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The Dissociation and Replication of Trauma

Emotional dissociation lies at the core of trauma. These unbearable experiences are fragmented, comprising our thoughts, voices, images, impressions, and perceptions. All these trauma-related perceptual fragments have a life of their own. These memory fragments invade our everyday life, replicating themselves in the process. As long as trauma remains unresolved, our stress hormones will automatically continue to circulate in our body, and defense mechanisms and emotional responses will continue to resurface.

For those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks can occur at any time, whether they are asleep or awake. There's no way to predict the timing and duration of these flashbacks. People deeply affected by flashbacks often center their lives around resisting them. They may compulsively engage in intense exercise at the gym (yet find they're never strong enough to resist the flashbacks), numb themselves with drugs, or try to create a sense of "control" in extreme and dangerous situations (such as racing, extreme sports, or working as an ambulance driver). The ongoing battle with hidden dangers takes a toll on both their body and mind.

"If the details of the trauma keep recurring, stress hormones will persist at higher levels. Alongside these memories, deeper imprints are formed, making everyday ordinary events less appealing. They struggle to fully engage in daily life and lack the feeling of being alive. It makes it increasingly difficult for them to feel the joys and sorrows of everyday life, and focus on the tasks at hand. They become prisoners of the past."

This kind of reaction towards stress can be triggered in many situations. For example, veterans may react to everyday details in the same way as they would in the war zone, such as driving on a bumpy road or when they see a child playing by the roadside, they may be shocked, enraged, or become numb. Victims of child sexual abuse may experience sexual aversion or may feel shame when they are sexually aroused. They might even recall the traumatic experience when encountering ordinary stimuli that typically bring sensory pleasure to specific parts of the body. When survivors of trauma are compelled to discuss their experiences, some may experience a sharp rise in blood pressure, others may have headaches, and some may feel emotionally numb with limited emotional reactions. However, in experiments, we have discovered that there is a high level of stress hormones in their bodies that disrupt bodily functions.

These stress responses are beyond the control of our rationality; these immense, uncontrollable impulses pull individuals out of the realm of humanity. You find yourself becoming a numb monster, such as being indifferent at your child's birthday party or the funeral of a loved one. Shame gradually becomes the dominant feeling, and the real world gets obscured by embarrassment.

People seldom touch upon the roots of their emotional detachment—this is where our healing begins. Therapy can delve into the emotional reactions triggered by trauma, allowing individuals to consciously feel and observe these emotions. However, achieving this requires a change in our brain's crisis detection system, to enable individuals to control the physiological responses to past trauma. These traumas, triggered by external factors, are actually battles within our hearts and bodies. It is often difficult for us to make the connection between the external events and our internal feelings. The challenge in therapy lies not only in coming to terms with the terrible events of the past but also in developing self-control over one's inner thoughts and feelings.

Extracted from “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk

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