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Trauma is initially created by a lack of debriefing. It wasn’t just that you experienced something overwhelmingly negative—it was that you were prevented from being able to emotionally depressurize immediately afterward. It is the absence of debriefing or processing which turns upsetting experiences into crippling traumas. Heather and Kim are good examples of this. Both women had terrifying drowning experiences when they were girls. But in Heather’s case, she was able to run to a caring mother, cry it all out, and receive both sympathy and help in gaining a new perspective of her experience. While she was being held underwater, unable to breathe, Heather was terrified. Her mind was leaping to all kinds of overwhelming conclusions, such as the brother who she trusted was maliciously holding her under. As Heather’s mother talks her through these feelings and helps her understand that her brother was not trying to harm her, overwhelming fears are put to rest, and Heather is able to quickly recover.
In Kim’s case there was no debriefing. Like Heather, Kim’s brother was also involved in the situation, accidentally pinning his sister underwater without malicious intent. Like Heather, Kim’s panicking mind leapt to the fearful conclusion that someone who she trusted and thought loved her was suddenly trying to harm her. But unlike Heather, Kim was not debriefed. When she finally surfaced, choking, coughing, and crying, people ignored her. Not understanding the gravity of the situation, her brother made a teasing remark. Her mother was in the middle of a conversation when Kim ran over to her for help and she snapped at her daughter to not interrupt. Because she did not have access to empathetic listening, and because she couldn’t get help with changing her terrifying assessment of what had just happened to her, Kim became traumatized. From that point forward, she was intensely fearful of water, she felt deeply betrayed by her brother, and painfully rejected by her mother.
Traumatic experiences cause us to become psychologically stuck in the past and they have a profound effect on our future behaviors. Being traumatized is like having a needle jammed into your arm: it is a severe handicap. You can try to function with that needle in your arm, but every time you move the muscle it is embedded in, there is overwhelming pain as the needle tears the muscle fibers. If you’re going to have any chance of regaining function, that needle has to be removed. Only then will your body finally have the chance to repair the internal damage. There will be scarring, but you’ll be able to regain functionality, and your every move will stop being hampered by you trying not to disturb the needle. But as long as the needle remains in your arm, some part of your mind is having to focus on it in order to try and limit the damage it is doing. This forced obsession with the needle takes up a lot of your psychological resources. It’s stressful. It hampers your joy in life. It distracts you when you’re trying to relate with other humans. It causes you to adopt defensive behaviors—such as yelling at anyone who gets too close to you for fear that they might accidentally bump the needle.
Now in cases of trauma, it’s like that needle is invisible to everyone but you. This is why traumatized people often come across to others as being ridiculously oversensitive, emotionally volatile, and frustrating to deal with. Because they can’t see the problem you’re dealing with, other people can’t see the rationality in your behavior. They don’t know why you’re hanging one of your arms limp at your side and refusing to use it in basic tasks. They don’t why you’re flipping out on them when they reach towards you. When your friend tries to give you a hug and you scream at her to back off, her feelings are understandably hurt. She doesn’t get what your problem is. A lot of times in trauma cases, you don’t understand what your problem is, either. You just feel an intense need to do certain things and avoid other things, and you feel immensely threatened when you’re put in certain situations.
So what’s the solution to this mess? Well, what created your trauma in the first place? An inability to debrief at the time of the initial crisis. Until that debriefing happens, you’re going to be stuck. The more time that passes between you and the traumatic event, the more debriefing you will need. Debriefing has two key elements: you being allowed to express your feelings to an empathetic party, and you getting help with revising the overwhelmingly negative conclusions that you drew from your situation. Once a lot of time has passed between the traumatic experience and the debriefing, a third element also gets involved: you getting help with understanding how your mind has been trying to deal with the stress of the trauma. It is the need for debriefing, reframing, and understanding that drives people to seek out some form of counseling. But it’s critical to realize that God is really the One who helps you recover from trauma, and everyone has access to God. So just because you can’t afford or find a safe counselor who is willing to help you, you are not without help. Who you really need is God, and He makes Himself available to you. When a counselor seems to be helping you, it is only because God got involved in the process. Never accept the conclusion that you can’t find healing without the help of other people, because this is an absolute lie and it leads to a dangerous sense of dependency on other humans as well as unnecessary despair. Certainly God often chooses to work through people. But God is never going to ditch you over your lack of funds or friends. When you want to heal, it is vital that you reach out to God directly and ask Him to walk you through the recovery process. If you’re simultaneously talking with another human, fine, but don’t leave God out of it because He is the Source of all healing.
