“Time heals all wounds,” they say. However, the truth is that time doesn’t heal all wounds, it is we who must heal over time. Thinking that time is a guaranteed solution to our problems, conflicts and suffering generates a passive attitude that ends up generating a lack of will in which frustration, dissatisfaction and pain grow.
In fact, a study conducted at Arizona State University found that even though we have the ability to heal from traumatic events, many of the significant life-altering events continue to affect us several years later, so many people need much longer than expected to recover.
Therefore, leaving our emotional healing in the hands of time is not exactly the safest or smartest choice we can make. And there are different reasons that support it.
Why doesn’t time heal all wounds?
1. Pain tends to get worse before it gets better
Thinking that time heals everything is equivalent to believing that emotional healing follows a linear process in which pain gradually lessens as the days go by. However, those who have suffered a painful loss know that this is not the case.
The first days are not usually the worst because when the blow is too strong, defense mechanisms such as denial are activated to protect us since they act as an “emotional anesthesia” during the first days or weeks. When its effect begins to fade and we realize the true magnitude of what happened, that contained pain re-sprouts and can hit us with greater intensity than at the beginning.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the suffering worsens weeks or even months after the painful event. In addition, the intensity of the pain that we experience during all that time is usually extremely variable, so that “good” days are interspersed with “bad” days. Those emotional ups and downs are part of the process.
2. Not everyone gets better over time
As a general rule, 18 months after a significant loss, most of the intense symptoms characteristic of grief tend to subside, from general sadness to insomnia, anger, anhedonia or nightmares. However, that rule does not apply to all people.
There are those who go through a complicated suffering and remain stuck in pain. In the case of silent grief, for example, we get stuck in one of the stages as we fail to emotionally process the loss. Our inner world is not restructured to accept what happened, either because reality creates feelings that are too overwhelming to handle or because we believe that letting go of pain is a betrayal of the person who abandoned us.
Therefore, although we all have a natural inner healing power, each case is different and it is not always possible to go on without the help of a professional who can channel maladaptive emotions and ideas. We can become very resilient, but it is also important to be aware of our limits and understand that the passage of time is not a guarantee of healing.
3. Time passes extremely slowly when suffering
Time can be an objective measure for some, but for those who suffer it becomes extremely subjective. When we are sick, for example, time passes very slowly. The minutes we have to wait for the medications to take effect can seem like an eternity.
In fact, neuroscientists at the University of Lyon have found that pain and negative emotions alter our perception of time, making it pass slower. These researchers point to the anterior insular cortex, an area of the brain that integrates body pain signals but is also a critical component involved in integrating pain, self-awareness, and sense of time. They suggest that time estimation and self-perception may share a common neural substrate and that when we feel bad, we focus too much on ourselves, contributing to the impression that “time stands still.”
Therefore, saying that time heals all wounds is an understatement. When we are suffering, the minutes seem like hours and the hours turn into days that pass slowly. That is the reason why, when adversity knocks on our door, it seems to us that we have suffered a tragedy and we think that the pain will never end. Our perception of time is altered.
4. Time leads to resignation, not healing
Wounds of the soul don’t heal like wounds of the body – at least not always. Sitting around waiting, doing nothing to process that grief or trauma, does not lead directly to healing but rather to quiet resignation.
When time passes and the pain does not fade because nor we process what happened, appears a stoicism that has little to do with the growth that occurs after the trauma but is more like learned helplessness and the conformism of those who have surrendered.
Time can help us tolerate pain better because we get used to its pangs, but it does not necessarily help us overcome it and emerge stronger or with a new vision. In fact, in many cases it can plunge us into anhedonia and depression, causing us to give up on self-healing.
5. Trauma is timeless
Neither trauma occurs immediately nor does it have an expiration date. A study conducted at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences revealed that 78.8% of seriously injured soldiers did not show signs of trauma within a month of the event, but instead appeared seven months later. In late-onset trauma, for example, the emotional impact remains seemingly inactive, but can appear later.
In the same way, intrusive traumatic memories can persist long after the triggering event has passed and are just as sharp as when we lived the original experience. In the case of flashbacks, nightmares or intrusive thoughts and images, our brain does not differentiate reality from memories, so the pain and suffering we experience is very intense.
Until we process those experiences and integrate them into our autobiographical memory, we will not be able to subtract their emotional impact, so that they will continue to hurt almost like the first day.
In any case, it is difficult to know when we are going to recover from a painful event. Although we know that suffering hurts, it doesn’t hurt the same for everyone. Therefore, emotional healing is a personal journey, often strewn with ups and downs.
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Solomon, C. G. & Shear, M. K. (2015) Complicated grief. The New England Journal of Medicine; 372(2): 153-160.
Grieger, T. A. et. Al. (2006) Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in battle-injured soldiers. Comparative Study Am J Psychiatry; 163(10): 1777-1783.
Shear, K. et. Al. (2005) Treatment of complicated grief: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 293(21), 2601-2608.
Royden, L. (2019) Does Time Really Heal All Wounds? In: Psychology Today.