As with all traumatic incidents, being mugged can result in more than physical injury and loss of valuable personal items. The longer-lasting impact of a mugging can be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an extreme type of anxiety disorder that can make the sufferer's life unmanageable. Mugging is violent crime, and once a person is victimized by violent crime at the hands of a stranger-especially one with a weapon-it's challenging to trust the world again.
Victims express their distress in varying ways, and it's not always obvious that someone is struggling with the aftereffects of experiencing trauma.
According to the National Institutes of Health*:
PTSD symptoms seem to be worse if they were triggered deliberately by another person, as in a mugging or rape. Most PTSD sufferers repeatedly relive the trauma in their thoughts during the day and in nightmares when they sleep. These are called flashbacks. Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings. They are often triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a door slamming, a car backfiring, or being in a place that looks like where the trauma took place. A person having a flashback is likely to feel the emotions and physical feelings that occurred when the incident happened despite no longer being in danger.
There is a scientific, physical reason why trauma impacts us so strongly, and it can be traced to the amygdala-a very small nugget of our brain lodged deep inside the temporal lobe, it processes memory and emotion. Unlike conscious memories that we are aware of-for instance, a victim returning to the scene of a mugging would recognize the environment and perhaps remember details about what happened-the amygdala is in charge of deeper, unconscious emotion that can develop into PTSD. The amygdala is also responsible for the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. **
When we experience an "emotionally arousing event" such as a mugging, the amygdala is activated and it then produces a protein in the neurons of the hippocampus. This protein helps the nervous symptom to convert immediate memories into permanent ones. ***
Because of the unique way the brain processes traumatic memories, they can actually become more vivid and intrusive over time, rather than fading away like most memories do naturally. Any memory associated with a life-threatening event has this capacity to grow and transform into PTSD.
According to NYU's Le Doux Laboratory (Center for Neural Science):
Neuroanatomists have shown that the pathways that connect the emotional processing system of fear, the amygdala, with the thinking brain, the neocortex, are not symmetrical-the connections from the cortex to the amygdala are considerably weaker than those from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why, once an emotion is aroused, it is so hard for us to turn it off at will.
This is not to say that PTSD and anxiety disorders cannot be solved. Somatic Psychology has been particularly effective in treating the symptoms (and the root neurological cause) of PTSD. Recovering from the trauma of a sudden violent attack like a mugging requires a re-wiring of the brain's fear response associated with memories of the event. With patience, we work with a victim to heal themselves.
* Citation: NIH Medline Plus Magazine http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter09/articles/win...
** Citation: NYU's Le Doux Laboratory (Center for Neural Science)
** Citation: Medical News Today http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/28124.php
© Susanne Babbel Ph.D. MFT