Now the goal of this post is to shed light on one of the many ways that the mind attempts to manage the stress of trauma. Our purpose in writing these kinds of posts is to help aid the debriefing process for those who are currently stuck. One very popular belief among traumatized people is that they’re just hopelessly “messed up.” Trauma coping methods can easily result in some very perverse and violent behaviors. When you judge yourself solely by those behaviors, it’s very easy to fall into shame and self-condemnation. “I’m such a sick pervert. I’m such a violent animal. I’m such a screwed up loser.” Such negative self-talk does nothing to move you forward. Regardless of how disturbing you might find your own behaviors, fantasies, and desires, the truth is that there are logical reasons why you are feeling so intensely drawn to these things. The man who keeps beating his wife in fits of rage is not just a violent animal. The guy who is sexually assaulting others is not just some creep. The guy who can’t lay off the alcohol isn’t just a loser. All of these behaviors are coping mechanisms. They are attempts to manage overwhelming internal pain. Are they effective? No. Do they do more damage? Yes. But if we’re going to effectively stop the damage, we need deal with root causes, not just rain down the condemnation.
As our analogy about the needle demonstrated, trauma causes your mind to obsess over what happened to you, and it will continue to obsess until it gets sufficiently debriefed. Until then, your mind is stuck having to juggle overwhelming fears and/or pain. It’s rather like being stuck in a room with no door. It is the environment inside the room which you feel so threatened by. Maybe there’s a poisonous snake in there with you. Or a snarling wolf. Or another person who seems to get off on harming you. So what do you do? Well, there are three basic ways to try and reduce your stress. You can try to leave the room, you can try to neutralize the threat inside of the room, or you can try to acclimate to being hideously hurt by that threat. These are the three basic options your mind sees. It then chooses to work on one or more of these strategies, and allocates its resources accordingly.
Now the room has no door—no obvious exit. So if your mind chooses to focus on the first of our three defensive strategies, it will pour enormous effort into trying to find a way out of that room. In The Mindset of Trauma Reversal: Pursuing the Unattainable, we described a common way that people try to leave that metaphorical room by trying to recreate the initial traumatic circumstances, then change the outcome. After Don loses his family in a house fire, he becomes a fireman. Because Don has never had the chance to process his trauma, his motives for becoming a fireman are different than Stan’s. Stan just wants to help people. Don wants to go back in time and save his own family so that he can stop feeling traumatized by their deaths. So when Stan and Don enter a burning building, Stan is focused on the present situation, while Don’s mind is leaping back to the past and trying to see the current victims as symbolic members of his own family. If Don can save the girl today, maybe that will finally make him feel like he succeeded in saving his sister ten years ago. Does this kind of strategy work? No, because we can’t go back and rewrite history. The mindset of trauma reversal only leads to immense frustration, and yet many people get stuck in it, because they feel it’s their only hope of getting out of that room.
Not everyone chooses to spend all of their resources on that first option. Rather than search for an exit that doesn’t seem to exist, many souls decide to spend their energy on neutralizing the threat inside of the room. After Nick spends his childhood being bitterly hurt by his father’s mocking comments about Nick’s body, Nick flies off the handle at anyone who makes a crack about his appearance. After Pete is forced to absorb a bunch of physical abuse from his mother, he goes around violently raping women. Both men are trying to neutralize the threat in the room with them. They are violently attacking symbols of their original abusers. Does this strategy work? No, it just makes a bigger mess. As Nick and Pete rack up the victims and compile long rap sheets for themselves, they’re just becoming more and more stressed. Remember that trauma is fueled by a lack of debriefing. The only way to get true relief is to debrief. Trying to trash others instead just doesn’t do it.
