As a child, I spent many afternoons replaying the same two vinyl records on the dusty gramophone that sat shoved into the corner of my first home's den. There weren’t many options, so I switched back and forth between One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, the songs with the catchiest tunes on their respective records. Recently, when preparing a training about what happens in the brain when we experience trauma, I reflected on how apt of a metaphor records are for the way that we develop patterns and recall experiences in our brains and bodies.
Like a 45 played over and over again, repeated experiences wear a metaphoric groove into the brain. This groove signifies the same thing that it does on the record —that this song (pattern) has been visited and re-visited frequently. If a record player is bumped or jostled, the needle is likely to skip from wherever it currently is into the deeper groove, jumping to play that most-played song. And even if you pick a different song - when it ends - the needle may hop back over to the deepest groove to again replay that most-played song.
For people who’ve had a lot of good experiences, this is great news! The deepest grooves reflect songs of safety, support, and security. If the needle jumps over to play the song with the deepest groove, it will likely be a pleasant one. And, though bumps may come along, the positive songs are likely to prevail.
On the other hand, if you’ve experienced sustained trauma, your most familiar song may be one of deep pain. It may be linked to the mobilization pattern of “fight, flight, or freeze,” and it may be connected to sadness, anger, shame, hurt, or abuse. Being unexpectedly and repeatedly “bumped” into these familiar songs is far from ideal.
If you've ever been with someone who has a complex trauma history (or perhaps you yourself do), you may be familiar with the seemingly sudden shifts in mood and affect that can pop up seemingly randomly. This may be reflective of the person having slid into an old “trauma song.” This may elicit a variety of responses, including flashbacks or dissociation, moods shifts, or changes in thinking patterns that influence the way that someone perceives and understands themselves and the world around them.
As we experience the world, especially as children, we develop schemas - internalized beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Our brains are excellent at making meaning and creating frameworks to help us understand what we experience. When those experiences are good - we learn that the world is a good and safe place. We learn that we have inherent value, and are loved, and deserve love.
When those experiences are full of abuse or neglect, we learn that the world is unpredictable, that people don't mean what they say, that something bad could happen any moment, or that we don't have any inherent value. Sometimes, it may be obvious when these schemas have been activated (such as when having a flashback). Other times, your schemas may have been activated, but it may be more subtle.
So, what do we do with this information? Great question! Here are four things to keep in mind:
Stabilize and shore up: If you put a record player in the back of a truck and drive down a bumpy dirt road, it is highly likely that your needle won’t stay put. Similarly, if you know you’re going to be in a highly stressful environment, or dealing with something that is tough - be prepared that your needle may skip to your trauma song. Be gentle with yourself, take care of yourself, and be compassionate. Consider the things that you might be able to do stabilize your system in advance. For people with complex trauma histories, it can sometimes feel like they’re driving down a bumpy dirt road all the time. The more that we’re emotionally regulated and taking care of ourselves, the more likely we’re able to recover, prepare, and make choices that support consistency and stability. Sometimes, we need to use a bumpy road to get where we’re going, but consider whether there may be ways to drive more slowly, blaze a new path, or to take care of yourself along the way.
Identify triggers: Work to identify and recognize situations that will be hard for you. This may sometimes be easy and obvious, and other times, you may have to do some sleuthing to get to the bottom of how you ended up with your trauma song stuck on repeat. Just because you associate something with a negative experience now doesn't mean it has to stay that way forever, especially once we understand what is cuing up the trauma song and are able to tackle it head on. A good therapist can help you sort through these patterns so that you can build new ones.
Recognize when your needle has skipped: Sometimes, this will be obvious (hello, flashback), and other times it won’t be as clear. Learn to identify the signs that you’ve entered a replaying of your trauma song. This will help you identify causes and risk-factors, and will help you develop a game plan for getting back to the other music.
Celebrate new patterns: As you experience new patterns and different outcomes, it means that you’re playing new songs on your personal record. As you continue to have non-traumatic experiences, healthy connections, and successful moments of coping - those grooves get deeper and deeper, and will eventually overtake the trauma song as the deepest groove. Celebrate the wins and victories, and don’t forget that change doesn’t happen overnight. The trauma song got there through hundreds of repetitions, and sometimes years of experience. Even when you understand this cycle, it takes time for the positive experiences to catch up. Whenever you can, take time to enjoy the other music.
Want to learn more about developing new patterns? Or supporting folks who are working on that? Reach out!