It is possible that even just one, short-lived, traumatic event experienced in childhood, particularly in very early childhood, can prove so overwhelming that it leads to intense emotional suffering. Much research has been conducted upon this, and, to use just one example, a study by Pincus has demonstrated that just about all violent adult criminals have, as children, undergone extreme psychological trauma leading to such intense emotional suffering which has a dramatic impact on their subsequent psychological and physiological development and thus on their behaviour as adults.
It is because the trauma is UNRESOLVED (ie. the individual who experienced it has not processed and worked through it with the help of professional psychotherapeutic intervention) that its effect continues to be played out, all too frequently, through violent behaviour.
In such individuals, the instinctive, internal ‘fight’ response is far more easily triggered, and, indeed, far more intensely triggered, when the individual who has experienced childhood trauma perceives himself to be faced with a threat. Due to the unresolved trauma, the PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE TO THREAT ALSO REMAINS UNRESOLVED. In fact, the individual’s nervous system is perpetually in a state of HYPER-AROUSAL: expecting threat, perceiving threat everywhere, and, on a hair-trigger, ready to fight.
In essence, the individual is trapped in the moment when they did not release the aggressive energy in response to the original trauma/s. This pent-up aggressive energy, then, is condemned, repeatedly, to express itself in adulthood in the form of various types of emotions; these include anger, hatred and rage.
Until the trauma is properly resolved, the individual, unconsciously, becomes trapped in a cycle of attempting to resolve the trauma through compulsive reenactment; we reenact the original trauma in a manner which is closely linked to that original trauma. For example, a child who was exposed to a lot of aggression, hostility or violence is quite likely, as an adult, to be repeatedly drawn into violent situations.
Far from this reenactment resolving the trauma, it actually perpetuates its effects. However, because the behaviour is being driven by largely unconscious motivations, the individual reenacting the trauma is very often powerless to alter his automatic responses to triggers such as perceived threat ( the threat, due to the individual’s hyper-aroused nervous system, often being over-estimated or, even, imagined).
THE GOOD NEWS.
This is all very depressing. However, despite the fact it has been believed, in the past, that extreme trauma leading to cyclical violence could not be cured, because, it was thought, the brain had been irreversably damaged by the original emotional trauma (producing constant feelings of depression, anxiety and rage), more up-to-date research is suggesting that pathological symptoms resulting from trauma do NOT have to be caused by actual physical brain damage (ie. they can be caused by trauma which has not physically damaged the brain) and that when the trauma is effectively resolved through therapy the individual’s nervous system can return to normal and, thus, greatly improve the individual’s behaviour.
There is most certainly hope, then, for even the most severely traumatized amongst us.
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Best wishes, David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).