Is it Dramatic or Traumatic?

man looking at reflection sky

Dramatic or Traumatic Differences

By: Dr. Tyler Fortman

If you’re like most people, you hear the word trauma and you think about horrid aspects of our world – war, rape, killing, natural disasters, etc.  Maybe you hadn’t considered that trauma comes in a variety of forms.  Ever “know” that you shouldn’t feel unlovable, but you do? Do you feel powerless, despite others pointing out all the ways that you have control over your life?  Have difficulty feeling your emotions and generally feel “numb?” These, too, could be indicators that traumatic experiences are influencing your mental health.

Certainly catastrophic events have lasting consequences.  But, comparisons of horror and terror are meaningless; in fact, even ubiquitous events, like childhood humiliation and disappointment or lifelong exposure to microaggression, can leave comparable negative effects to those found in people with PTSD. There just isn’t a simple way to quantify trauma.

The common denominator is a feeling of intense fear, helplessness, loss and of control.  Especially notable, people can experience traumatic reactions when they experience powerlessness.  Just to be clear, traumatic events are extraordinary.  Not because they occur so rarely, but because they overwhelm the natural process of human adaptation.

Traumatic reactions occur when action is unavailable; when neither resistance nor escape are possible (regardless of if the event is a capital “T” traumatic experience or a lowercase “t” trauma).  The result is that the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.  (The situation can be especially problematic if the person perceives that they are trapped, feels surprised, or is exposed to the point of exhaustion.)

So what? The result of an overwhelmed system of coping is that normally adaptive responses (i.e., feeling physically antsy, temporary detachment, etc) lose their utility and persist in altered and exaggerated states long after the traumatic event is over.  Traumatic events produce changes in physiological arousal, emotion, thoughts, and memories.

Worse yet, trauma often separates these functions from one another so that their normal integration (in which physiological arousal, emotions, thoughts, and memories inform each other) is no longer possible and systems begin to function independently.

For example, many survivors of trauma report feeling intense feelings about events, but little memory.  Or a person might experience clear memories of the events, but without any emotion.  The experience is much like that of an out-of-date computer being asked to run software that is beyond its capacity – the system becomes overwhelmed; usually helpful functions such as minimizing screens or keys being typed go haywire; screens open and close without reason, text pops up where you didn’t type it, all functions freeze.  In short, trauma can really throw people’s life off track.

But Why?

The latest trauma research indicates that traumatic symptoms occur because of errors in the way the brain process and stores traumatic memories.  One reason for these cognitive errors is that the brain regulates how accessible memories are stored, in part, through its release of neurohormones (hormones in the brain).  During traumatic experiences, huge amounts of hormones are released, which causes the brain of the traumatized person to “remember” the trauma whenever aroused.

Additionally, traumatic memories are also stored in the “wrong” form.  Traumatic events interfere with declarative memory (i.e., conscious, explicit, narrative recall), but don’t impact non-declarative memory (i.e., implicit/motoric/sensory-based memories).

A leading neuroscientist, Bessel Van der Kolk, suggests that this is due to high levels of stimulation in the amygdala (The amygdala’s role in memory is to assign specific feelings of significance to stimuli, allowing that stimuli to take on personal meaning.  It also integrates internal representations of memories with emotional experiences related to those memories.) during traumatic events.

This exceptionally high stimulation of the amygdala also interferes with hippocampal functioning (Anatomically adjacent to the amygdala, the hippocampus records memory and compares new stimuli with old memories to determine if/how they are related to each other.  When damaged, one often becomes hyperresponsive to stimuli.).

So, intense affect (present in traumatic experiences) may inhibit proper evaluation and categorization of the experience.  All in all, the trauma interferes with the person’s ability to capture memories with words; instead, traumatic memories are stored in physical sensations, images, and senses (smells, sounds, etc).

Consider this – 65% of people with an amputated limb experience phantom limb syndrome.  Francine Shapiro argues that a likely explanation for such a high prevalence is that people with amputated limbs often have some kind of severe pain (either acutely or chronically) in that limb prior to the amputation.  Memories of this pain are stored in physical sensations (one form of non-declarative memory).  So, even when the limb is gone (and the person cognitively understands that they no longer have the limb), they “remember” the limb through pain sensations as though the limb was still present.

Are these ideas new?

For those history buffs, it was actually the work of both Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud (and colleague Joseph Breuer), following the observational study of Jean-Martin Charcot,  in the 1890’s that first documented this phenomenon.  “Hysteria” was a condition caused by psychological trauma.  Unbearable emotional reactions to traumatic events produced an altered state of conscious (i.e., dissociation), which in turn induced “hysterical” symptoms (i.e., numbness, amnesia, and many other symptoms without medical explanation).

Notably, Freud and Breuer discovered that hysterical symptoms could be reduced when they were put into words – it became known as “the talking cure.”  In other words, the earliest treatments for trauma identified the need to reprocess traumatic memories in narrative form!

What can you do?

So, what does this mean if you are a person that feels numb, unloved, on guard, irritable, or suffers from other traumatic experiences (i.e., becoming upset when confronted with a traumatic reminder or thinking about the trauma, isolating from other people, startle easily, avoidance, re-enactment of traumatic experiences, withdrawal, etc)?

It may mean that your symptoms are a product of unresolved trauma – consider counseling, especially EMDR, to reprocess the experiences and gain a greater sense of control over your life and your emotions!  After all, Chicago summer is almost here and you wouldn’t want to miss out!