Does Retelling Of Traumatic Events Relieve Emotional Suffering?



There was a time that I thought that telling the story about a troubling event to a friend or a therapist might help to somehow resolve or reduce the emotions that seemed to be attached to it.



The reality is that such retelling or ruminating activity actually reinforces the inaccurate  beliefs that trigger a part of brain to cause those unwanted and useless negative emotions. We do feel what we feel but feeling negative emotions like anger, grief, jealousy, shame about an event that no longer exists while attempting to enjoy the company of friends is not so useful.

When an emotionally charged troubling event happens a part of
brain designed to keep us alive attempts to make it stop happening “then, now and in the future”
which is impossible,  so the command to make the event stop gets caught in an endless loop.

This keep us alive part of brain interprets everything including thoughts about the thing as if it is happening now.

ehlers and clark PTSD Cognitive-Model

The command by our brain to “make the original event stop” can be triggered by any real or imagined event and is accompanied by disruptive powerful energy filled emotions like anger, fear, guilt, regret, shame, etc.

Since the powerful energy created to be used to make the event stop cannot find its way to the target, it essentially implodes creating all kinds of dis-ease; depression, ulcers, stress, headaches, TMJ, etc.

Robert M. Sapolsky offers a more detailed explanation of how this happens in “Why Zebras Don’t Get UlcersDraw-a-Zebra-Step-24

So what is one to do with the troubling story about what happened?

In Unlocking the Emotional Brain: Eliminating Symptoms at Their Roots Using Memory Reconsolidation  (p. 15, 20) New York, N.Y., Routledge. Ecker, Ticic & Hulley (2012),… findings revealed that it is possible to “retell” and resolve without re-harming.

brainMechanism Of Resolution:

While calling to mind the inaccurate emotional memory, an introduction of new information experientially triggers a “mismatch” with the meaning that was originally attached to the traumatic memory which dislodges the emotional memory attachments, allowing the event to be viewed as “inactive data” rather than a current or ongoing event, moving the emotional memory from an “active” file to an “inactive” file; from an “open” file to a “closed” file.

This shift in mind happens rapidly. The effect is effortless and permanent. Neuroscientific studies show that emotional implicit (unconscious) learning is re-written or erased is by reactivating a memory and then mismatching it with a contradictory experience.

Want to learn more? Check out these other articles:

“…chronic activation in their brain systems seems to result in overreactions to non-emergencies and freezing responses in the presence of real danger…”, “…Helping the client stay emotionally connected in the here and now, rather than being re-traumatized by the tendency to focus on the there and then, in other words, seems key …”

Dwelling in the Past”: The Role of Rumination in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder “prolonged exposure therapy” based models are counter productive to resolution of PTSD symptoms”

“…Certain characteristics of rumination, such as compulsion to continue ruminating, occurrence of unproductive thoughts, and “why” and “what if” type questions, as well as negative emotions before and after rumination, were significantly associated with PTSD, concurrently and prospectively…”

“…It makes sense that non-productive ruminations would engage default-mode networks in the brain as these systems enable the brain to ‘idle’ when humans are not focused on specific tasks,” commented Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry…”

“…Ruminative type symptoms are also seen in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) under the general header of negative alterations in cognition and mood.  These symptoms include pervasive negative beliefs about oneself or the world, such as feelings of self-blame and guilt, which often coincide with distorted beliefs about the traumatic event that led to the development of PTSD (APA, 2013)…”

In Buddha’s Brain, neuroscience researcher Rick Hanson cites studies which show how the brain detects negative information faster than positive information. It’s as if the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for neutral to positive ones. Those studies also show that just seeing something negative, like a “fearful face” caused activation of the amygdala (primitive survival – defense part of brain) as if a threat were really happening! Our brains are wired to protect us and have a very low criteria threshold for anything (internal or external) that might be deemed a threat to our continuation. So as traumatic events are retold, new meanings can compound themselves with old and result in an inaccurate clump of active data often causing the original event to seem even worse than it was.



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