Our capacity to think clearly is severely impaired when we are under stress. When we perceive that we are in danger, we are physiologically geared to take action, not to ponder and deliberate. In many situations of acute danger it is better that we respond immediately without taking the time for complicated mental processing, that we respond almost reflexively to save our lives or to protect those we love. When stressed, we cannot think clearly, we cannot consider the long‐range consequences of our behavior, we cannot weigh all of the possible options before making a decision, we cannot take the time to obtain all the necessary information that goes into making good
decisions. Our decisions tend to be based on impulse and are based on an experienced need to self‐protect. As a consequence these decisions are inflexible, oversimplified, directed towards action and survival. In such situations, people can demonstrate poor judgment and poor impulse control. The mind is geared towards action and often the action taken will be violent. Many victims have long‐term problems with various aspects of thinking. There tends to be an intolerance of mistakes, denial of personal difficulties, anger as a problem‐solving strategy, hypervigilance, and absolutistic thinking are other problematic thought patterns that have been identified by survivors of trauma, the if onlys.
In formulating intervention strategies, this means that every effort should be made to reduce stress and we need to look at the growing sources of social stress that are inflicted on individuals and families at home, in the workplace, and in the community and evaluate what kinds of buffers can be put into place that help attenuate the effects of these stressors, not add to them.
Our way of remembering things, processing new memories, and accessing old memories is also dramatically changed when we are under stress. Still, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that there are actually two different memory systems in the brain ‐ one for normal learning and remembering that is based on words and another that is largely nonverbal. Our verbally based memory system is vulnerable to high levels of stress. Under normal conditions, the two kinds of memory function in an integrated way. Our verbal and nonverbal memories are thus usually intertwined and complexly interrelated. What we consider our “normal” memory is based on words. From the time we are born we develop new categories of information, and all new information gets placed into an established category, like a filing cabinet in our minds. We talk in words, of course, but we also think with words. The person we identify as “me” is the person who thinks and has language. When we need to recall something, we go into the appropriate category and retrieve the information we need. But under conditions of extreme stress, our memory works in a different way.
When we are overwhelmed with fear, we lose the capacity for speech, we lose the capacity to put words to our experience. Without words, the mind shifts to a mode of thinking that is characterized by visual, auditory, olfactory, and kinesthetic images, physical sensations, and strong feelings. This system of processing information may be adequate under conditions of serious danger. But the powerful images, feelings, and sensations do not just “go away.” They are deeply imprinted, more strongly in fact, than normal everyday memories. The neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has called this “emotional memory” and has shown that this kind of memory can be difficult or impossible to erase, although we can learn to override some of our responses to it.
This “engraving” of trauma has been noted by many researchers studying various survivor groups. Problems can arise later because the memory of the events that occurred under severe stress are not put into words and are not remembered in the normal way we remember other things. Instead, the memories remain “frozen in time” in the form of images, body sensations like smells, touch, tastes, and even pain, and strong emotions, which leads me to flashbacks.
A flashback is a sudden intrusive re‐experiencing of a fragment of one of those traumatic, unverbalized memories. During a flashback, people become overwhelmed with the same emotions that they felt at the time of the trauma. Flashbacks are likely to occur when people are upset, stressed, frightened, or aroused or when triggered by any association to the traumatic event. Their minds can become flooded with the images, emotions, and physical sensations associated with the trauma once again. But the verbal memory system may be turned off because of the arousal of fear, so they cannot articulate their experience and the nonverbal memory may be the only memory a person has of the traumatic event.
At the time of the trauma they had become trapped in “speechless terror” and their capacity for speech and memory were separated. As a result, they developed what has become known as “amnesia” for the traumatic event – the memory is there, but there are no words attached to it so it cannot be either talked about or even thought about. Instead, the memory presents itself as some form of nonverbal behavior and sometimes as a behavioral reenactment of a previous event. Even thinking of flashbacks as “memories” is inaccurate and misleading. When someone experiences a flashback, they do not remember the experience, they relive it. Often the flashback is forgotten as quickly as it is happens because the two memory systems are so disconnected from each other.
Over time, as people try to limit situations that promote hyperarousal and flashbacks, limit relationships which trigger emotions, and employ behaviors designed to control emotional responses, they may become progressively numb to all emotions, and feel depressed, alienated, empty, even dead. In this state, it takes greater and greater stimulation to feel a sense of being alive and they will often engage in all kinds of risk‐taking behaviors since that is the only time they feel “inside” themselves once again.
If we cannot remember an experience we cannot learn from it. This is one of the most devastating aspects of prolonged stress. The implicit functioning of the brain, life‐saving under the immediate conditions of danger, becomes life threatening when the internal fragmentation that is the normal response to overwhelming trauma, is not healed. The picture becomes even more complicated for children who are exposed to repeated experiences of unprotected stress. Their bodies, brains, and minds are still developing. We are only beginning to understand memory, traumatic memory, and how these memory systems develop and influence each other. We do know that children who are traumatized also experience flashbacks that have no words. For healing to occur, we know that people often need to put the experience into a narrative, give it words, and share it with themselves and others. Words allow us to put things into a time sequence ‐ past, present, future.
Without words, the traumatic past is experienced as being in the ever present “Now.” Words allow us to put the past more safely in the past where it belongs. Since a child’s capacity for verbalization is just developing, their ability to put their traumatic experience into words is particularly difficult. In cases of childhood terror, language functions are often compromised. Instead, children frequently act‐out their memories in behavior instead of words. They show us what happened even when they cannot tell us. We call this automatic behavioral reliving of trauma, “traumatic reenactment.”
The implications of this important information about memory and trauma are extensive. It means that environments designed to intervene in the lives of suffering people must provide an abundance of opportunities for people to talk, and talk and talk about their experiences, their past lives, their conflicts, their feelings. It means that programs that focus on nonverbal expression – a description that includes art, music, movement, and theatre programs as well as sports – are vital adjuncts to any community healing efforts and should be funded, not eliminated, in the schools. It means that the arts can play a central role in community healing, serving as a “bridge across the black hole of trauma.”
Please pass this along to others who might benefit and visit again for Part IV of “UNDERSTANDING TRAUMA,” as we look at our emotions during trauma.