A photo of 2×2 ministers in Lakewood, California at a “special meeting” when I was 12. I have personally met and remember everyone in this photo. Source: VotisAlive.com
One of the consequences of having grown up in a religious cult is that I often find it very difficult to not think in the terms an authority figure suggests, even if I know that way of thinking to be incorrect or inappropriate for the situation.
What I’m getting at is I keep thinking of the trauma I’ve experienced in terms of what I “think” about it. I identify a feeling–say, guilt–then I try to locate the thought that might have been given rise to the feeling. For example, I recognize I feel guilty and then speculate that I must have felt guilty because I believe the abuse was my fault. And I do this, unconsciously, even when I know better, because I’ve seen enough therapists who have suggested that that is how it works and what you should do to heal.
It isn’t. I wasn’t, most likely, thinking anything when I was traumatized. In some situations, I was too little to be thinking very much, and in all cases I was too frightened. If I did think, the thoughts came later and are anciliary to other aspects of the trauma. Thoughts aren’t really part of the core trauma or the core problem. They aren’t causing my symptoms.
Photo credit: Brookhollow Lane
The core trauma, and what is causing my symptoms, involves overwhelming, intense sensory information, including unmanageable internal emotional states.
So, I do recognize guilt as part of the experience of my mother hitting me over the head with a chair, but I know I wasn’t thinking anything. I didn’t think I made mommy hit me. I didn’t think I’m a bad kid–although I do think that now. I merely reacted to perceptual information: Mommy is mad at me. And I reacted by feeling guilty. No intervening cognition or meaning making. Just an animal emotional reaction.
In other words, the link between perception and emotion is shorter than we assume it is during stressful times. We assume it works the way it usually works: perception-cognition-emotion. But trauma can shorten the link to perception-emotion. Cognition is usually left out.
If we try to insert cognition into the experience, we distort it and actually move further away from understanding what happened and how we perceived it at the time that the trauma occurred.
The cognitions we have about traumatic events all come later, after the trauma has ended and it is safe enough to relax a little and turn our brains back on. Our cognitions about traumatic events do affect us, but less immediately than the shorter link of perception-emotion.
The cats. Not at all scared.
Although trauma largely affects the limbic system, which is extremely primitive, and evolutionarily descended from before our break from reptiles, I suspect there are also mammalian brain structures at work as well (as distinct from human structures, which are the most evolutionarily advanced and the most recent).
I’ll give an example. I took both of my cats to the vet in August for an annual exam. Violet, who is 16 and has had kidney failure for the last two years, underwent a number of blood tests, an x-ray of her abdomen, and a urine sample (and since cats won’t pee into a cup, you can imagine that as another invasive and frightening procedure.)
The carrier I took them to the vet in is one of those black, mesh-lined duffel bags for animals. It zips. The next day, when I took my backpack, which also zips and is dark-colored, into the bedroom to pack something or other in it before going out, Violet quietly slunk under the bed and hid.
I doubt very much she thought anything in particular about my backpack. Cats do have a frontal lobe, but not a pre-frontal cortex. I am not sure how much a cat’s frontal lobe can think in a conscious way, but probably not very much.
Her link between perception and action was most likely very short: perception-emotion-action. She saw the bag and heard the rattling zipper, felt uneasy, and slunk under the bed. No cognition.
Ventral view of the cat brain. Source: David Frankhauser. Removal and Study of the Cat Brain.
I imagine my traumatic experiences have been a lot like that: perception-emotion-action. There aren’t many cognitions directly linked to the experience. The thoughts I have now are telegraphic memories of what I saw or heard–and often of what someone else said. They are not real thoughts.
It makes me wonder if we are missing something about how trauma is processed, especially in how trauma affects very young children–and the most damaging traumatic experiences usually do occur very early for children who grow up in abusive homes.
Although the mind does need to construct meaning from events, especially very emotionally charged events, our beliefs form only a small portion of how the event is processed and is not what gives rise to the symptoms of traumatic stress.
The symptoms are cause by the creation of fear structures during the traumatic event (very strong neural pathways formed between perception and fear) as well as by the chaotic and disorganized nature of the memory within the amygdala.
A fear structure. Source: Neuner, F. et al.
Our conscious minds know the trauma occurred, but we are unable to fully access it, usually because remembering prompts such an intense emotional state that construction of a narrative memory is repeatedly interrupted by the reactivation of the limbic system.
In other words, we do sometimes construct maladaptive beliefs around traumatic symptoms and these beliefs can negatively affect our lives, but they aren’t what lead to panic attacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, hypervigilance, or IBS. On a triage scale, beliefs rank rather lower down. It is the memory itself that is causing us the greatest distress and needs the most immediate attention.
So as we work with the memory of traumatic events to integrate them into our conscious minds, it may help to recognize that our emotional reactions are usually direct responses to perception and cognitions may not be present at all. There is no need to go looking for things that aren’t there. Perception and sensation, both bodily and emotional, are what are most important.
Brookhollow Lane. (2011, January 18). Kitchen Chair Covers. Retrieved from: http://brookhollowlane.blogspot.com/2011/01/kichen-chair-covers.html
Frankhauser, D. (2011). Removal and Study of the Cat Brain. Retreived from: http://biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/Labs/Anatomy_&_Physiology/A&P202/Brain_Dissection/CAT_BRAIN.htm
Marcus, G. (2008). Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Neuner, F. et al. (2008, July). Narrative Exposure Therapy for the Treatment of Traumatized Children and Adolescents (KidNET), Neurocognitive Theory to Field Intervention. Child and Adolescent Psychiatrict Clinics of North America.