Do our thoughts and beliefs determine whether we will experience a trauma response or not?

Jason Brien.

     The problem with abuse, trauma and adversity is that our memories and interpretations of what occurred can cause us to experience intense emotions such as anger, fear, guilt or shame and intense, maladaptive thoughts such as “I am stupid and weak” or “I got what I deserved”. Abuse, trauma and adversity can leave us feeling disillusioned, disempowered and disenfranchised.  

     Abuse, trauma and adversity can teach us that our ability to control situations and/or other people is limited. We sometimes realise that our actions are controlled by elements outside of ourselves (our fight, flight or freeze responses, our personality temperaments, our social conditioning, societal expectations, etc). This conjures up the question… “Why did I act in the way that I did”?

     To understand this further, let’s look at a bank robbery example. You are at a bank making a transaction. A person enters the bank waving a gun in the air and ordering everyone to get on the ground. Even though you are fearful you decide to attack the person with the gun, tackle them to the ground and take the gun away. The police arrive, arrest the bank robber and your community praises your bravery.

     In this particular example, it would be relatively easy to be emboldened by our actions in response to the traumatic event.  The internal and external validation would bolster our confidence that we can protect ourselves and others. That our ‘self’ acted appropriately and we therefore have control over our fate so to speak. Sure, we might not have control over the person coming into the bank with a gun, but when push comes to shove, we trust that we will step up to the plate.

     Alternatively, we might begin to question our ‘killer’ instinct. We might begin to question what compelled us to attack the bank robber when our life was clearly in danger. We might begin to distrust our ability to control our self and thus we distrust our ‘self’. We then become anxious and fearful of future events because we know that A) we can’t control or predict when a bank robber will enter a bank and B) we won’t be able to control our response if a robber did indeed enter the bank we are in.

     What about if you chose not to tackle the bank robber and instead complied with their every demand or just completely froze in shock? In this particular example, once the traumatic event had ended, we might begin to feel guilt or shame and question our role in the event. We might begin to compare our role and our ‘self’ against what society expects of us (“you’re a man and you had an obligation to protect the women and children in the bank”) or against what we believed our ‘self’ was capable of.

     These three examples highlight the relationship between interpretations of traumatic events and the associated emotional/cognitive responses. Sometimes our interpretations are faulty or they are not grounded in reality. We can create false memories intentionally and unintentionally. False memories can occur when stress and adrenaline interfere with the encoding process and so our brains fill in the ‘gaps’.

     Likewise, false memories can occur intentionally when we ‘distort’ events either through exaggeration or minimisation. When confronted with the reality of having run away or freezing up when confronted by the bank robber, we might distort reality by saying to ourselves “I only ran away to go and get help not because I was scared” or “I froze so as not to endanger others not because I was scared”.

     How we choose to interpret our trauma influences our emotional and cognitive responses and thus our ability to heal. If we interpret our ‘killer’ instinct and attach it with shame, guilt, etc, we can begin to heal by acknowledging that if we want to respond differently in the future we will have to work on our impulsivity and rashness for example. The same goes for interpretations of freezing or fleeing and attached feelings of shame, etc. What is wrong with responding in those way? You are still alive and you weren’t injured.