These magical substances called endorphins are a part of normal, everyday
functioning, but they are especially important during times of stress. If
we look at evolution, this makes sense. Not only do endorphins calm
anxieties, improve our mood, and decrease aggression, but they also are great
analgesics since they are related to morphine and heroin. Therefore, in times of stress,
they provide pain relief sowe are not disabled by injuries that would prevent us from
escaping the danger. If people are only exposed to rare episodes of overwhelming
stress, then they are less likely to show alterations in this biochemical system. Far more problematic are the people exposed to repeated experiences of
prolonged stress. These people, often children, are exposed to repeatedly high levels
of circulating endorphins. One hypothesis is that people can become “addicted”
to their own internal endorphins. As a result, they only feel calm when they are under
stress and feel fearful, irritable and hyper-aroused when the stress is relieved.
This is much like someone who is withdrawing from heroin
and has been called “addiction to trauma.”
If this cycle is in place, then it helps us to understand many of the perplexing
symptoms that have been incomprehensible without this information. Stress‐
addicted children will be those children in the classroom who cannot tolerate a
calm atmosphere but must keep antagonizing everyone else until the stress
level is high enough for them to achieve some degree of internal equilibrium.
Violence is exciting and stressful and repeated violent acting‐out, gang
behavior, fighting, bullying, and many forms of criminal activity have the
additional side effect of producing high levels of stress in people who have
grown addicted to such risk‐taking behavior. This also helps to explain self‐
mutilation in its many forms ‐ these children and adults have learned that
inflicting harm on the body will induce the release of endorphins that will
provide some comfort, at least temporarily. These are children, who as adults,
are unable to trust or be comforted by other people ‐ in fact other people have
been the fundamental source of the stress. Instead, they must fall back on
whatever resources they can muster within themselves, resources that they
can control, to achieve any kind of equilibrium.
As adults, under stress, people who have been brutalized as children may again
resort to behaviors that help induce some kind of alteration in the opioid system.
These behaviors can include self‐mutilation, risk taking behavior, compulsive sexuality, involvement in violent activity, bingeing and
purging, and of course, drug addiction.
This recognition of the importance of addiction to trauma implies that intervention
strategies must focus on helping people to “detox” from this behavioral form of
addiction by providing environments that insist on the establishment and
maintenance of safety. Physiological stability cannot be achieved as long as the
person is on an emotional roller coaster of stimulus and response.
Even more ominous for repeatedly traumatized people is their pronounced tendency
to use highly abnormal and dangerous relationships as their normative idea of what
relationships are supposed to be. Trauma bonding is a relationship based on terror and the twisting of normal
attachment behavior into something perverse and cruel. People who are terrorized, whether as adult victims of torture, or domestic violence or child
victims of family abuse, experience their abuser as being in total control of life
and death. The perpetrator is the source of the pain and terror, but he/she is also
the source of relief from that pain. He/she is the source of threat but he/she is also the
source of hope. Jayce Dugard and Elizabeth Smart are prime examples of this.
This means that people who have been traumatized need to learn to create
relationships that are not based on terror and the abuse of power, even though
abusive power feels normal and right. In such cases, people often need direct
relationship coaching and the direct experience of engaging in relationships
that are not abusive and do not permit abusive and punitive behavior.
It has long been recognized that “history repeats itself,” but never before have
we so clearly understood why history does so. People who have been
traumatized cannot heal themselves alone. It is one of the tragedies of human
existence. That which begins as life‐saving coping skills, ends up delivering us into
the hands of compulsive repetition. We are destined to reenact what we cannot remember. Freud called it the repetition compulsion and he said, “He
reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of
course, knowing that he is repeating... He cannot escape from this compulsion
to repeat; and in the end we understand that this is his way of remembering.”
It has become clear that the very nature of traumatic information processing
determines the reenactment behavior. We must assume that as human beings,
we are meant to function at our maximum level of integration and that any
barrier to this integration will produce some innate compensatory mechanism
that allows us to overcome it. Splitting traumatic memories and feelings off
into nonverbal images and sensations is life‐saving in the short‐term, but
prevents full integration in the long‐term.
Based on what we know about the split between verbal and nonverbal thought, the
most useful way of understanding traumatic reenactment may be through the language of drama. Shakespeare told us that the
whole world is our stage, and with behavioral reenactments we see this in
action. We reenact our past everywhere – at home, at school, at the workplace,
on the playground, in the streets. We cue each other to play roles in our own
personal dramas, secretly hoping that someone will give us a different script, a
different outcome to the drama, depending on how damaging our experiences
have been. The cure is in the disease.
The only way that the nonverbal brain can “speak” is through behavior, since it has no words. If we look at reenactment behavior we can see that traumatized
people are trying to repeatedly “tell their story” in very overt, or highly
disguised ways. If only we could still interpret nonverbal messages, perhaps we
could respond more adequately to this “call for help.” For healing to occur, we
must give words and meaning to our overwhelming experiences. In “Macbeth,”
Shakespeare urges us to “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” But we cannot find the
words by ourselves. That is the whole point ‐ the traumatized person is cut off
from language, deprived of the power of words, trapped in "speechless terror."
We need the help, the words, the signals, of caring others, but to get their
attention we must find some way to signal them about our distress in a
language that has no words. This is the language of behavior, the language of
the mime, of the stage. It is the language of symptoms, of pathology, of deviant
behavior in all its forms. Unfortunately, we have largely lost the capacity for
nonverbal interpretation, and so most of these “cries for help” fall on deaf ears.
Instead, we judge, condemn, exclude and alienate the person who is behaving
in an asocial, self‐destructive, or antisocial way without hearing the meaning in
the message. To counter these long standing habits, we need to develop
systems of compassionate regard, translate the nonverbal message into a
verbal understanding that can be shared, while still insisting on healthy change
and behavior that is socialized, responsible, and nonviolent.
Creating Sanctuary refers to the process involved in creating safe environments
that promote healing and sustain human growth, learning, and health. One
fundamental attribute of Creating Sanctuary is changing the presenting question
with which we verbally or implicitly confront another human being
whose behavior we do not understand from “What’s wrong with you?” to
“What’s happened to you?” Changing our position vis‐à‐vis other people in a
way radically shifts our perspective on ourselves and others, moving us toward a
position of compassion and understanding and away from blame and criticism.
When people receive understanding from others, it enables them to
begin their way down the long road of understanding – and changing –
As Ronnie Janoff‐Bulman has shown, the experience of trauma shatters ‐
often irrevocably - some very basic assumptions about our world, our relationship to
others, and our basic sense of identity and place in the world. A sense of
meaning and purpose for being alive are shaken. Making sense out of violence,
transcending its effects, and transforming the energy of violence into
something powerfully good for oneself and the community describes what
Judith Herman has called “a survivor mission.” It is often a mission that
encompasses the remainder of one’s life. Confrontation with the
spiritual, philosophical, and/or religious context – and conflicts – of
human experience is impossible to avoid if recovery is to be assured.
Please visit my blog soon for my next post to see how Cognitive Processing Therapy
(CPT) addresses and relieves the multifaceted, traumatized person with PTSD
by helping them find and put words to their trauma and subsequently process it
and move forward.