Trauma: Never Quite the Same Again
In a split second an unexpected event triggers a cascade of terrible feelings; transforming a loving person into someone darker, afraid, angry and out-of control. A sight, a sound, a few insensitively-chosen words may unleash the inner terror; the eruption of painful feelings from remnants of unresolved trauma long past. Too many have been hurt. The after effects of violence and terrorizing threat may linger for a lifetime.
What is trauma and why do it’s effects linger so long? Trauma results from life altering experiences in which one loses control and at the same time anticipates or sustains painful harm. Soldiers live through it in war. Car drivers experience it in a major accident. Victims survive it in horrible moments of violence. This is the stuff of nightmares, beyond the suffers’ ability to cope. During a traumatic experience extraordinary psychological measures are taken to endure; measures which forgo future well-being in exchange for survival. Not all violent, terrifying or injury-sustaining life experiences result in what is known as PTSD, an acronym for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder is a bundle of painful fear-based symptoms that linger far after the traumatic event has passed. What causes PTSD to one person may not in another.
To escape the intense fear and pain during a traumatic event, survivors psychologically retreat inwardly. The victim literally splits off from his or her body to create safety. But the extraordinary measure has an extraordinarily high cost; the psyche and the body long after remain split apart. Thereafter the body is the holder of the horrible memories and is perceived as toxic to the psyche. Rejoining the two is a difficult healing process for most and seemingly near impossible for others. The name PTSD, indicates that this emotional condition is a disorder when in fact the condition is a normal response to a very abnormal experience.
Rough estimates indicate that one in three women and one in four men experience abuse-related trauma, many of these people were harmed as children. To cope with enormous pain some trauma survivors repress painful memories in an effort to bury the painful and often shameful traumatic memories in the subconscious so it will not be experienced during daily life. The traumatic event just seems gone. Common symptoms of PTSD may include anxiety, panic episodes, nightmares, chronic heightened vigilance, sudden intense and disturbing memories, episodes of rage, obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors, being startled easily, an avoidance of situations similar to the one in which the trauma occurred and distancing from vulnerable closeness.
Relationships which include a traumatized person suffer from old trauma as well. The emotional openness needed for a strong love relationship can be fear-provoking for someone who has experienced deep hurt. Also the self blame and shame felt by most PTSD sufferers as well as an attraction to risky behaviors complicate romantic connections. Certain situations normal to a loving partnership can trigger strong emotional reactions such as panic, flashback memories or avoidance. It is not unusual for traumatized individuals to be unclear as to the cause of his or her strong emotional reactions. Linking confusing behaviors and attitudes with old trauma is not obvious. In some instances previously repressed memories of old trauma abruptly surface into a partner’s consciousness, like a bubble rising from the deep. They can thoroughly transform a personality into someone troubled and significantly different.
The intensity common to love relationships can also traumatize a partner or re-awaken old trauma. Large conflicts and obviously those that escalate to violence may be traumatic. Partners with traumatic sexual abuse histories may dissociate in intimate moments, a way of mentally “going away” to avoid discomfort associated with the past. Threats of abandonment, insensitive dominance, aggression, cheating and breakup all may traumatize a partner negatively impacting a relationship for years.
Regular talk therapy alone is usually not effective at healing the deep injury. If it includes a re-living of the traumatic event it may actually re-traumatize the sufferer. For a treatment method to be effective, it must delve deeper than the conscious mind and into the more primitive body-consciousness where traumatic emotions are stored. Healing is possible, however, it is not easy. Offering a trauma sufferer patience and compassion is always a loving practice while individuals and couples travel the journey to healing. Andrew Aaron, LICSW