So if leaving the room seems impossible, and we feel too intimidated by what’s in the room to try and neutralize the threat, then what? The only option left is to try and acclimate. This is the psychological defense strategy that we’re going to take a closer look at in this post. We call it trauma rehearsal, because in this third strategy, the traumatized person actually seeks out opportunities to keep experiencing the same awful experiences that traumatized them in the first place. At first this sounds nonsensical, but it is actually quite rational when you think about it. The basic idea is to reduce the stress pain has on you by trying to learn to like it. Your mind tries to flip a negative into a positive so that it can stop feeling so threatened. It’s rather like easing your way into a tub of water that is too hot for you at first. If you just jump in, you’ll get burned. But if you very slowly ease your way in and use a lot of quick dips to help your body acclimate to the heat, you can end up feeling quite relaxed in the hot tub instead of horribly scalded. This is what your mind is going for when it gets obsessed with trauma rehearsal. The problem is that the thing it’s trying to adjust to is truly unbearable. Quick dips don’t work. Every time you put yourself back into that initial situation, it stresses you even more and over time your stress load becomes greater instead of decreasing. Like the mindset of trauma reversal, the mindset of trauma rehearsal is one in which your mind locks onto an impossible goal and won’t be deterred from it. But once you remember that both of these strategies are a reaction to feeling hopelessly trapped and immensely threatened, you can start to appreciate the rationality behind them. You’re not only trying to help yourself, but you’re investing a ton of resources in the project. At the very least, you ought to be credited for your perseverance.
THE MINDSET OF TRAUMA REHEARSAL
To better understand how trauma rehearsal works, let’s meet three people who are stuck in it. First there is Ramona. While a lot of people are hard to buy gifts for, Ramona takes it to the next level: if you give her something she likes, she destroys it. When Ramona’s coworker Stacy overheard Ramona expressing an interest in crystal, Stacy went out and bought Ramona a very pretty crystal figurine for Ramona’s birthday. Stacy genuinely likes Ramona and is hoping to build a friendship. But as soon as Stacy unveiled her gift, Ramona suddenly became angry and smashed the thing to pieces on the ground. “That’s what’s going to happen to any gift you give me!” she snaps. “I don’t want your stupid presents, and I don’t like crystal! This is what you get for eavesdropping and thinking you know me!” With that, she storms out, leaving Stacy feeling deeply hurt.
Ramona’s friend Beth also finds Ramona difficult to deal with because Ramona is such an obvious liar. There have been several times that Beth has seen Ramona’s eyes light up over some item in a clothing store. Once it was a dress, another time it was a pair of shoes, another time a purse. But whenever Beth points out Ramona’s obvious attraction to something, Ramona gets super crispy and denies her interest. If Beth doesn’t look convinced, Ramona buys something ugly instead, just to underscore how much she doesn’t care about the things Beth thinks she cares about. This same evasive behavior comes up in restaurants as well. As soon as Ramona seems to like the food she’s eating, she shoves it away from her or makes up some phony excuse for why the waiter must take it back.
The first time Beth was invited to Ramona’s apartment, she was surprised by how drab it was. There were no pictures on the wall, and no personal decorations of any kind. There was just one jar of decorative stones sitting on the coffee table. “Oh, I really like that,” Beth had said, trying to be encouraging. “Those blue stones are very pretty—you like blue, don’t you? You should get some more decorations.”
“Why do you think I like blue?” Ramona had snapped defensively.
“Well, I noticed you had on blue earrings the other day,” Beth had said. Then she’d watched in disturbed confusion as Ramona threw the decorative stones into the garbage and made a big production of finding and breaking the earrings Beth had mentioned.
