Trauma: Tigers Everywhere
Trauma is not event specific. It is person specific. I want to introduce you to the principles of trauma and how trauma works.
Trauma: The good, the bad, and the ugly
1. Stress, trauma, and adaptation have no clear divisions. All have psychological and physiological responses.
2. Single events or ongoing events create trauma or stress.
3. We tend to think that physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or “big” events, like accidents or war, are the only things that cause trauma. Wrong.
4. It is the person’s own experience that defines whether or not an event was stressful or traumatic.
5. What is overwhelming for one person, is not necessarily the case for someone else.
6. With trauma or stress, there are usually feelings of being overwhelmed emotionally, cognitively, or physically.
7. Most commonly, the disturbing event includes elements of helplessness, pain, confusion, loss, entrapment, betrayal of trust, or abuse of power.
As such, whether or not someone experiences the effects of trauma does depend on the type of event that occurs. Until person is able to adequately resolve the experience, the effects of trauma continue and worsen over time. To understand why this occurs, it’s helpful to know a bit about memory.
It may surprise you to learn that regular memories are not exact representations of your past. Memories are continually updated. Your recall of past events are influenced by your present experience, beliefs, future expectations, current values, bias, drives, and interpretations. In other words, your memories update every time they are recalled. These updates allow us to make better predictions about the world. Trauma memories provide us with yet another challenge.
For a long time it was assumed that trauma memories didn’t change. However, emerging studies show that these memories do change. They change in a very specific way. Trauma memories grow in intensity. Consequently, a traumatic event is recalled as more traumatic than when it was first experienced. In effect, it’s over-remembered.
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Over-remembering serves an adaptive evolutionary purpose. It’s the once-bitten, twice-shy principle. If you’ve been bit by a dog, you’ll go out of your way to avoid being bit a second time. In essence, the more aware we are of a past danger, the more alert we are to future dangers.
Typically, if you don’t come into contact with a threat again, you’ll lose your sense of fear. However, because traumatic events intensify, they override this weakening tendency. Fear is a powerful motivator to keep us safe.
The value of over-remembering is protective in nature. Imagine, you’re a hunter-gatherer and you have a scary freak-out moment with a tiger. You’re going to remember it. So whenever you have a similar experience, your fear will be triggered. As an added benefit, you’ll likely stay alive longer.
In the long run, these types of memories train us to avoid life-threatening experiences. Resilient memories ensure essential lessons are remembered. It’s an efficient process if there are real tigers around every corner. But what if that’s not the case all the time?
The Trouble With Remembering
As stated, trauma memories are important to survival. The challenge is that your brain registers emotional, social, and physical threats in the exact same way. Therefore events like failing an exam or almost get killed by a tiger can both register as hello-stressful aka: traumatic. Because the experiences are recorded as highly disturbing, the memory intensifies. Consequently, behaviors and thought processes that involve protection and avoidance develop. This becomes especially unhelpful when these behaviors result in:
- self-esteem issues
- panic attacks
- sexual dysfunction
- relationship patterns
- social anxiety
As we’ve discussed, the brain is wired to keep essential lessons about survival. It is geared to minimize threat at all costs. Such lessons become the basis for unwanted behaviors and irrational thought patterns. Through the use of EMDR, it is possible change memories from disturbing to neutral. Once the trauma memory is resolved, the patterns start to fade away. We can help!