One of the most unique impacts of trauma is the way that it informs a person’s sense of time. 🕰️
In this illustration, all of the folds in an origami figure meeting at a central point illustrate the way that a traumatic moment has the ability to blur past, present, and future into that single experience.
Sound a little confusing? Bear with.
Understanding Trauma’s Ongoing Impact
People tend to think of psychological trauma as something that happened in the past, but a key marker of a traumatic event is that it, in fact, will not stay in the past. Whether remembered through narrative memories, through traumatic reenactment, or only through body-based memories 1, trauma has a way of invading present day and even the future of trauma survivors.
Ways Trauma Impacts Present and Future
Because we know that trauma does not remain in the past, it’s important to understand how trauma finds its way to the present and future.
1. Trauma Foreclosure
Trauma foreclosure 2 is a well-known phenomenon in which people who have experienced trauma, particularly childhood trauma, anticipate a shortened life. Often, this premonition turns out to be reality due to the increased health risks associated with childhood trauma (source 1) 3 (source 2) 4
2. Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are a great example of how trauma from the past invades the present. Intrusive thoughts may be specifically related to a past trauma or be centered on the anxieties or phobias created as a result of the traumatic experience.
3. Phobias and Avoidance
While full-blown phobias are somewhat rare, most if not all trauma survivors avoid triggers that remind them of the past experience. When we shape our present-day reality to avoid reminders of what we’ve experienced in the past, the impact stretches into the future, as our present-day decisions shape the life that lies ahead of us.
Case Study: The Impact of Trauma
I think it’s easiest to start with the case study:
When Rebecca was 12 years old, she survived a tornado by sheltering in the bathroom of her family’s home. Her father, who was driving home at the time, did not survive the storm.
Rebecca, now 24, feels anxiety surge when she finds herself in small, interior rooms. Because the traumatic experience of the storm left a powerful impact on Rebecca, she doesn’t just feel anxious during storms but anticipates future storms with dread and finds it difficult to get close to people, for fear of losing them.
In this case study, Rebecca survived the traumatic event in the past, and her present experiences the impact of that past event, and both the past and the way that she is engaging the present are shaping Rebecca’s future.
The story illustrates how a single traumatic event has the effect of impacting people over time – in fact, trauma can impact us over multiple generations, according to researchers. So much so that it’s a strong marker that a traumatic event has occurred.
For example, if someone experiences an event that wouldn’t typically be considered “traumatic” but that becomes a painful past memory and something that shapes present-day life, and something that, through anticipation or avoidance, shapes a person’s future, it’s a strong indication that that event was processed by the person’s brain as a traumatic event.
Download the Trauma Origami PDF
Healing from Trauma, Past, Present, and Future
Healing from trauma is a process, and can be especially slow for those with complex posttraumatic stress disorder. The origami metaphor continues, not just describing the impact of trauma but also what the recovery process looks like for many survivors.
Healing from trauma requires that we acknowledge what happened. Naming and experiencing our emotions around the event, and processing the experience and the impact, we slowly unfold the creases created by trauma.
As we do so, it becomes possible to disentangle who we are now from what we’ve experienced in the past, and once we’ve loosened the grip of trauma, we are able to exercise more agency in shaping the future of our own choice.
Unfolding Takes Time and Safety
Healing from trauma involves more than just working through a workbook or attending a series of therapy sessions. In the same way that the initial trauma shaped many aspects of our life, recovery also must bleed into therapeutic spaces, self-care practices, relationships, etc.
Most importantly, recovering from trauma requires safety, and this safety often comes in the form of an experienced trauma therapist. However, it’s worth noting that many generations of humans have experienced healing from trauma through the power of safe relationships and true community. Wherever you find a safe person who offers deep care, safety, and intentional listening, it’s possible to begin unfolding the ways that trauma impacts us through time.
How Origami Folds Can Illustrate Trauma
Using the example of origami folds can help us illustrate some of the hardest to understand effects of trauma. In both cases, the analogy revolves around the idea of folding – for origami, what is folded is paper, but for trauma, what gets folded is time.
Folding and Layers
In origami, folding a piece of paper creates layers and creases that change the paper’s structure. Similarly, trauma can create emotional and cognitive folds within a person’s mind. When traumatic events occur, they often leave deep impressions that become ingrained in a person’s memory and emotions. These impressions can manifest as layers of thoughts and feelings that are intertwined with the trauma itself.
