Yesterday, I received a call from a friend who was clearly in distress over a recent experience that brought back painful memories of events from her childhood and late adolescence. She had had been watching a movie the night before in which there was a gang rape scene. Although that particular experience blessedly had not occurred for her, there was an incident of molestation by a neighbor when she was quite young and then rape at 17. She has spoken about those traumatic life events and the lingering impact they have had on her life. Residual effects have included chronic pain, emotional entrenchment, relationship challenges, as well as having many brilliant ideas for the direction she wants her life to take that lie dormant when fear of moving forward overtakes her. Years of multi-faceted therapies have assisted her in dislodging memory and maintaining functioning in the face of the aforementioned life occurrences.
As I listened to her tear-filled words, a question popped into my mind. When she took a breath, I offered it to her as a way past the pain. “What made you keep watching when the first emotional wave hit?” Her response was, “I don’t know.” My thought was that it was like a motor vehicle accident that you can’t help but look at or a newscast of a tragedy that you can’t keep from binge watching. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For trauma survivors, it has the impact of re-traumatizing. She validated it, as the images ran through her mind throughout the night and entered her dreams. They had sunken their claws into her psyche’. The intent was to acknowledge and then dislodge them. In some ways, it felt like emotional surgery that couldn’t be rushed. She knows it is a work in progress that needs to be handled with TLC.
Why did my friend keep her eyes focused on the screen when she knew it would induce pain? Sigmund Freud referred to this dynamic as ‘repetition compulsion’ in which we, have a “desire to return to an earlier state of things.” We cling to the familiar, albeit, painful habits that at one time felt like coping skills gone awry. When we are children, we are cautioned about placing our hands on a hot burner. Adult caregivers will tell us that if we do so, it will hurt. Some of us take heed and never do it. Others want to test the theory. If they do and find that indeed, they experience an unpleasant reaction, it is not one in which they want to engage again. However, there are individuals who, either by choice or unconscious habit, continue to symbolically singe skin. It may arise as a result of believing they deserve pain. Internalizing messages of unworthiness or shame, they continue to do to themselves what perpetrators have done.
Consider those who have relationships with the same person in different bodies. What makes them attract dysfunctional partners over and over? Perhaps it is the same paradigm. We tell ourselves that it is what we are accustomed to and what we deserve.
The noted researcher and therapist, Bessel Van der Kolk, MD incorporates what he refers to as Psychomotor Therapy to work with those with PTSD, in which group members take on roles of various people in the subject’s life during which a traumatic event occurred. Skillfully, he has the person interact with these various actors. Patterns of re-victimization and re-traumatization are addressed and healing can take place over time.
His take on treatment is that traditional talk therapies that include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) only scratch the surface, since the experiences are lodged in the body. This modality addresses cognitive distortions that are only a portion of the problem.
Trauma inducing events take many forms. While they are related to physical or sexual assault, they may also take the form of being a survivor of war, terrorism, natural disaster, accident, illness injury or witnessing violence or death.
What Triggers Traumatic Responses?
- Loud noises
- News clips of violent occurrences
- Television shows or movies depicting events related to the original trauma
- Being around people who remind one of perpetrators
- Holidays, birthdays, as well as anniversaries of events
- Being in locations where traumatic events took place
- Sensations that were present when the activity occurred
How Do PTSD Symptoms Manifest Themselves?
- Rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure
- Nightmares and flashbacks that seem as if they are truly occurring
- Aggressive behaviors as a defense from assault
- Emotional distress
- Feelings of fear
- Hyper-arousal and vigilance
- Emotional and verbal outbursts
- Fight, flight or freeze reaction
- Distorted perception
Coping Skills: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
If everything we do is considered a coping skill to help manage distress, what are positive and negative strategies?
- Speak with a trusted friend or family member
- Seek treatment, whether inpatient or outpatient
- Attend self help meetings such as those with a 12 step or alternative focus
- Eat healthfully
- Exercise regularly
- Spend time with nurturing and inspiring people
- Have nature time
- Be around animals
- If you have a spiritual practice, engage in it
- Listening to music
- Practice self compassion
- Experience loving touch
- Somatic (body healing) modalities such as massage, chiropractic or Reiki
- Allow yourself to grieve your losses
The Bad and Ugly
- Self medicating with substances (drugs, alcohol, cigarettes)
- Putting yourself in dangerous situations
- Poor diet
- Limited fitness activities
- Shaming and blaming
- Self injury
- Unnecessary high risk behaviors
- Time with unhealthy friends and family members who may attempt to draw you into their drama
- Consciously placing yourself in the ‘line of fire,’ whether literal or metaphorical
- Suicidal ideation or attempts
With this awareness and these tools at the ready, you can rewrite the narrative, cool the burn and cease from re-wounding.
Hot stove photo available from Shutterstock