A hallmark of trauma is its capacity to overwhelm our minds and beliefs. Traumas deeply affect the way we see ourselves, other people, and the world.
Trauma is not the same as something merely stressful. Trauma can lead individuals to see themselves as helpless or damaged and believe that negative outcomes will continue in the future (Bromberg, 2011). For example, traumatic events like direct exposure to a life-threatening event, shocking grief, or being fired from a job can affect one’s beliefs about the future (loss of hope, or anticipation that normal life events won’t occur).
It is important to note that not everyone is affected in the same way by the same event. Trauma is about how a person processes events. Some individuals will exhibit a resilient response to the same events that overwhelm others. They will find healthy ways to cope with, respond to, and heal from trauma. For instance, they automatically reevaluate their values and redefine what is important after a trauma.
One of the most important consequences of trauma is dissociation of the mind. That is, trauma can block the processing of experience into narrative memory. As a result, the mind only partially knows itself and its past.
Dissociation is a defense against trauma. The unconscious motive for dissociation is to escape from the overwhelming emotions associated with a traumatic memory. When people are overwhelmed by terrifying emotions, they cannot integrate the experience with the rest of their personal history. Consequently, aspects of traumatic memory (the “not-me” parts) remain separated from the rest of consciousness.
Dissociation is a short-term coping strategy that actually maintains mental health. Most people have a natural tendency to forget dreadful events and upsetting emotions. If experiences of some events are too overwhelming to be taken in as part of who we are, then these experiences become detached pieces of ourselves.
However, dissociation comes with a price. The lack of integration results in vulnerability to flashbacks and anxiety. A flashback is re-experiencing a previous traumatic experience as if it were actually happening at that moment (e.g., intrusive thoughts and nightmares). When certain situations trigger flashbacks, people learn to avoid places, people, thoughts, feelings, conversations, that arouse memories of the trauma. For example, rape victims may have flashbacks to their sexual assault while making love with their partner.
Dissociation is not the same as repression. They both result in aspects of experience becoming unconscious. In repression, specific memories that we cannot bear knowing have been put out of mind. In contrast, the dissociated mind (not-me) has never been processed. For example, in repression one may be sweeping things under the rug. In dissociation, seeing someone who looks like the abuser can trigger an experience of intense fear.
The dissociated parts (“not-me”’) communicate through enactment. In enactment, we recreate internal drama with people who appear in our lives. Emotional reactions that are most likely to surface include anger, fear, sadness, and shame. However, individuals may experience difficulty in identifying any of these feelings. For example, unconscious shame and humiliation can be transformed into anger, a defense that is quite common in a narcissistic person. Enactment provides an important opportunity to gain insight into one’s unconscious motivation.
Substance use is one of the ways that traumatized people attempt to regain emotional control. In adults, unprocessed trauma can manifest as substance use and abuse. Self-medication serves to self-soothe and calms the anxiety by directing attention away from internal emotional pain.
Addiction is common among trauma survivors. Tolerance develops rapidly, requiring increasing doses to achieve the same effect. Addiction problems are less about pursuing pleasure than they are about seeking relief from painful feelings. However, the pain is never relieved completely or indefinitely. When we self-medicate to reduce or eliminate negative feelings such as depression and anxiety, we also tend to reduce access to joy, creativity, and playfulness.
Healing involves accepting, acknowledging, and mourning parts of the self that have been dissociated. This allows the memories of painful life events to become part of a personal life narrative. The availability of a trusted other, such as an attachment figure, friends, or a therapist, can effectively increase a person’s capacity to access and tolerate internal conflicts (Howell, 2020). The discovery of the repressed and dissociated aspects of the self is truly a creative process.
Bromberg PM (2011), The Shadow of the Tsunami and the Growth of the Relational Mind. (2011). New York, NY: Routledge.
Howell Elizabeth (2020), Trauma and Dissociation Informed Psychotherapy: Relational Healing and the Therapeutic Connection. W. W. Norton & Company.