Just as the folds in origami create distinct sections of the paper, trauma can lead to mental compartments that separate different aspects of a person’s life, including their experiences of the past, present, and future.
Complexity and Confusion
Origami can become complex, with many folds converging and overlapping, often leading to an intricate final form. Similarly, trauma can introduce complexity to a person’s thought processes. When traumatic experiences occur, the boundaries between past, present, and future can become blurred. Individuals might find it challenging to distinguish between memories of the traumatic event, current circumstances, and their expectations for the future.
This cognitive confusion can lead to heightened emotional responses triggered by seemingly unrelated events or situations, similar to how the intricate folds of origami can create unexpected shapes and patterns.
Distorted Perception of Time
While origami transforms a flat piece of paper into a multidimensional object, trauma can distort a person’s perception of time. People who have experienced trauma might feel as though they are reliving the past in the present or worrying excessively about a future that mirrors their past traumas. This can lead to a sense of being trapped in the trauma, unable to fully engage with the present moment or plan for the future. The folds of trauma can create a disorienting and fragmented sense of time, much like the complex layers of an origami creation can alter the viewer’s perception of the paper’s original state.
In conclusion, trauma has a profound impact on a person’s sense of time, blurring the lines between past, present, and future. This distortion can manifest in various ways, such as trauma foreclosure, intrusive thoughts, and phobias, ultimately shaping a survivor’s life trajectory. Healing from trauma is a complex process, similar to unfolding the creases created by trauma, allowing individuals to regain agency over their present and future.
Safety, often provided by experienced trauma therapists or supportive communities, plays a crucial role in this journey. Like the intricate folds of origami, trauma introduces complexity, confusion, and a distorted perception of time into a person’s life, highlighting the need for understanding, compassion, and effective therapeutic approaches to address its lasting effects.
This Illustration is a 6-part series.
The first illustration in the series is an illustration of an origami paper airplane on a blue background with stars and has text that reads, “Trauma impacts survivors in the past, present, and future.”
The second illustration in the series is an illustration of an origami paper airplane on a blue background with stars and has text that reads, “A traumatic memory is a point where past, present, and future meet.” Below this is the illustration of the airplane. Image of a folded origami paper airplane that is labeled. The point of the airplane is labeled “trauma.” The top fold in the back of the airplane is labeled “past.” The middle fold is labeled “future.”
The third illustration in the series is an illustration of an origami paper airplane on a blue background with stars and has text that reads, “Recovery invites us to unfurl the creases and care for the past, present, and future versions of ourselves.”
The fourth illustration in the series is an illustration of an origami paper airplane on a blue background with stars and has text that reads, “Healing from trauma requires attending to moment sign our past where time is folded in.”
The fifth illustration in the series is an illustration of an origami paper airplane on a blue background with stars and has text that reads, “Unfolding requires time, space, safety, and attention.”
The sixth and final illustration in the series is text on a blue background with stars. The text reads, “Example: Past – Someone survives a tornado at age 12 by hiding in a bathroom, but loses a parent in the storm. Present – They might struggle now, as a 24-year-old, with overwhelming anxiety in small spaces. Future – Afraid of dying or losing a loved one in a future disaster, they may have anticipatory anxiety or even isolate from relationships in order to avoid future loss.” Illustration created by Lindsay Braman.
- Gentsch, & Kuehn, E. (2022). Clinical Manifestations of Body Memories: The Impact of Past Bodily Experiences on Mental Health. Brain Sciences, 12(5), 594. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci12050594
- Ratcliffe M, Ruddell M, Smith B. What is a “sense of foreshortened future?” A phenomenological study of trauma, trust, and time. Front Psychol. 2014 Sep 17;5:1026. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01026. PMID: 25278917; PMCID: PMC4166378.
- Mock SE, Arai SM. Childhood trauma and chronic illness in adulthood: mental health and socioeconomic status as explanatory factors and buffers. Front Psychol. 2011 Jan 31;1:246. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00246. PMID: 21833299; PMCID: PMC3153850.
- Webster EM. The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Health and Development in Young Children. Glob Pediatr Health. 2022 Feb 26;9:2333794X221078708. doi: 10.1177/2333794X221078708. PMID: 35237713; PMCID: PMC8882933.