Zibby is joined by renowned neuroscientist Tracey Shors to discuss her first book, Everyday Trauma. The two talk about how although Tracey was inspired to write this story in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the pandemic has opened up discussions about how stress impacts our brains so much more. Tracey also shares the experience in her own life that she returns to as a case study for processing traumatic memories and what she hopes readers will take away from this book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tracey. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Everyday Trauma.

Tracey Shors: Thank you for inviting me. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: As I was just saying quickly, I learned a lot from this book. I’ve thought a lot, as many people in today’s world have, about trauma and the effects of it and everything. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about what your book is about and some of the things you share about trauma that people will find unexpected, perhaps, or really useful?

Tracey: I’m a neuroscientist. I’ve been studying the brain and how it responds to stress and trauma for, I was thinking about it last night, I think it’s forty years. I keep saying thirty, but it’s actually more like forty. I know a lot about it. I know a lot about it from a cellular level all the way up to more of a psychological level. I just reached a stage in my life where I felt like I wanted to share some of this information with people maybe who don’t necessarily know that much about how the brain responds to trauma. If they do, maybe they hear these somehow simplified ideas like fight or flight. A lot of people have heard of that, but that’s only one part of how we respond to trauma. Part of my goal is to help people understand how memories are made in the brain to begin with and why the ones that we tend to think about the most and ruminate and go over and over again, why those? How does a brain pick those over other more mundane memories? That was my goal.

Then the other goal is, I didn’t really want it to be completely depressing or sad. I feel like sometimes when you read about trauma and/or stress, it can almost make you more sad or more depressed. You’re like, wow, yeah, life is really traumatic. There are all these bad things that happen. I wanted to also show the positive side of our life and how we can learn to reflect on positive things or put even the negative things in context better so that we don’t go down those holes all the time like people tend to do. That was my goal. I started writing it, actually, before the pandemic. I have done quite a bit of work on women and how stress and trauma affects their brain differently than men. In particular, I was working on how sexual violence and physical violence affects women. That happened somewhat during the Me Too movement. When I started writing the book, that was kind of my idea. Obviously, things have changed. Now we’re in another trauma. Not that the other ones have gone away.

Zibby: In the book, you shared a little about past trauma in your own life. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tracey: You mean the experience I had? Yeah. That was a long time ago. When I was young — well, I was in my twenties. I was working on my PhD in California. I was staying in this house up in the Hollywood Hills. I was there by myself one night alone. I wasn’t paying attention. I think I was talking on the phone to my girlfriend. I heard something outside. I was like, oh, I think there’s something outside. I thought it was maybe an animal because it was up in Griffith Park. There’s coyotes and whatever out there, and deer. I don’t know if there’s deer. Anyway, there’s animals out there. I didn’t think much about it. Then I went to go to sleep. Pretty much as soon as I laid down, I heard this huge bang. It was on a staircase on the outside of the house. It’s one of those things that, if I think about it again even now after all these years, my heart kind of stops. I was in my head thinking about my dissertation and personal love life and all these other kind of things. All of a sudden, I was just like, someone’s in the house. They probably don’t have good ideas. This is probably not a friendly visit. I ended up freezing. They often talk about how people, when they’re afraid, just freeze. I had read about that and knew about that, but I never had experienced it. I literally couldn’t move. It wasn’t like I thought, oh, I’ll just freeze so that he doesn’t hear me. I literally couldn’t move.

Zibby: That sounded terrifying.

Tracey: It was terrifying.

Zibby: I lived, in my twenties, in Laurel Canyon. I know how creepy it can feel being up in the hills in LA.

Tracey: It was weird. One time, I was watching this documentary, not too long ago, actually, about something — I don’t know even what it was about exactly. This woman told a story that was almost identical to mine. She lived in the same kind of area. She actually jumped off the roof and broke her feet and ran away.

Zibby: Wow. I liked that because even that feeling and how you — I probably just did what you said not to do, which is, when you relive the trauma in your mind, you are imprinting new memories on top of old memories. Then even that is traumatic. I didn’t realize that this whole, “Let’s face it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk through it,” and all of that can actually sort of reaggravate it. It’s a wound that you keep picking at, essentially.

Tracey: I want to be careful because, as I discuss in the book, a lot of therapies, in fact, most therapies for trauma are predicated on this idea that you kind of expose yourself to the memory. It’s very useful, but it has to be in the right context. It has to be done in a safe place. It has to be done carefully. What I didn’t want, necessarily, for people to think, you can never ruminate or think about bad things, but rather, just be aware of what your brain is doing when you’re having these thoughts. One way to expose yourself to trauma memories is to be more aware of what your brain is doing while you’re having them. That provides you that little distance. Our memories, as I mention and I hope gets across in the book, they’re so real. It’s amazing. I can think about something I did this morning or a few seconds ago or last week, and it’s like a movie in my head. How in the world does the brain even do that? That’s amazing already. If you can embrace that fact and then go, oh, okay, my brain is doing this, I’m not reliving it, even though that’s how we say it, you’re not really reliving it. Your brain, with proteins and electrophysiology and neurons, they’re creating that image or that feeling or that experience that feels real but isn’t.

Zibby: For people listening who have been dealing with a trauma in their own lives — maybe it’s the pandemic or the isolation or loss, but maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with that. There are eight million kinds of trauma, including the kind that you describe that happen over time that are more in the abuse category. You had a name for it. Not residual trauma, but the repeated trauma that comes over time. We know there are all these different buckets into which the types of trauma fall, but the end result is still, how do you cope with all of this? If there’s somebody out there today who’s listening to this and thinking, oh, my gosh, I’m never going to get over this or I don’t know how I’m going to get over this, what do you say? How does the brain recover?

