Past Trauma, Future Effects

foreshortened future

No matter how long ago a traumatic event occurred, it can have effects that stretch far into the future. A lesser-known effect is the sense of a foreshortened future, where people feel or believe their life will be cut short without any concrete explanation.

What Is A Sense of A Foreshortened Future?

When people feel that their life will be cut short or that they don’t have a future, they can struggle to think past a certain point or make plans. For example, they may not be able to imagine their life in ten years or after a certain age. They can also struggle with negative thoughts about the world and themselves. Instead of holding hopes for the future, they hold fears.

Other symptoms include a lack of trust in people and the world in general and losing motivation to commit to plans or pursue projects.

This sense often emerges as a trauma response, stemming from causes such as:

  • Long-term neglect or abuse in childhood
  • The sudden or traumatic loss of a loved one
  • Growing up with a narcissistic parent
  • Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)

Trauma and abuse can lead people to believe that they are worthless, undeserving of happiness, and incapable. They may believe life is meaningless and they don’t deserve happiness or will never reach their goals. Therefore, they can struggle to envision a future for themselves. Traumatic events distort people’s views, leading to a lack of faith in others and the world around them.

This loss of trust can also contribute to a sense of a foreshortened future. When the world does not feel safe, it is difficult for trauma survivors to believe they can have a happy, healthy, and fulfilling future as they lose faith.

Cognitive Distortion

Cognitive distortion is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Also known as maladaptive or irrational thoughts, these thoughts are often inconsistent with what is really happening and can influence negative moods and unhealthy behaviours.

The sense of a foreshortened future can fall into the category of cognitive distortions.

Other common cognitive distortions include:

  • Catastrophizing – People may jump to the worst-case scenario, even if there is no evidence to point to this conclusion.
  • Discounting the positive – Despite the presence of positive events or outcomes, people ignore them or put them down to chance rather than their qualifications or skills.
  • All-or-nothing thinking – People only see situations in black or white, such as considering themselves a failure if they are not perfect.
  • Mind reading – Mind reading refers to people thinking they know what others think and feel. For example, they may believe their friends think they are a waste of time, even with no evidence to support this.

Avoidance

Another prevalent symptom of trauma is avoidance.[1] Seeing or confronting painful triggers or reminders of trauma can be intensely distressing and can contribute to a sense of a foreshortened future.

When people avoid certain places or activities, even ones they previously enjoyed, their world can begin to feel more unsafe. Although avoidance is natural after a traumatic event, working through it and taking steps to approach fear-inducing issues can address uncomfortable feelings and give people hope for the future as they work through their trauma.

Foreshortened Future and Memory

Experiencing a traumatic event overwhelms the body and mind. In some cases, it can affect how memory functions.

During extreme and frightening events, the brain can repress or pause painful memories to prevent people from reliving their trauma. A 2015 study explored this concept and found that terrifying events affected the cell receptors for GABA, causing a new memory network to be made rather than it being relayed down existing pathways. Therefore, these memories may not be processed normally, and people can forget them until the same receptors activate again due to a trigger.[2]

The ability to recall memories is essential for visualising the future. Studies have examined how imagining future events uses many of the same neural processes as remembering the past.[3] Other research shows that instead of remembering specific details, trauma survivors recall the past in an overgeneralised way. This is important for visualising the future and can contribute to a sense of a foreshortened future.[4]

Addressing A Sense of A Foreshortened Future

Confronting the root cause of trauma can help treat other symptoms such as avoidance, hypervigilance, and intrusive memories. Effective trauma treatment modalities include:

  • Neurofeedback – neurofeedback uses technology to help people understand their brainwaves and begin to control them. It can help alleviate trauma symptoms, such as anxiety, and improve regulation.
  • Somatic experiencing therapy – this form of therapy focuses on using the body to release trapped trauma. Individuals focus on their physical sensations and pay attention to their body’s response to stress, helping them become aware of and release pent-up energy related to past trauma.
  • Mindfulness – when applied in conjunction with therapy, mindfulness can help address trauma and reduce cognitive distortions. Introducing a few minutes of mindfulness daily can help people catch negative thoughts, including thoughts revolving around a foreshortened future, and reduce feelings of hopelessness.

Coming to terms with a sense of a foreshortened future can be challenging. People may grieve the future they thought they would have before trauma or be uncertain about what is to come, even when taking steps to address it. However, trauma treatment can help, and in time, people can reclaim their future from the clutches of the past.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013).Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

[2] Jovasevic V, Corcoran KA, Leaderbrand K, Yamawaki N, Guedea AL, Chen HJ, Shepherd GM, Radulovic J. GABAergic mechanisms regulated by miR-33 encode state-dependent fear. Nat Neurosci. 2015 Sep;18(9):1265-71. doi: 10.1038/nn.4084. Epub 2015 Aug 17. PMID: 26280760; PMCID: PMC4880671.

[3] Szpunar K. K., Watson J. M., McDermott K. B. (2007). Neural substrates of envisioning the future. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 642–647.

[4] Kleim B, Graham B, Fihosy S, Stott R, Ehlers A. Reduced specificity in episodic future thinking in posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical Psychological Science. 2014;2(2):165-173. doi:10.1177/2167702613495199

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