The Kindling Effect: Emotional Crime Scenes #14
“Yea, they sacrificed their sons and daughters unto devils, And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan and the land was polluted with blood…Therefore was the wrath of the Lord kindled against his people, in so much that he abhorred his own inheritance.” ~ Psalm 106.
The Kindling Effect has been used to describe the neurological tendency of the brain to become over-sensitized following exposure to trauma (MacFarlane, Van der Kolk, et.al, 1995). The result is the lowering of an individual’s threshold to trauma, making the individual both more susceptible to re-traumatization as well as re-victimization.
The individual is more likely to suffer the biological effects of trauma as evidenced by mood disturbances, personality disorders, anxiety states, as well as the more classic DAM IV symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Authors such as MacFarlane and Van der Kolk have referred to this composite of post trauma symptomology categorically as Disorders of Extreme Stress. Re-victimization becomes more likely because of this sustained condition of arousal.
Sustained arousal does not sharpen an individual’s intuitive, intellectual, emotional and physical protective mechanisms. It dims them. The individual loses his or her ability to discern safe from unsafe due to the lowered thresholds and increased arousal states. The individual becomes accustomed to arousal states and these states become associated with normalcy. Everyday decision making becomes a dangerous enterprise.
In the last blog (#13) we looked at the story of “The Banding of Calf #257.” Here there was a boy at his father’s ranch who is trampled by an angry mother cow. Later, the boy from the ranch finds himself being trampled again in the seventh grade photography dark room by a gang of seven angry boys.
The boy from the ranch would continue to be bullied in high school. This was primarily verbal bullying and the use of gender assaults such as name calling with the words gay, fag, queer, gay wad, and other non-creative variations on the theme of adolescent angst regarding sexuality and gender.
When the boy entered college he had an anxiety disorder. He had “stage fright” and experienced full-blown panic attacks when he had to make a presentation in a course. He started to see a psychiatrist who prescribed Xanax, PRN. This worked in a minimal way, but Xanax is short acting. He began drinking alcohol; three shots of whiskey before class in the morning took the edge off. Three more at noon kept the edge off. In time he was drinking most days and was comfortably numb.
He met a girl and he thought he had found someone special. She was into cocaine. She was an iceberg in terms of her emotional sensitivity. She wanted to show the boy from the ranch all about the things he hadn’t experienced. After all, he had only used alcohol up to this point. So she proceeded to introduce him to the world of wild and crazy by way of drugs. One night they went to a private party where drugs were the menu for the night. A guy came up to the boy from the ranch and asked him if he was gay. That was all it took to create a landslide of hyper-arousal symptoms. He had a panic attack.
The girl and the boy from the ranch dated another month and she ended it by texting him she was going to be dating Ted. Ted was his friend.
The boy from the ranch started a dangerous cycle of drinking.
One night he drove to a bar, parked his car, and made a party out of tequila shots, beer and vodka chasers. He was unable to drive and he walked home to his apartment alone. Once in his apartment anxiety set in as he started worrying whether he had locked the car doors. He paced around in the apartment trying to decide what to do. With the television left on, a pot of soup simmering on the stove, and the air conditioner on high he left his apartment and tried to locate his car.
As luck or life would have it he encountered a male sitting on a curb smoking a cigarette by his pickup. He looked as though he was waiting for someone.
The boy from the ranch approached him and offered him $20 if he would help him find his car. The man who was smoking said, “Sure.” He took the $20 and then walked to his pickup. The boy from the ranch said, “Are we going to look for my car?” The man who was smoking laughed, “You stupid fag.”
The boy from the ranch felt it coming. He yelled at the man who was now locked in his vehicle. The boy from the ranch pummeled the drivers side window with his fists. He walked off. The man who was smoking called 911. The boy from the ranch was arrested and charged with attempted assault.
Trauma has a way of kindling; a small fire is started in the Limbic system of the brain when the first insult takes place. This fire sensitizes the amygdala and hippocampus so it is primed and ready to go off more easily. Signals and messages that order chemical releases cause fear, panic, breathing issues, heart rate issues and a raised blood pressure. Adrenaline is pumping through his body and the boy from the ranch is one more time ready for fight, flight, or a numbing of the experience.
It is exhausting. It is humiliating. It is out of control. It is outside the control of the boy from the ranch. He makes bad decisions in part due to the past trauma and because of what he has chosen to do to cope with the trauma and anxiety. The mixture of alcohol with someone who has a trauma history is a dangerous cocktail.
It all begins with a spark, a small flame, and this flame can ignite into a major fire, destroying everything that matters.
Take care and be well.
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
Burton Mongelluzzo, N. (2012). The Kindling Effect: Emotional Crime Scenes #14. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 1, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/angst-anxiety/2012/07/the-kindling-effect-emotional-crime-scenes-14/