like a badge of honor to the extent that it becomes their primary identity. They become stuck in their victim role, and use their previous traumas as a major excuse for not doing more with their life. They go around telling themselves or others that, "if it weren't for ...(my past trauma or PTSD), I would be ...(more successful, happy, etc.)." In other words, it seems as though some don't want to let go of their painful past, whereas others want to but have difficulty doing so. One suggestion is that people continue to experience emotional pain to the extent that they try to avoid or escape the real emotional pain connected with the original traumas. It is as though the person has been wounded, but the wounds have not been allowed to properly heal. Rather they have been covered up with drug and alcohol abuse, misplaced rage and aggression, various forms of self-destructive behavior, or denial and repression. All of these mechanisms can be used as maladaptive attempts to avoid facing the original fear, hurt, shame, guilt, or feelings of worthlessness.
Letting go of the emotions associated with past traumas or painful life experiences.
Keep in mind that a realistic goal is not to simply "forget" the past. That may not be possible. Rather, the goal is to get over and get beyond the emotional pain that is linked to these distressing past events. Although you may be able to do this on your own, professional counseling is often required. Sometimes counseling is required to help you sort out your true feelings to the painful events. When faced honestly, many discover that they have mixed feelings associated with certain traumatic life events. For example, there may be both sadness and anger over the loss of a loved one. Facing and sorting out the true feelings may be a first step. The best form of counseling makes use of what has sometimes been called cognitive reprocessing therapy. This type of therapy requires you to go back and reconsider the painful life experiences from a different point of view. Typically, highly distorted and irrational beliefs surround the traumatic events. You may need to learn how to think about these events from a different perspective, a perspective that does not automatically call forth intense feelings of depression, guilt, rage, or fear. In some cases, learning to forgive may also be necessary to get beyond the emotional pain. Forgiveness may pertain to the actions of other people, or it may pertain to your own misdeeds and failures to act when you could have. Of course, in order for all of this to work, it has to be more than an intellectual exercise, it has to come from the heart.
Another approach is to work on letting go of the past by actively refocusing on something more enjoyable or meaningful in the present. Remember, misery loves a vacuum. However, those who have something better to do, don't suffer as much. Meaningful and rewarding work, hobbies, recreational activities, and relationships with other people can become the primary focus of attention rather than distressing events which occurred in the distant past. In order to do this, one must mentally redefine the past trauma as being a unique and specific event or set of events that occurred at a particular time and place in one's life. One must guard then against the distortion of overgeneralization which assumes that bad experiences in specific situations or with specific individuals must generalize to all similar situations or all similar individuals. Overgeneralization is associated with sweeping judgements such as "no one can be trusted," "no one really cares," or "no one can possibly understand me."
It also becomes necessary to consciously work at redirecting attention away from memories of unpleasant events in the past using techniques such as stopping negative thoughts and images and substituting more positive thoughts and images. Although it may not be possible to keep painful memories out of awareness, you can keep from dwelling on them and allowing them to fester inside. Each time you catch yourself thinking about the painful events or experiences, you must deliberately redirect your attention to something else. All of this requires considerable practice and effort.
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