Rewiring Your Brain to Overcome Past Trauma and Heal Present Relationships

Crystal Jackson
Photo byMegan te Boekhorst on Unsplash

I should have been falling asleep to the gentle sounds of my lover’s breathing beside me. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve … only I couldn’t. Instead, I managed to go from blissfully exhausted to terribly anxious in a matter of moments. My restless mind couldn’t relax, and I began interpreting the slightest movement as having meaning.

Anyone who has ever been hypervigilant will understand this. Rolling over in the opposite direction wasn’t an effort to get comfortable but an attempt to create space — both physical and emotional — from me. The anxiety didn’t stop there. It began collecting one terrifying scenario after another, and at the center of all of them was a fear that I am innately unworthy.

Thanks to many hours in trauma therapy, I could breathe through what was happening in my body and keep it from escalating into full-scale panic. Instead, I told myself what I know — that this anxiety isn’t from a real-life situation but a reaction to a past one. I tried to figure out the last time I had slept peacefully beside any lover.

Discover the Roots of the Anxiety

The answer to my anxiety became clear as I sifted through my feelings to find their root cause. Someone I loved deeply complained many times about the way I slept. I was too restless, my body temperature was too hot, and it just wasn’t appealing to sleep beside me. One complaint would have been brushed off, but after multiple complaints about the way I sleep, I developed hypersensitivity to sleeping beside anyone else.

Connecting the Dots

With anxiety, we connect the dots in all the wrong ways. The feedback about my sleep was interpreted in many harmful ways. I began to fear that I could ruin a relationship just by resting wrong. I began to develop real anxiety that just being myself could sabotage any chance at love, affection, intimacy, or happiness. I tucked those fears so far beneath the surface that they didn’t come back out again until I was lying beside a lover and trembling beneath wave after wave of crushing anxiety.

But here’s how I should have connected the dots. Sleeping styles differ, but a kinder lover would have found solutions rather than making me feel wrong for how I rest. I should have realized that these complaints had nothing at all to do with me and everything to do with his ongoing intimacy issues. Instead of taking it personally, I should have realized that it was his problem, not mine.

Rewire the Brain and Calm the Nervous System

While knowing that is helpful, I know that I’ve got homework ahead of me. I’ve got to figure out how to sleep beside a lover without experiencing overwhelming anxiety. I have to figure out how to calm my nervous system so that I can rest without the hypervigilance that plagues me. Additionally, I need to rewire my brain to respond to current situations instead of reacting to past events.

Acclimate to Safety

I have to cultivate safety and security in a place where I experienced insecurity and criticism. It’s going to require sleeping beside a lover and facing the fears that are going to naturally arise from doing it. Instead of focusing on what was, I have to learn to feel safe and secure in the moment. Part of this involves reminding myself that I’m not dealing with the same person, and nothing in my entire dating history has validated the many complaints I endured from a single former lover about how I sleep.

I am learning to acclimate to safety. I’m reminding myself that I have no reason to believe the fears running rampant through my head. I’m using every single coping skill I know to calm a nervous system that’s still reacting to what was, not what is. With deep breathing, gratitude practice, and mindfulness, I retrain my brain to understand the feeling of safety.


The single most helpful thing that I did following this massive wave of anxiety was to communicate. After I was finally able to calm my nervous system down enough to be a functional human being, I sent a text to make sure that everything was still okay. I couldn’t exactly read the room when my brain was attacking me with fearful thoughts. I needed clarity and went straight to the source.

The reply was a breath of fresh air. While I didn’t disclose the extent of my anxiety, I did ask for some reassurance and got it. In safe relationships, that’s what happens. We can safely admit to feeling insecure and not be made to feel like a freak about it.

Communicating might be one of the single most important ways of addressing our feelings in relationships. While I’m not making my current partner responsible for the behavior of past ones, I am a human being who has developed reactions based on my relationship history. It’s okay to be upfront about triggers we experience and ask for a little more support in navigating them. I truly believe one day I’ll be able to sleep peacefully beside someone without having to fight anxiety to do it.

Shift the Focus

Another important part of healing from the past trauma has been to control my thoughts. Instead of letting them spiral in every direction, I do my best to stop them and redirect them toward what I know to be true. I don’t allow the anxiety to carry me away if I can guide myself gently back to safety.

Let’s be honest: this isn’t easy. In fact, there are times when the anxiety is so intense that I get swept away, and it takes me a long time to get back. But, when possible, I try to remember that I control my thoughts. They aren’t meant to control me.

It was such a power move to find the root cause of my anxiety and to realize that the insecurity I developed wasn’t based on my reality but on someone else’s fears. It doesn’t lessen how I feel, but it does help to remind myself that I’ll need to experience regular safety to teach my brain and nervous system how to respond to it. Luckily, dating a healthy, mature, and kind human helps when it comes to establishing safe relationships to unlearn trauma responses.

Do the Work

While I have some general things to do to work on this issue, I accept that part of the work may be done in trauma therapy. In the meantime, I’m making an effort to support my healing. I’m responding rather than reacting to what’s happening in my life. I’m aware of my triggers and learning to manage them intentionally. I’m practicing mindfulness and slowly becoming a better communicator.

In the interest of full disclosure, it was really disheartening to discover that I couldn’t do something as simple as sleep beside a lover without crippling anxiety. It made me feel crazy to lie there awash in fear beside someone who drifted into an untroubled sleep. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to reach out and not go through that turmoil alone, but I spent that night confronting myself instead.

I am not a neurotic person — at least, no more than anyone else. I’m a person who has loved hard and been hurt. I have a history of trauma that I’m trying so hard to heal. I’m doing the work, but at times, it feels defeating to uncover yet another issue in need of healing.

Practice Compassion

The best thing I can do is practice self-compassion. Beating myself up for feeling my feelings doesn’t help. Instead, I’m learning to be gentle with what I’m experiencing.

I truly believe that one day I won’t feel this way. Everything I’m doing is meant to achieve that end. It’s not easy, but I know I deserve to feel calm and at peace when sleeping beside someone I care about. My work is also to be compassionate to myself.

In the end, their issues are not your problem. So often, our insecurities come from other people. The things we don’t like about ourselves are often rooted in someone else’s criticism.

I woke up today and felt calm. I know that I can reset my nervous system and learn to feel safe. Probably not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. One day, I won’t feel anxiety from a past lover impacting how I react to a present one. I’ll sleep knowing that I am safe, cared for, and respected now — and now is all that matters.

Originally published on Medium

Comments / 0

Published by

Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned writer. She is the author of the Heart of Madison series and a volume of poetry entitled My Words Are Whiskey. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, and Elephant Journal. When she's not writing, you can find her traveling, paddle boarding, cycling, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with one puppy and two wild and wonderful children. Crystal writes about relationships, mental health, parenting, social justice, and more. Never miss an update. Subscribe to emails:

Madison, GA

More from Crystal Jackson

Comments / 0