Thursday, August 26, 2010


Well, if we're going to look at fear, we might as well look at trauma. This is particularly important for me at the moment because a lot of my characters are quite, well, traumatized. Rather than go the usual angsty route, I tried to focus on dysfunctional coping mechanisms that they might employ to survive (more on that in later posts). So, to better understand my characters, I thought I should take a peek into research on traumatized individuals.

The Event

Whether chronic (repetitive) or acute (once off), these events are so extremely stressful that the individual feels emotionally, intellectually, and even physically overwhelmed. Such events typically involve themes of betrayal, violations of safety, abuse of authority or power, loss of a meaningful person, object or place, betrayal of trust, calculated cruelty, physical and/or emotional pain, confusion, and being helpless to protect oneself. Even witnessing something happen to another person (violent car accident, rape, or domestic violence) can cause trauma in the witness – particularly if the witness knows the victim.

Generally speaking, the more prolonged and repeated the trauma, the more serious the mental health problems resulting from it – which makes intuitive sense. Suffering one home invasion is going to shake up one’s feelings of safety at home. Suffering multiple home invasions is likely to destroy any sense of security.


Traumatic experiences can (but don’t always) lead to mental health disorders such as substance dependence and abuse (i.e. drug abuse and alcoholism), personality disorders (particularly borderline personality disorder), major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders (from phobias to panic disorder to generalized anxiety disorder), post traumatic stress disorder), dissociative disorders (fugue or somatic illnesses) to eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, obesity).

These mental health disorders often come about because while the traumatic event may be over, their reaction is not. A key difficulty for trauma survivors is dealing with re-experiencing where the past intrudes into the present through intrusive memories (thinking of your violent ex-boyfriend when kissing your kind new boyfriend), flashbacks, nightmares, or sudden flares of old emotional states (flares of panic or grief for no apparent reason).

It also doesn’t help that trauma survivors generally re-use the same self-protective coping strategies that they used during the event itself. Their symptoms are more a case of adapting to the stress by finding some useful, but ultimately dysfunctional, method to deal with their overwhelming feelings. This is the greatest difficulty for any writer of mental health disorders. Their symptoms should generally serve some sort of purpose, either now or in the past, and even if that coping strategy is ultimately disabling, it might be considered preferable to the alternative – dealing with the overwhelming feelings left behind by the event.

Thus some of the more common symptoms found are problems of hypervigilance (being constantly on the alert for threats), dissociation (feeling distant or disconnected from your body or the world around you), avoidance (limiting your activities to avoid either threatening situations or reminders of the experience), and numbing (feeling less emotionally). You can imagine how each one of these adaptations might have been incredibly valuable at the time.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can (but doesn’t always) cause some of the most debilitating disorders because it can disrupt basic developmental tasks. Children are learning how to trust, how to judge people trustworthy, how to make decisions, how to avoid exploitation, how to soothe themselves when they get upset, and how to handle anger or frustration.


Also remember that not every trauma survivor will be traumatized by the event. Out of those who are traumatized, not every one will suffer a severe mental health issue. Even children can survive childhood trauma to become functional adults. It will depend partly on perception of the event (Do they believe there was nothing they could do? Do they blame themselves?), coping strategies (those with more appropriate coping strategies for that particular event might not need to create new, dysfunctional ones), support structures (How did people react to them? Were they re-traumatised by disbelief or disgust?), and personal strengths / weaknesses (Someone might cope well with a terrorist attack but couldn’t cope with being raped by a loved one or vice versa).

Well, that's been a helpful overview (for me, at least). Time to take a deeper look into trauma. Hmm, should I look into childhood trauma or alcoholism? Or perhaps peer deeper into the dark jungle of coping mechanisms? It could be the first time I refer to Freud ... who knows?

Also, let me know if I'm writing these posts in boring academic English. I'd much rather I wrote it in a more interesting, easy-to-understand style. I'm also trying to pump as many concepts into a short space as I can. It's a balancing act. One I'm not so good at....

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