An Articulation of Trauma

The framework for understanding trauma that I am using in my dissertation defines trauma as the emotional/psychological impact to a person’s psyche as the result of an event, experience or set of experiences that overwhelm those individuals who experience it. This results in an inability to integrate the experience into their narrative memory, and it is this inability to integrate the traumatic experience(s) that results in a psychological state of being that impairs the trauma victim’s ability to live completely within the world of the present.  Instead of current actions and feelings, the trauma victim lives with both the horrific memories of the past and the fear that they engender.  Because traumatic memory is not integrated into the narrative memory, it cannot be controlled and recalled at will; rather, it is often elicited without the individual having a conscious choice and unlike memories subject to recall and control, these feel as though they are temporally present.  In addition to the ability of these memories to intrude upon the present, they are also responsible for the state of fear and hyper-vigilance that characterizes the life of the traumatized.  Thus, the memories themselves not only interfere with the ability of the traumatized to live in a current reality by intruding upon that reality; they also impair the individual’s ability to negotiate within the world around them because of the state of fear that they have engendered, both a fear of the traumatic event and a fear of the memory’s ability to surface and disrupt beyond their ability to control it.  Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the clinical term encompassing the development of these traits “following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor” (DSM-IV 424).

To further clarify, when we use the term “memory,” we are usually referring to either “working memory” or “narrative memory.”  Working memory “holds short term information for the purposes of performing a current process” (Field 326).  On the other hand, narrative memory is a form of long-term memory in which past experiences have been integrated and are available for conscious recall and reflection.  Since trauma occurs “[u]nder extreme conditions, existing meaning schemes may be entirely unable to accommodate frightening experiences, which causes the memory of these experiences to be stored differently and not available for retrieval under ordinary conditions” (van der Kolk 160)*. This loss of meaning schema makes trauma narratives disjointed and fragmented.

*van der Kolk, B. (1996). Trauma and memory. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane,
& L. Weisuth (Eds.) Traumatic stress : the effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society. New York: Guilford Press.

2 thoughts

  1. From Rick Hanson in Buddhas Brain:

    “Sensitivity to Negative Information

    The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. Take facial expressions, a primary signal of threat or opportunity for a social animal like us: fearful faces are perceived much more rapidly than happy or neutral ones, probably fast-tracked by the amygdala (Yang, Zald, and Blake 2007). In fact, even when researchers make fearful faces invisible to conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up (Jiang and He 2006). The brain is drawn to bad news.
    High-Priority Storage

    When an event is flagged as negative, the hippocampus makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned, twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones—even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.
    Negative Trumps Positive

    Negative events generally have more impact than positive ones. For example, it’s easy to acquire feelings of learned helplessness from a few failures, but hard to undo those feelings, even with many successes (Seligman 2006). People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain (Baumeister et al. 2001). Compared to lottery winners, accident victims usually take longer to return to their original baseline of happiness (Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman 1978). Bad information about a person carries more weight than good information (Peeters and Czapinski 1990), and in relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).
    Lingering Traces

    Even if you’ve unlearned a negative experience, it still leaves an indelible trace in your brain (Quirk, Repa, and LeDoux 1995). That residue lies waiting, ready to reactivate if you ever encounter a fear-provoking event like the previous one.”

    How does this fit in your mind with narrative memory.

    Are you familiar with how Navy Seals are trained using the breath and amygdala. The use of the exhale to calm the nervous system when encountering lethal danger or fear facilitates an ability to take action. If humans can develop skills that provide the ability to function in lethal situations, maybe this training could help PTSD suffers.

    How do you see the amygdala in the process of trauma and function?

  2. Thank you for this information, Marty. I’ll have to consider this as I revise my chapter on trauma. You’ve raised some interesting points.

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