Previously in a social media post, I touched very briefly about procedural learning and its implications with trauma. I realize that can sound like a death sentence, and I wanted the chance to explain a little more as someone who works with this material every day. Basically, procedural learning can work both ways- negative things can be unlearned, and then new learning can be put in its place.
For a solid example and recap of how general procedural learning works, follow this link:
As we become adults, our brains are less plastic than they were when we were kids, meaning it’s somewhat harder to learn new things because our brains are fully formed. Basically, due to our ages as adults, there’s more information to sift through and unlearn. There has to be more time to reinforce that which we know, which means the negative procedural learning of trauma patterns have had more time to be ingrained into our brains.
How does the process of unlearning procedural learning begin? Well, we do it small ways fairly often on our own. When we’re trying to do something one way and it doesn’t work, we try a new sequence or new approach until we are able to achieve the results we want.
Like the guy in the backwards brain bike video, our brains need time to make new connections. As with the man in the video, this can take months, or even years, with daily practice. The same principles apply in therapy when addressing anxiety and trauma.
In sessions, I generally frame it like this: I like to identify a moment when a client had a panic/anxiety attack that had them feeling triggered. We then break down, moment-by-moment, what triggered the reaction and what the steps are to their reaction buildup. We look for patterns, and we discuss which parts feel the worst or most outside of the client’s control. Then, depending on the client’s treatment plan and our already established goals, we either do some sort of talk therapy to identify possible shifts in thinking and behavior that can be made while the client is still feeling like they can manage their response to the trigger. The other option I use is EMDR to reprocess the trigger and the feeling of not being in control. The eye movements in EMDR (more information at www.emdria.org) can help make new neural connections to change where certain procedural memories are stored in the brain, so that the memories can be recalled with an appropriate amount of feeling in a voluntary basis as opposed to involuntary and disproportionate reactions from re-living a trauma.
With something like attachment trauma, which is where I specialize, the procedural learning of the trauma reaction (anxiety, dissociation, physical reactions) often happens before the age at which a child is able to speak, and long before they can articulate what they are experiencing. This is usually before the corpus callossum is developed enough for the child to be able to self-soothe. You can imagine that the same patterns throughout that child’s lifetime can create a long, difficult, but very possible road for unlearning reactions to triggers. This process is extremely difficult, but the payoff is beyond worthwhile. It takes patience, daily practice outside of therapy appointments, strong rapport with a good clinician, solid natural supports, and the biggest undertaking of all for those who have attachment trauma- extra kindness toward oneself throughout the entire process.
Procedural learning is just that- learning. While it may take a long time and lots of patience, it can be unlearned and then re-learned. It should be noted that adults often become frustrated during the process because they forget that they are trying to unlearn one thing and re-learn something else simultaneously. I just want you to know, dear reader, that it is NEVER too late, and there is no issue that is “too far gone” if you’re willing to commit to healing and creating a strong relationship with the right therapist. If you’re ready to learn something new that feels more empowering than your usual response to triggers, if you’re ready to commit to a new practice that includes lots of self-love and patience, reach out to a therapist!
Rebecca L. Toner, MA, LPC
Freer of Souls. Connector to Purpose. Healer of Lives.