This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 3: UNDERSTAND the impact of my suffering.”
To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
While there are many similarities in the responses people have to trauma, no two responses are the same. In chapters two and three you are seeking to identify the “finger print” of your traumatic and post-traumatic experience. You should be taking comfort in the fact that you are not alone, while also realizing there are unique challenges in countering your post-traumatic experience. It can be difficult to keep these two realities in balance.
Read Proverbs 14:10 and I Corinthians 10:13. Our experience confirms that both of these passages are true and that the tension between them is real. We experience our sorrows in a way that no one else can fully enter our pain (Proverbs 14:10). Yet the challenges we face out of our experiences have been experienced and overcome by others. As you study additional ways that trauma may have impacted you, hold on to both of these truths. There is uniqueness to your experience that merits a very particular compassion and there have been enough people (including Christ – Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16) to experience what you’re going through for you to have hope.
Flashbacks, as the most intense of the intrusive symptoms, can easily make you feel “crazy.” It is as if your sense of time and five senses revolt on your mind. You no longer feel in control of your own life. Understanding how traumatic memories imprint differently from common, narrative memories can help offset this sense of being crazy. One way to contrast this difference is that narrative memories are retrieved as if we were watching old movies of our life, while traumatic memories are retrieved as if we were living the past experience. In narrative memories we watch ourselves from a distance, while in traumatic memories we remember from behind our own eyes. This is a normal (meaning majority experience) for how traumatic experiences imprint differently from casual ones.
“Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative in context; rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images (p. 38).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
2. Lens of Extremity:
When life has been threatened or, in some other way, all of your adaptive techniques have been proven utterly inadequate, then it becomes much harder to live a “normal day.” Knowledge of the extreme circumstances of life are hard to unlearn or unknow. Usually when trauma hits, it strikes unexpectedly and unannounced into otherwise normal moments. So post-trauma, it can be harder to feel safe in “normal” moments again, because this is just the kind of moment trauma interrupted previously.
“Even after the victim has escaped, it is not possible simply to reconstitute relationships of this sort that existed prior to captivity. For all relationships are now viewed through the lens of extremity… No ordinary relationship offers the same degree of intensity as the pathological bond with the abuser (p. 92).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
3. Loss of Voice:
Abusers threaten harm if you tell anyone. Shame says no one will like you if you tell anyone. Fear says that no one would believe you if you told. Despair says there is nothing anyone could do if you told them. You would rather just live as if the trauma never happened. Habits say if you start talking, then they will no longer be available to help you manage life as well as you are right now. There are so many voices competing to silence your voice and if they win then you are all alone with your pain.
“To fail to speak is awful. To speak is equally awful because the telling makes the story real (p. 34).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope
“To live with chronic abuse is to live in silence, to be shut up. The voice of one so abused has been crushed. The victim is made inarticulate by intense fear… What is the point of speaking when no one will listen? She has shut up by the threat of abandonment, which will surely come if the truth is told. She lives in a world where voices lie, distort, and deceive. She can survive in such a world only if she to learns how to lie, distort, and deceive. So she lies to herself and distorts the truth of her life in order to survive. She deceives herself and others, pretending she is really all right, when, in fact, she is dying inside. As the years go by, her voice is less and less a representation of her real self, until she finally reaches the place where she can no longer even hear herself (p. 77).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Trauma happened. Life continued. Your world changed radically. The rest of the world didn’t notice – teachers still gave tests, bosses still assigned projects, children still needed to be fed, laundry still needed to be washed, telemarketers still offered “great deals,” etc… It is easy to live in two conflicting worlds, especially when the trauma you experienced was abuse as a child by an authority figure who should have been trustworthy. Children should be able to trust their parents or teachers. Parents and teachers define what it means to be “good” – they make the rules by which punishments and rewards are earned. If parents and teachers are bad, then the child is all alone in the world – a thought too scary for the child to consider. Yet the child instinctually knows abuse is bad. The result is that the child learns to live with two diametrically opposed thoughts (my parents are bad; my parents are good) somehow “reconciled” in their mind. This is what is called “double think.”
“When it is impossible to avoid the reality of the abuse, the child must construct some system of meaning that justifies it. Inevitably the child concludes that her innate badness is the cause. The child ceases upon this explanation early and clings to it tenaciously, for it enables her to preserve a sense of meaning, hope, and power. If she is bad, that her parents are good. If she is bad, that she can try to be good. If, somehow, she has brought this fate upon herself, then somehow she has the power to change it (p. 103).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
“It is not unkind or ungodly to thoroughly assess the truth about one’s own family. It is necessary for emotional and spiritual health (p. 148).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul
Weddings are a common place to experience ambivalence – two simultaneous but opposite emotions; it is common to simultaneously feel happy and sad, like laughing and like crying at a wedding. The experience of trauma multiplies the frequency with which we experience ambivalence. Quiet time alone is both desired for its respite and feared for its vulnerability. Meaningful conversation is both desired for its bonding capability and feared for its manipulative potential. Opportunity is both desired for its opportunity to bless and feared for its potential to implode.
