We don’t usually think about it, but it is possible to die of fright or to die of a broken heart. Every vital organ system is closely tied in through the autonomic nervous system, with our emotional system. In fact, however, people rarely die from emotional upsets. A fundamental reason for such rarity, despite the extent of fearful circumstances that children face, is the built‐in “safety valve” that we call “dissociation.”
Dissociation is defined as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment.” Dissociation helps us do more than one thing at once. We can go on autopilot and automatically complete tasks that we have previously learned well, while we are focused on something else. This increase in efficiency may help explain why we evolved the ability.
Traumatized people make special use of this capacity. There are different ways that people dissociate. Fainting is an extreme form of simply stopping consciousness. Psychogenic fainting is the brain’s way of saying, “I can’t handle this.” But we can also split off memories from conscious awareness, as we have already discussed, and develop “amnesia.” Rarely, someone can develop amnesia for their entire identity and begin a separate life – a fugue state. More commonly people develop amnesia for parts of their lives or just for parts of certain overwhelming experiences.
But there is another way we can dissociate that is so common that almost everyone does it – splitting off experience from our feelings about that experience. In its most extreme form, this is called “emotional numbing.” So commonly do human beings cut off feelings about what happened to them while still remembering everything, that often we have to look closely at the person before we see something is wrong - they do not feel the emotions that would normally be expected under the circumstances. In such cases, instead of seeing the emotional numbing that has occurred to the person, we will make comments about “how well Sheila is coping with her loss” or “how extraordinary it is that John never seems to get ruffled, even if someone is yelling at him.” But Sheila and John are not necessarily“coping well”‐they may be dissociated from their feelings and their capacity for normal emotional interaction may be consequently diminished.
We are able to cut off all our emotions but that usually happens only in extreme cases of repetitive and almost unendurable trauma. More commonly we cut‐off or diminish specific emotional responses, based on the danger the emotion may present to continued functioning. Our emotions are intimately tied to the expression of emotion through our facial expressions, our tone of voice, our gestures, so that we easily give away what we may be consciously trying to hide. If you grow up in a violent home, where every time you express anger you get beaten, it is best that you never show anger. If you grow up in a home – or a culture – that says that little boys who cry are wimps who should be taught a “lesson,” then it is a good idea to learn to never feel sadness, therefore minimizing the danger of tears. If any sign of pleasure or laughter is met with hostility and abuse, then it is best that you never feel joy. In this way, children from destructive situations learn how not to feel, they learn to dissociate their emotions from their conscious experience and their nonverbal expression of that emotion and in doing so, they can possibly stay safer than if they show what they feel. That does not mean that the emotion actually goes away. It does not. Emotions are built‐in, part of our evolutionary, biological heritage and we cannot eliminate them, we can only transmute them. There is an abundance of evidence from various sources that unexpressed emotions may be very damaging to one’s mental and physical health.
It is certainly clear that emotional numbing is damaging to relationships. We need all of our emotions available to us if we are to create and sustain healthy relationships with other people. If we cannot feel anger, we cannot adequately protect others and ourselves. If we cannot feel sadness, we cannot complete the work of mourning that helps us recover from losses so that we can form new attachments. If we cannot feel joy, life becomes empty and meaningless leading to an increased potential for detachment, alienation, suicide and homicide. This is yet another example of how a coping skill that is useful for survival under conditions of traumatic stress can become a serious liability over time.
As this process continues over time, we gradually may shut‐off more and more of our normal functioning. We may dampen down any emotional experience that could lead back to the traumatic memory. We may withdraw from relationships that could trigger off memories. We may curtail sensory and physical experiences that could remind us of the trauma. We may avoid engaging in any situations that could lead to remembering the trauma. At the same time, we may be compelled, completely outside of our awareness, to reenact the traumatic experience through our behavior. This increases the likelihood that instead of managing to avoid repeated trauma, we are likely to become traumatized again. As this process happens, our sense of who we are, how we fit into the world, how we relate to other people, and what the point of it all is, can become significantly limited in scope. As this occurs, we are likely to become increasingly depressed. These avoidance symptoms, along with the intrusive symptoms, like flashbacks and nightmares, comprise two of the interacting and escalating aspects of post‐traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), set in the context of a more generalized physical hyper-arousal. As these alternating symptoms come to dominate traumatized people’s lives, they feel more and more alienated from everything that gives our lives meaning‐themselves, other people, a sense of direction and purpose, a sense of spirituality, a sense of community. It is not surprising, then, that slow self‐destruction through addictions, or fast self‐destruction through suicide, is often the final outcome of these syndromes. For other people, rage at others comes to dominate the picture and these are the ones who end up becoming significant threats to the well-being of others.
Children who are traumatized do not have developed coping skills, a developed sense of self, or self in relation to others. Their schemas for meaning, hope, faith, and purpose are not yet fully formed. They are in the process of developing a sense of right and wrong, of mercy balanced against justice. All of their cognitive processes, like their ability to make decisions, their problem‐solving capacities, and learning skills are all still being acquired. As a consequence, the responses to trauma are amplified because they interfere with the processes of normal development. For many children, in fact, traumatic experience becomes the norm rather than the exception and they fail to develop a concept of what is normal or healthy. They do not learn how to think in a careful, quiet, and deliberate way. They do not learn how to have mutual, compassionate, and satisfying relationships. They do not learn how to listen carefully to the messages of their body and their senses. Their sense of self becomes determined by the experiences they have had with care taking adults and the trauma they have experienced teaches them that they are bad, worthless, a nuisance, or worse. Living in a system of contradictory and hypocritical values impairs the development of consciousness, of a faith in justice, of a belief in the pursuit of truth. It should come as no surprise then that these children so often end up as the maladjusted troublemakers that pose so many problems for teachers, schools, other children, and ultimately all of us.
Again, the implications of this knowledge for intervention techniques and strategies are significant. We must create systems that build and reinforce the acquisition of what Goleman has termed “emotional intelligence.” We need to recognize that many of the maladaptive symptoms that plague our social environment are the result of the individual’s attempt to manage overwhelming emotions, effective in the short‐run, detrimental long‐term. If we fail to protect children from overwhelming stress, then we can count on creating life‐long adjustment problems that take a toll on the individual, the family, and society as a whole.
Please come back for Part V and final part of this series.