So why is Ramona acting this way? Why is she so threatened by someone identifying her personal preferences? The truth is that Ramona really does like crystal—she likes it a lot. As a girl, she had a collection of crystal figurines that were very special to her because her mother had given them to her. But after Ramona’s mother died, Ramona’s father had become an abusive monster who couldn’t stand seeing Ramona happy in his presence. So whenever he saw her taking joy in anything, he destroyed it right in front of her. The crystal figurines were all smashed, Ramona’s favorite clothes were either stained or ripped apart, her jewelry was wrecked, books and pictures were burned. After years of having her sensitive heart wounded like this over and over again, Ramona has accepted the belief that anything she becomes emotionally bonded to will end up being destroyed. As far as she is concerned, her best defense against pain is to stop caring about anything. The problem is that she can’t. She’s a very sensitive, artistic person and she finds herself constantly drawn to pretty things. Her intense desire for these things scares her, because she feels certain that anything she bonds to will be taken away from her. So whether it’s people or things, Ramona forces herself to cut ties with what she likes. She also has a secret habit of buying things she likes, and then making herself destroy them. Even though she finds it deeply wounding to lose people who she genuinely likes, she feels it is even more dangerous to allow herself to bond. Because she feels like an enormous threat of pain is always hanging over her head, and because she feels like it is impossible for her to ever stop being knifed in the heart, she keeps knifing herself in an effort to try and acclimate to the experience. This is the goal of trauma rehearsal: acclimate to pain by making yourself keep going through it over and over again. You’re trying to numb out, accept defeat, and make peace with the idea that you’ll never be able to keep people from ravaging you in some way.
Now while Ramona is busy torturing herself emotionally, there’s Wes. Wes grew up in a very dysfunctional home in which sexual abuse abounded. Wes’ mother molested him on and off for years. She attacked at random moments and used such a variety of methods that Wes found it impossible to anticipate her. Instead, he was forced to live on constant pins, never knowing when he was going to be stripped, groped, or mocked. Now Wes is a grown man, but because he’s never had the chance to debrief, he is still in trauma mode. Just as Ramona believes anything she cares about will be ripped away from her, Wes believes it’s always open season on his body. He feels like he has no rights. The whole idea of trying to draw boundaries seems totally futile, so even though he wants them, he doesn’t allow himself to go there. In his mind, the threat of being molested is impossible to eliminate, so his best defense is learning to acclimate. Just as Ramona is trying to numb out by forcing herself to keep reliving the painful experiences her father put her through, Wes is finding a lot of creative ways to keep rehearsing the worst elements of his own traumatic experiences.
Remember that the ultimate goal of trauma rehearsal is to flip negatives into positives so that the negatives will lose their wounding power. To this end, Wes has invested a ton of psychological resources in trying to learn to like being molested, exposed, and sexually dominated. Happily his wife is not sexually abusive, but this is not entirely positive in Wes’ mind. If Wes is going to protect himself, he has to maintain a certain level of endurance for abuse, and his wife’s lack of aggression isn’t helping him in that area. To compensate for the lack of real abuse, Wes fantasizes that he is being sexually dominated by his wife or other women. In these fictitious scenarios, Wes has the opportunity to practice a skill which seems critical to his survival: learning to like abuse. Meanwhile, he is ever ready to accept abuse from his wife, in the event that she suddenly decides to start delivering. Part of him actually wishes that she would start treating him more like his mother did: stripping him, exposing him, and treating his personal anatomy like her entertaining toy. Practicing enduring real abuse feels like Wes’ best chance at maintaining his ability to survive it. The problem is that he really finds the whole experience of being so objectified utterly unbearable. On the outside, he can make himself stand there, but the damage of being treated like someone else’s trash object is immense. Years of trying to get comfortable with having no rights over his own body has caused Wes great psychological strain and as good as he’s gotten at gritting through it, he is never going to be able to flip this negative into a positive because it’s just too awful. What Wes really needs is to debrief and learn how to use the power that he now has access to—power which seemed nonexistent during his childhood.
