February 6, 2018

Mastering Metacognition: A Tool for Trauma Recovery.

I was sitting across from a small man with large glasses and a strong New Zealand accent.

I was warned before I arrived to this psychiatry appointment that his approach was a bit unconventional, but brilliant nonetheless. So I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down on that large couch in his mid-size office— but I did know that I desperately needed help. My mind was out of control, and I needed tools to better manage my thoughts.

He asked me inquisitively, “Anne, tell me about your brain? How does it work? What does it think about? How does it make you feel?” I had spent quite some time observing my own cognitions, thinking about my thoughts, exploring the currents and directions of the neurons connecting within that large and heavy organ that sat inside my skull, and I told him that I’ve compartmentalized my brain’s behavior into five distinct personalities:

1. The sexually abused toddler who needs safety.
2. The ill child who suffered from a digestive disease and epilepsy who needs healing.
3. The frustrated teenager who always had to fight for what she wanted who needs fulfillment.
4. The woman exhausted from recovering from 1 through 3 while trying to build a meaningful life who needs rest.
5. The spiritually grounded, trusting, and confident being who knows that she can overcome all of the above and live in peace.

He looked at me curiously and asked, “So, which one is in control?”

I responded, “Whichever one is screaming the loudest on any given day.”

“Oh,” he replied, “what if you allowed your spiritual self to be in control?” Immediately, my eyes welled up with tears. “I think that I would live a very happy and meaningful life.”

“Yes, me too,” he compassionately concurred. “But how?” I asked. 

He went on to teach me all about metacognition, or, the brain’s ability to observe itself and improve its own behavior. You see, it’s common for minds that have suffered a serious amount of unprocessed trauma to separate into various personalities based on the age of the traumatic event. These individual “brains” tend to get stuck in negative cognitive patterns that were appropriate at the time of the trauma, but may no longer apply to the person’s present circumstances.

With metacognition, he was encouraging me to observe the negative thought patterns of each personality and replace them with new ideas that better reflected my life and reality today. This would help my brain to create new neurological pathways to authentically communicate to me that I was safe as opposed to in danger, healthy as opposed to ill, fulfilled as opposed to frustrated, and rested as opposed to exhausted.

In order to practice this, he encouraged me to imagine my neurological movements as separate rivers flowing into one. Each river was to represent a certain thought pattern—or in my case, one of the personalities mentioned above. Then, he told me to imagine myself in an airplane overlooking these rivers. From above, I could see their direction, their movement, and their destination. Based on this quiet observation, I could choose which one would be best to travel down. In choosing the river of my grounded, trusting, and confident spiritual self, I could replace the negative cognitive patterns of my past with the positive experiences of my present.

This practice has taken many years for me to master—and I’ll admit, I’m still learning. I had flowed with the other four rivers my entire life, and although turbulent and chaotic, their currents were familiar, their direction known, and their destination expected. My spiritual river, on the other hand, was unexplored water. Although peaceful, the currents were unknown, the direction different, and the destination endless. My brain needed to learn—and to trust—a new pattern of thinking.

Since the meeting with that unconventional and brilliant psychiatrist, I have become more familiar with the movement, message, and mission of my spiritual personality. She is devoted to recovery regardless of the cost, committed to peace no matter the agitation, and passionate about the sharing of truth within a loving environment. As I have chosen to swim in her waters, I have learned to bring the sexually abused toddler into a safe community, the ill child into a period of recovery, the frustrated teenager into a world of fulfillment, and the exhausted woman into a state of rest. And as the toddler is safe, the child well, the teenager satisfied, and the woman energized, my whole mind is healing.

As it heals, I find myself not just observing my spiritual side or swimming in her gentle waters, but actually becoming her. I am learning to be grounded in my values, trust the processes of life, and become confident in the woman I am.

Metacognition has been one tool of many that has enabled me to recover successfully from the consequences of sexual abuse, fatal illness, furious frustration, and arduous recovery. Because of this unconventional and brilliant psychological tool, I expect now to live a happy and meaningful life, every single day.

Although my past was full of trauma, I can see now from my aerial view that the current, direction, and destination of my future will be one of peace.



Author: Anne Lauren
Image: Petar Petkovski/Unsplash
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May

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