Trauma and Stress
"Traumatic memories are sensorimotor, emotional experiences" related to
disturbing or traumatizing events. (Van der Hart, Nijenhuis & Solomon 2010).
Anyone can develop a traumatic memory during an experience that feels
threatening or frightening. Traumatic memories commonly develop when people
- been bullied, shamed or humiliated, especially in front of others,
- experienced injury, illness or neglect,
- experienced abuse of a psychological, physical, verbal or sexual nature,
- been involved in accidents, fights or relationship breakups.
Traumatic memories of past events can intrude into consciousness suddenly and
set off reactions within the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which prepare
the body for danger with a fight-flight-freeze response. Unexpected memories,
flashbacks, panic or negative self-messages can be disturbing and confusing,
especially when the danger response occurs at an unconscious level, when
something 'similar to' or 'reminiscent of' the previous event is noticed by the
Although they have a protective role, traumatic memories are long lasting and
can destroy our peace of mind. For example, a person who felt embarrassed and
humiliated about a group experience in 1997, might feel paralyzing fear (the
freeze response) when he has to make a public speech at a meeting in 2013. He
leaves the meeting (the flight response), and becomes angry with a friend who
tries to encourage him to go back and make the speech (the fight response).
People commonly spend a lot of energy to avoid the places, people or emotions
associated with a previous disturbing event.
It is very confusing for a person to experience a panic attack when there is no
danger present, or experience a sense of dread/fear when they in a safe,
friendly situation. People often jump to the conclusion that those around them
are the cause of their anxiety and discomfort, which can lead them to cut
friends and loved ones out of their life and avoid social events. They commonly
fight with 'authority figures', which may threaten their schooling or job
When a person has a threatening or frightening experience: the sensations
(visuals, sounds, smells, tastes and touch), the body emotion (sense of dread
or impending danger), and the meaning they create about the event; are 'frozen'
together in time, and the traumatic memory can remain unchanged for years.
Stimulus from any of these three parts of a traumatic memory, can trigger off a
fight-flight-freeze response, strong arousal, emotional numbing and/or
dissociation. This confusing and disturbing mixture of reactions can influence
the person to develop distorted ideas, which can affect their decision-making
and life choices.
We need to remember that memories from the past can trigger off reactions in the present.
"In many people who have undergone severe stress, the
post-traumatic response fades over time, while it persists in others." (Van der
An estimated 3.5% to 10% of people exposed to overwhelming anxiety, abuse,
neglect or trauma go on to develop traumatic stress. They could be diagnosed
with an anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression,
personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, acute stress disorder
(ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In many cases the person will
be prescribed powerful medications. These chemicals may provide short-term calm
and stabilisation, but will not treat the cause of the person’s distress.
Even if people do not develop a disorder, they may still experience panic
attacks, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares and thoughts of self-harm.
They may have difficulty with impulsive or risky behaviour. They may fly into a
rage easily, or on the other hand become fearful and have difficulty asserting
their needs or rights.
Commonly, people seek to numb their anxiety and depression with alcohol and
other drugs, or become addicted to over-excitement through gambling, road rage,
pornography use etc., or seek to soothe themselves through ‘cutting’, eating
They may re-expose themselves to risk and danger. For example, women who have
been sexually abused are often exploited by the prostitution and pornography
industries. Men who have been violently abused commonly re-enact their trauma
by attacking others, or engaging in high risk behaviours.
"Research has shown that, under ordinary conditions, many traumatized people ...
have a fairly good psychosocial adjustment. However, they do not respond to
stress the way other people do. Under pressure, they may feel, or act as if
they were traumatized all over again." (Van der Kolk 2004).
Confused about their experience of traumatic memories, people commonly think
they are going crazy, or alternately blame their anxiety/fear on family,
authority figures or anyone nearby at the time.
Sadly, many are diagnosed as having a mental illness, when in reality they are
simply experiencing the 'protective' activity of traumatic memories. It is
vital that partners and relatives learn about the adverse effects of traumatic
memories, so they can understand their loved one’s situation and provide
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
EMDR is the international best practice treatment for ASD and PTSD, and can
quickly desensitise traumatic memories, so they no longer carry a danger signal
and the associated dread, fear, anxiety, shame or sadness. EMDR not only
provides permanent relief from afflicted emotions and reactivity, it also
allows the person to reprocess and understand the experience with their current
maturity and world view.
EMDR has proven to be the most effective therapy to provide lasting relief from
negative self-messages and painful emotions connected with memories of
frightening or disturbing events. The therapy is used to relieve minor worries
and upset emotions, right through to the most severe psychological trauma.
In order to explain the results obtained by EMDR therapists, in 2001 Francine
Shapiro developed the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. The AIP
model suggests that if the information related to a distressing or traumatic
experience is not fully processed, the initial perceptions, emotions, and
distorted thoughts will be stored as they were experienced at the time of the
event. Shapiro argues that such unprocessed experiences become the basis of
current dysfunctional reactions and are the cause of many mental disorders.
Shapiro proposes that EMDR successfully alleviates mental disorders by
processing the components of the distressing memory. These effects are thought
to occur when the targeted memory is linked with other more adaptive
information. When this occurs, learning takes place, and the experience is
stored with appropriate emotions able to guide the person in the future
(adapted from: www.emdr.com/faqs.html
The article below, "Resolving Trauma with EMDR", provides further information
about traumatic memories and the therapy.
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Other articles are available at these trusted sites:
Van der Hart, O, Nijenhuis, R S & Solomon, R 2010, ‘Dissociation of the
Personality in Complex Trauma-Related Disorders and EMDR: Theoretical
Considerations’, Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, vol. 4, no. 2, pp.
Van der Kolk, BA 1989, ‘The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Re-enactment,
Revictimization, and Masochism’, Psychiatric Clinics of North America, vol. 12,
no. 2 June, pp. 389- 411.
Van der Kolk, BA 1994, ‘The Body Keeps The Score: Memory & the Evolving
Psychobiology of Post Traumatic Stress’, the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, vol.
1, no. 5, pp. 253-265.
Van der Kolk, BA, McFarlane, A & Weisaeth, L (eds.) 1996, Traumatic Stress:
the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society, Guilford
Press, New York.