Josh is in a similar dilemma as Wes, only Josh’s initial trauma has no sexual elements to it. Josh’s father was always demanding perfection from his son, and when Josh couldn’t deliver, he was physically punished. If Josh showed any signs of distress while being hurt, the torture would continue. As in Wes’ case, Josh never knew when the next attack would come, so he ended up living on pins. Like Ramona, Josh has formed a strong mental association between emotional expression and terrible pain, so he works hard to come across as unflappable. But while Josh is striving to maintain his tough guy act, he also feels intense panic when he makes mistakes in life because in his mind, making mistakes results in being tortured. It’s the torture that has traumatized him, so it’s torture which he fixates on as the thing which he must learn to acclimate to.
Josh is single and he lives alone. He won’t take on a roommate, because living with someone makes him feel terrifyingly vulnerable. And yet if he wasn’t so scared of being physically tortured, he wouldn’t be so afraid of living with someone. As long as Josh senses elevated fear levels within himself, he takes that as an indicator that he is terribly vulnerable to being re-traumatized by torture. Somehow, someway, he has to get torture into some kind of mental box so that he can stop living life in a state of panic. In an attempt to diffuse his own fear of pain, Josh has become addicted to self-injury. When he’s alone, he beats, burns, and bruises himself in a desperate effort to flip this unbearable negative into some kind of positive. If he can’t have a positive, Josh would gladly settle for neutrality, but no matter how hard he pushes himself, he just can’t mentally get on top of the beast. He tortures himself to the point of exhaustion, but it always ends the same: bitter crying, nausea, and feeling like a piece of trash. For all of the resources Josh is spending on trying to help himself, he’s not getting any rewards. Instead, he’s feeling steadily worse. Why is this? Because trauma must be debriefed. Rehearsing it over and over again only intensifies the problem.
The good news for Ramona, Wes, and Josh, is that the kind of freedom they’re looking for is available, and to attain it, they’re not going to have to learn to like something that is truly unbearable. First they need to understand that debriefing is what they need. Traumatic experiences need to be discussed, not endlessly relived. Trauma based conclusions about yourself and your place in the world need to be revised so that you will stop trying to work within a framework of despairing assumptions. All three of our traumatized friends are working under the assumption that intense suffering is an inescapable experience for them. They’re all assuming that the same experiences which devastated them in the past are destined to happen to them again at any moment, thus they must be ready to endure. Often in cases of trauma rehearsal, your mind is trying to improve the way you responded to the initial experiences that shattered you. Greater endurance is the perpetual goal. You look back and see yourself falling apart. Now you are determined to keep it together when the next volley comes. So you practice, because practice is supposed to make perfect. But the practice doesn’t help because at the end of the day, certain kinds of suffering are just intolerable to the mind. When moments of such suffering are forced upon you, the fastest way to recover is through immediate debriefing. You are hurt, you debrief, and you heal: this is the healthiest cycle.
Now debriefing doesn’t have to always be some long, dramatic affair. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being able to say to a friend, “What just happened really scared me.” Debriefing can happen very quickly, and when you debrief, your internal stress load is lightened. But when you’re entrenched in the mindset of trauma rehearsal, you just hurt and hurt and hurt until you want to end your life in order to escape the endless cycle of pain.
Trauma rehearsal has a logic to it that is really quite rational once you appreciate how desperate, scared, and trapped the traumatized person feels. But this psychological defense strategy isn’t going to take you where you need to be. Debriefing is the key, and you start that process by asking God for help. It is God who brings all trials into our lives, but He does so for the purpose of helping us in positive ways. Healing has nothing to do with reverting back into who you were before the trauma started. We’re supposed to be changed by our experiences in life—but we want to be changed in the right ways. When we are willing to honestly engage with God and be receptive to Him bringing good out of what seems like pure evil to us, He will do what we can’t do. It is only God who can permanently flip identity-shattering negatives into soul freeing positives. If we are willing to submit to Him as the Supreme Authority of our lives and align with His priorities for us, He will take us to some awesome places.
Dealing with Trauma: Protecting Yourself from Bad Counselors
Understanding Your Reaction to Sexual Assault: Triggers & Pleasure
Marriage Solutions: Overcoming Sexual Trauma as a Team
Broken to Thrive: Help & Hope for Pedophiles