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 have:
  • 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 senses/brain.

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 security.

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.

Traumatic Stress

"In many people who have undergone severe stress, the post-traumatic response fades over time, while it persists in others." (Van der Kolk 2004).

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 and bulimia.

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 appropriate support.

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:

The article below, "Resolving Trauma with EMDR", provides further information about traumatic memories and the therapy.

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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. 76-92.

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.