“Many survivors have a deep fear of intimacy and commitment while they simultaneously longed for closeness. This ambivalence causes a push-pull effect that vacillates between idealizing and devaluing others (p. 89).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse
6. Stunted Emotional Growth:
This is particularly true for people who experience trauma in childhood, but has implications for those who experience trauma at any age. We emotionally mature as we (a) identify the appropriate emotional response to a situation – type and size, and (b) become more consistent-natural at giving that response in comparable future situations. Trauma disrupts “a” and “b.” What is the appropriate response to trauma? Thinking about comparable future situations creates a fear response that magnifies future experiences in a way that makes our reaction disproportional.
“A funny thing about emotions, though, is that if you deaden yourself to one side, the other goes with it. If you want to feel joy, you will have to deal with grief. If you want to feel love, you will have to face fear. As you begin to feel and struggle with emotions long dead, hold on tightly to the fact that as surely as you pass through the painful ones, so you will eventually come out on the other side (p. 109).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope
7. Shattered Sense of Self:
“Who am I now? How has this experience(s) changed me? I feel like I responded to life one way BT (before trauma) and another way AT (after trauma), but I don’t want this event to play that kind of seismic role in my life… but I also don’t want to downplay its significance… but I also don’t want to make excuses for future behavior. I’m confused and I wish I could think about my trauma and its implications less.” Some version of this inner dialogue is very common for those who have experienced trauma.
What do you do when you’ve lost something? Retrace your steps. What do you do when a situation surprises you? Replay the events looking for what you missed. What makes a situation feel uncomfortable? When it is different from our most common or dominant experience or similar situations. How do we best learn new skills and information? Repetition. All of these dynamics are in play when it comes to the tendency to re-enact (physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, etc…) facets of a traumatic experience.
“There is a driven quality about these reenactments, as if the survivor is attempting repeatedly to find a way to master the unmasterable (p. 66).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse
9. Excessive or Dismissive towards Planning:
Planning can either become savior or unicorn to those who have experienced trauma. Some people respond as if their purpose in life is to account for every variable that could leave them vulnerable again. Their life and the life of those they love are believed (at least emotionally) to depend on their foresight and preparation. Other people take trauma as evidence that life will happen with its full force regardless of what we do. Planning is futile. They know what the word means, but find it practically useless (like the word unicorn). The best approach – because it’s believed to be the only approach – is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in each moment with little thought to each decision’s future implications, because life has proven itself untrustworthy.
10. Deterioration of Problem Solving Skills: The points above should make it clearer how the effects of trauma can deteriorate at one’s problem solving skills. It is hard to emotionally-size experiences, which is necessary to discern how to respond to them. One has a love-hate relationship with trust, which is necessary for healthy relationships. The ability to anticipate a hopeful future is compromised, which is foundational to the hope necessary to carry out the solution to any difficult problem. Bottom line; life is harder and because few people know why (trauma is often kept secret) it feels like no one cares, so why keep trying? There is more hope than this paragraph indicates, but if it captures where you are, then that is where your journey begins – not just with hardship, but also with being understood.
“A great many coping mechanisms are destructive. The cycle is very similar to the abuse cycle. You feel; it hurts; you find some way to disconnect (p. 142).” Diane Langberg in On the Threshold of Hope
“In the mind of the survivor, even minor slights evoke past experiences of callous neglect, and minor hurts even though past experiences of deliberate cruelty. These distortions are not easily corrected by experience, since the survivor tends to lack the verbal and social skills for resolving conflict. Thus the survivor develops a pattern of intense, unstable relationships, repeatedly and acting traumas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal (p. 111).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
11. Self-Harm: Self-harm rarely makes sense, even to the person who is doing it and finding relief in the pain. There are at least two dynamics that can account for the relief experienced through pain. First, the body responds to significant injury by releasing opiates; natural pain killers and an addictive drug-experience. Second, the experience of pain can trigger a dissociative experience (described in chapter two) which allows the individual to feel like they are getting outside the moment. In the traumatic moment both the release of opiates and dissociation are forms of God’s protection, but when we begin to manipulate these reactions outside times of actual trauma they change from provisions of God’s grace to means of self-destruction.
12. Depression: The influence of post-traumatic symptoms is emotionally exhausting. Questioning everything, struggling to trust anyone, not knowing when an intense emotional trigger may emerge taxes the body and mind. Even when these experiences are understood, they create emotional fatigue. Before they are understood, all of life can begin to feel futile.
“Protracted depression is the most common finding in virtually all clinical studies of chronically traumatized people… The paralysis of initiative of chronic trauma combines with the apathy and helplessness of depression. The disruption in attachment of chronic trauma reinforces the isolation of depression. The debased self-image of chronic trauma fuels the guilty ruminations of depression. And the loss of faith suffered in chronic trauma merges with the hopelessness of depression (p. 94).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
13. Exaggeration of Gender Stereotypes:
Whether it is gender stereotypes or personality traits, trauma shows a tendency to embolden our natural tendencies. It would make sense that when we feel threatened we would rely on our natural strengths more and that our character weaknesses would be exposed as we engage day-to-day struggles with an intensity that assumes our survival was on the line.
“Trauma appears to amplify the common gender stereotypes: men with histories of childhood abuse are more likely to take out their aggressions on others, while women are more likely to be victimized by others or to injure themselves (p. 113).” Judith Hermann in Trauma and Recovery
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.