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Riding Backwards: Retraining Your Brain to Cope with Trauma



Remember how you learned to ride a bike?  What if you had to unlearn everything you knew about this basic task you probably learned in childhood?

This video illustrates how hard it is to re-train the brain to think differently.  The narrator of this video speaks about his experiment riding a backwards-handled bike.  During the course of the video he speaks about how “knowledge” does not equal “understanding”.  He had the knowledge that the bike was backwards but his brain could not process it, as it continuously sent him signals to ride the bike the same way he has always done throughout his life.  In terms of mental health and therapy, this video illustrates how long it takes the human brain to re-process information and begin to think about things differently (i.e. rewiring/retraining the brain).

The video is a good example of how we can retrain the brain to think and process information differently.  Through daily practice of making a conscious effort to reframe one’s thinking, until, at some point it clicks and it becomes much less of a conscious effort and more automatic.  Let’s look at a common scenario: you walk into a room of strangers and a few people start laughing.  You may internalize this and think that the group is laughing at you and as a result you become very anxious.  Reframing this thinking would include saying something to yourself such as “yes they are laughing, but that does not mean they are laughing at me.  In fact the odds are extremely low, since I just entered the room.”  Cognitive therapists call this practice positive self-talk. As time progresses and the conscious effort to recognize these situations and reframe your thinking is consistently utilized, your brain will begin to shift its pattern of thinking and the same situation (people laughing as you enter a room) will no longer elicit the same response (anxiety).

So how does this relate to trauma?  Traumatic events can become ingrained within our body and mind.  Certain types of trauma can affect our relationships, our ability to securely attach to others, to trust, and to engage in intimate relationships.  As human beings, we question ourselves and wonder what’s wrong with us when we can’t just “get over” a traumatic experience.  The video is a great illustration of how our mind and body are trained and conditioned to respond automatically in situations.  In regards to trauma, when children are victims of abuse they tend to become hyper-vigilant and carry this trait with them into their adult years.  The effect of this heightened state of arousal and the mind’s unconscious perception of possible danger is what contributes to a person’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.  The question becomes how does a person live with this, how is it best treated, and is there hope that one day that person can trust and not be in constant fight or flight mode?

Yes, there is hope.  Just like in the video, it takes time, practice and patience with yourself to train the mind and body to react differently to a perceived threat.  It’s important to find a skilled therapist who understands trauma.  This should be someone who will not push you to tell your “trauma story,” but will help you figure out how the trauma affects you now and help you develop ways to cope with those thoughts and feelings.

For most people, learning to ride a bike took time and the experience of repeated failure before they got it right.  Unlearning how to ride a bike can be just as hard or even harder.  The same is true for beginning to process a traumatic experience.  You must give yourself time while you retrain your brain to think and process that information differently. A knowledgeable trauma therapist can help support the process by being supportive, validating your feelings, and helping you learn techniques for coping with the traumas affecting your life.

Elizabeth Fouracre, LMSW
Laurel House Employment Specialist

If you would like help identifying a mental health professional or other mental health resources in your area, contact a Resource Specialist.

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1 thoughts on “Riding Backwards: Retraining Your Brain to Cope with Trauma

  1. Janice says:

    Great post. I love the analogy to learning to ride a bike backwards; really illustrates nicely the concept of retraining the trauma brain. The brain is incredibly resilient but like you said, it takes time and patience to heal. Nicely written!

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