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How Psychoanalysis Understands Trauma

"Face" by Transformer18, Slight changes made.
“Face” by Transformer18, Slight changes made.

One of the most common underlying problems to depression and anxiety that I encounter in my practice is the experience of psychological trauma. Many of my clients come to therapy because they struggle with forming and maintaining relationships with others or because they suffer from symptoms of severe anxiety or depression. What I find time and again is that, often, the underlying issue causing both of these symptoms finds its roots in the experience of prolonged childhood trauma in unhealthy, abusive and difficult relationships to others.

There are a few things that psychoanalysis considers when we talk about trauma, which is probably one of the reasons why psychoanalysis is a different form of treatment from other therapeutic modalities. Here’s what I’m talking about:

  • Trauma is a subjective experience. What is traumatic for one person is not necessarily traumatic for another. What’s traumatic depends on the person’s ability to cope with stressors and changes in their environment, which is usually a combination of temperament, genetics and intelligence. This is why in psychoanalytic psychotherapy we value the individual experience and try not to put people into pre-fixed categories.
  • Trauma is not always about a single event. Just because you never experienced childhood sexual or physical abuse or any other single traumatic event, doesn’t mean that you were not traumatized. Growing up with an emotionally abusive parent can be just as traumatic and sometimes even more traumatic than being punished or neglected physically. Psychological trauma is often harder to name and has a much more negative impact on a person’s well-being than physical trauma. For example, a child may choose to lie to DCFS that their father beats them every night because they are more scared of losing their parent, than being beat by them.
  • There are life events that can be traumatic for people such as the birth of a child, a miscarriage, divorce in the family, the death of a loved one, immigration, war, disease in the family, etc. You might think that just because divorce, the birth of a child, miscarriage, illness or death are a part of life, we should all be equipped to handle them without an issue but these are MAJOR life events that change us dramatically. It is not unusual for people to experience such drastic life shifts as traumatic and there is nothing wrong with seeking professional help to address them in therapy.
  • Trauma transmits across generations. I have spoken about trans-generational transmission of trauma before in the context of domestic violence and the cycle of abuse. But the trauma that transmits across generations can be other than physical abuse and abusive relationships. Often, sexual abuse can be traced back to multiple generations of men or women in a family that have gone through the same thing. Very simply put, unconsciously, people repeat with their children and partners what was done to them in an unconscious attempt to cope with it and to turn the passive experience of being traumatized into the active one of taking control. This is unique for every person based on their individual history.
  • Trauma needs to be talked about. As human beings, we have feelings about things and it’s important that we talk about them with others. Bottling things up is not helpful and often causes myriad of symptoms such as substance abuse, anxiety, depression, difficult relationships, etc. This is especially true for the communication between parents and children. Often, we choose not to say something to our kids, because we want to protect them or we think that they don’t understand, but putting traumatic events into words validates the experience, makes it real and sets up an opportunity for the event to be dealt with. We cannot deal with things, if we don’t talk about them. If you or a loved one have experienced trauma, it is important to find a professional, who you can talk to about it.


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Do you have questions? Found this article interesting? I would love to hear from you. You can also write your question in the comment section below. I will try and answer right back and may use your question as a topic for my next post, if that’s okay with you, of course. Thanks for reading and leaving your comment below!

How Psychoanalysis Understands Trauma

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Inside Family Counseling, LLC in Chicago. She is a Professional Member of the American Counseling Association and a member of Chicago Psychoanalytic Circle of the Freudian School of Quebec, Canada. She is the author of Mental Health Digest electronic magazine, your free, easy-to-read electronic resource on common mental health issues affecting you and your family, plus some suggestions on how to address them. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for troubled children and adolescents, who face behavioral and emotional challenges at home and at school. Her mission is to empower, support and guide children, adolescents and their parents to a happy and healthy family. Mihaela also writes a Parenting Blog, where parents find helpful resources and practical tips on how to support their child and adolescent's behavioral and emotional development. You may find out more about her at

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APA Reference
, . (2019). How Psychoanalysis Understands Trauma. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Mar 2019
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