Tracey: Luckily, a lot of memories and the feelings that come with them do tend to fade with time. Obviously, immediately after an experience, even like the one I describe — for those first weeks and months, I was really petrified. I didn’t even want to go outside, hardly. Now years later, I see it more like a story. I tell the story. It doesn’t necessarily make me that afraid. Time is a really great healer.

Zibby: What is that expression? Times heals all wounds, or something. I don’t know. You buy that?

Tracey: I don’t know about all wounds. Some of those, they’re really hard to let go of. We don’t necessarily want to let go of all of them. The other thing is, one benefit of learning a little bit more about how the brain encodes these kind of experiences is to think about why. Why do we have memories in the first place? I think sometimes people think they’re nice to reminisce or they’re not nice to think about, but there’s a function. They’re actually there to help us in the future. Something like the experience that I had, it made me much more vigilant when I’m alone and much more careful. There’s some benefits that happen. Where the problem arises is when the downsides outweigh the benefits. You start maybe hiding all the time or not going out with friends. I think the pandemic is, I wouldn’t say great because there’s nothing great about it, but it’s a prime example of this. Everything we do now is kind of tinged with little bit of fear or trauma. Something as simple as going to the grocery store, whoever used to think that would be a traumatic event? Now you go to the grocery store and even if you feel okay now, you remember how it was a year ago to be afraid.

Zibby: And airplanes. I feel like there’s all this lingering travel fears. Maybe it’s just me.

Tracey: No. I was talking to somebody yesterday. She just became an airline stewardess. I was like, wow, that’s intense to do that right now in this particular atmosphere. One of the things that I hope that people would do from reading this book is start to think more about preparing yourself for the future. Instead of saying, this really bad thing happened to me and now I’m going to seek therapy or maybe try medication, or whatever the traditional ways of dealing with trauma are, but also, prepare yourself for the future. We know that the bad things will happen. One of the ways that I’ve found particularly useful for me is just sitting alone with my thoughts. It’s called meditation, but really, it’s a way of just really dissecting your own thoughts. Most people — at least I didn’t — even though I studied thoughts, I didn’t take much time to study my own. I think that also can be really helpful.

Zibby: Tell me about deciding to write this book. When did this become a book? When did you know you wanted to do it? How long did it take to write and all that good stuff?

Tracey: Actually, I was listening to some of your podcasts. I just love all these people who love books. It’s really so exciting for me because that’s how my mother was. It almost makes me cry to think about it. My mother, she loved books. She would always take us to the library because they were free. I always loved books too. Then I kind of always wanted to write a book, but I never really thought I had, not necessarily the skill — I do a lot of writing. I have a hundred and fifty scientific publications. It’s not like I’ve never written anything before, but I never wrote something semi-personal, somewhat for the public other than some articles for Scientific American and what have you. I never really wrote a personal story book. I wasn’t even really sure I had enough to tell a story. I know a lot about the brain, obviously, but I didn’t know what the arc of that story would be.

Then ten years ago, I started working on this, I call it a brain fitness program. It’s called MAP Training. It stands for mental and physical training. I devised it based on my research on the brain. Even once I developed it, I had to — does it even work? Does it really help people with their traumas and the way they feel about themselves? That took another five or ten years to get enough data to be confident that this was something that people could do, should do, might want to do. That was the final part of this trajectory where I was like, okay, now I’m going to write this book. Not to mention the fact that I’m getting older. I was like, okay, I just have to write it because time is wasting. It took me about three years, actually. I mentioned I started it somewhat around the Me Too movement because I do work on that type of trauma as well. Then the pandemic came. It kind of evolved during that time period when I was isolated.

Zibby: How do you feel now? How do you feel that now you have a book that would be in the library that your mom could’ve found?

Tracey: Oh, my god, I’ll start crying again. I’m a little bit worried, as probably most authors are, will people like it? Did I say something crazy? I’ve gone through that stage. I’m probably still in that stage. I was talking to this woman who runs a bookstore at the university. It’s really cool. It’s a nonprofit bookstore. She gives out books for free to all over the country. She was telling me, she said, “Your book, it’ll be there until the end of time.” Maybe that’s not exactly true. I was like, okay. That makes me feel kind of okay. Even if everyone doesn’t love it, there’s nuggets in there that will be important, that will help people in their everyday lives.

Zibby: I agree. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Tracey: Oh, my gosh. Just do it. If it’s something you really care about, you just have to buckle down and do it. You know too. It’s really easy to get discouraged. I was thinking about it when I was listening to some of your podcasts. One of the women was talking about reading other books and how they inspired her. I was like, I actually found it kind of hard to read while I was writing the book because either I would be like, oh, yeah, my book is way better than that, or I’d be like, oh, no, they’re so much better at it than I am. I just found it kind of hard to actually read and write at the same time. Do you find that?

Zibby: Sometimes, yeah.

Tracey: Not the editing part, but when you’re really trying to come up with something new.

Zibby: It’s true.

Tracey: That part, I’m kind of glad because now I can get back — I like novels too. I need to do a little fiction now and not be so focused on the facts.

Zibby: That makes sense. Tracey, thank you so much. Thank you for all of your research and time and expertise. I know your book is going to help so many people. That’s really exciting. Congratulations to you.

Tracey: Thank you. I’m really honored to be associated with your show. I’m looking forward to listening to some more of your podcasts, actually.

Zibby: Thank you. Please do. Thanks a lot. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Tracey: Thank you. Bye.



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