Today’s guest post is from psychologist Rachel Grant, explaining why bad stuff in our backgrounds can leave us super-sensitive and jumping to the wrong conclusions today. Here’s Rachel:

Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a freshly baked pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you recall being held down by your abuser? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from abuse?

There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways are created in the brain by neurons firing and connecting to create a neural net. When we smell the pumpkin pie, what is actually happening is that a particular neuronal pathway is ignited. Think of it like a big highway in your brain with a bunch of intersections, on ramps, and off ramps.

Whenever we have an experience, it is like we are building a highway, and that highway might be connected to an already established road or be a brand new one. So, in the example of smelling a pie, our memory (highway) the initial memory of Thanksgiving with family now has an additional road leading to the current experience of the same aroma when walking by the store. Thus, the neuronal pathway (highway) is expanded and reinforced by the reactivation.

Now, the more often we travel a road, the more readily we can get to that road and the more it becomes a part of our personality. In this way, our lives can become shaped by reactivations of memories, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We simply experience them as the reality of our present experience.

The result is that we respond to our significant other in the moment with fear and anger thinking that what s/he is doing is the problem, when, instead, a neuronal pathway has been triggered and the memory of our abuser restraining us is activated. The same thing occurs in response to stressors. If our experience makes us feel trapped or scared, we may respond in the same way we did when needing to survive the abuse rather than in a way that actually addresses the present day stressor.

Will we always be held hostage by these firing neurons? Absolutely not! “Each day is literally the opportunity to create a new episode of learning, in which recent experience will become integrated with the past and woven into the anticipated future” (Siegel). Neurons can be re-wired!

The first step is to simply absorb the fact that many of our present day responses, thoughts, and emotions are nothing but a neuronal highway lighting up! Recognition of this creates space for us to consider the possibility that what we think or feel is going on may not be what is, in fact, really happening.

Secondly, when we successfully avoid getting on the road most traveled and instead respond to a situation, trigger, or stressor in a new way, the neuronal pathway will be adapted. The more frequently this occurs, the more modified the neuronal pathway becomes, and the behavior, thought, or emotion that is produced is also modified.

Finally, developing the ability to separate what is actually happening from the interpretations or emotions that follow plays a critical role in our ability to respond to situations in a new way. There are other steps to complete the work of re-wiring, but this initial step is critical.

So, let’s practice! See if you can identify what happened and the interpretations in this story:

Karen recently shared with her husband that she wanted to travel more. Her husband responded by saying he needed to do some research before he could make a decision. Immediately, Karen began thinking about how she never felt like she never got to fulfill her dreams and always ended up doing things on her own.

What happened?
What is Karen’s interpretation?

Now, the very next day, Karen’s husband pulls her aside and says that he was glad to have the extra time to think things over; it really does suit him to take some time before making decisions, and now he would like to talk about planning a trip. I bet Karen wishes she hadn’t spent so much time wallowing in her interpretations, which might have been thoughts such as “I’ll never get want I want; people always let me down,” etc. Worst of all, she was reinforcing old negative neuronal pathways the whole time!

I have come to affectionately think of these interpretations as “stories” – our little efforts at trying to explain or understand why something has happened. Unfortunately, most of the time – like 99% of the time – the story we come up with is really just an old neuronal pathway begging to be fed. We usually quickly oblige and find ourselves mired in negative self-talk and self-thought. Our practices of right speech and right mindfulness are tossed out the window.

It is not always easy to separate what happened from our interpretation, but that is okay! You can begin by writing down just the facts of what happened when thinking about an experience. Then turn your attention to what your interpretation was, what story you told yourself about why things were happening the way they were.

Sheila says: I think this is excellent advice, similar to what Paul says when he tells us to “take every thought captive”. When you’re thinking something that’s not true, take out that thought, examine it, and replace it with the truth. And God says: you’re valuable. You’re lovable. You’re a new creation. I know that’s hard, but the best way to get over our pasts is to look to the future, and look to the truth that God tells us!

Rachel Grant is the owner and founder of Rachel Grant Coaching and is a Trauma Recovery & Relationship Coach. She is also the author of Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse. With her support, clients learn to identify and break patterns of thought and behavior that keep them from recovering from past sexual abuse or making changes in their relationships.

Rachel holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. With this training in human behavior and cognitive development, she provides a compassionate and challenging approach for her clients while using coaching as opposed to therapeutic models. Rachel is a member of the International Coach Federation & San Francisco Coaches.

Purchase Beyond Surviving: The Final Stage in Recovery from Sexual Abuse (available in paperback or Kindle)