Avoiding unwanted memories and emotions can stifle recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to Dr. Richard Stoltz, deputy director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE).
Dissociation related to trauma looks different for each person, Stoltz told attendees at the Society of Federal Health Professionals (AMSUS) conference Nov. 29. Some PTSD survivors repress a memory so much that they don’t remember the trauma at all. Others actively think of something else the moment they begin to remember traumatic events. Dissociation also means that people may shut down mentally or emotionally when recalling a trauma so that they numb the feelings associated with it.
These and other coping strategies are actually counterproductive in recovery, Stoltz explained. Blocking out feelings may help someone perform better or even survive during an emergency or combat situation. However, continuing to block the event or the feelings afterward is harmful.
“If you’ve gone through a traumatic situation, when you’re back in a safe place, you need to figure out when you’re going to consciously get in touch with your feelings about it,” Stoltz said.