One of the symptoms we can manifest as adults if we have experienced significant childhood trauma is a feeling of being constantly under threat. Psychologists call this a ‘sense of current threat’ and it is one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It can include having constant intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares; such symptoms remind us of what happened to us during our disturbed childhood and trigger the feelings of fear associated with our original trauma. In this way, we can come to feel trapped in a terrifying past.
Furthermore, it is also not at all improbable that, as a result of our childhood experiences, we have developed what psychologists refer to as a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD. Essentially, this means our thinking has become distorted in such a way that we can only see ourselves, others and the world in general in extremely negative terms. For example, we may view ourselves as a terrible person beyond redemption, totally without worth and utterly impotent in the face of unmanageable problems; we may view others as threatening, dangerous, exploitative and utterly untrustworthy; we may, too, view the world in general as an extremely dangerous and frightening in a way that adversely affects our day-to-day functioning (e.g. feeling too frightened to leave the house).
Indeed, ‘avoidance behaviour’ is one way many people attempt to cope with their feelings of fear. Such avoidance may involve a) PHYSICAL AVOIDANCE whereby we avoid people and situations that cause us anxiety or b) PSYCHOLOGICAL AVOIDANCE whereby we attempt to mentally ‘cut-off’ from our fears, perhaps, for example, by drinking excessively or by using narcotics.
Whilst such AVOIDANCE STRATEGIES may be helpful to us in the short-term, in the medium and long-term it greatly hinders our recovery by stopping us from CONFRONTING, WORKING THROUGH and RESOLVING our fears.
Furthermore, our short-term avoidance strategy/strategies may themselves harm us – we may, for example, become dangerously dependent upon alcohol, or, if we try to cope by never leaving our flat or house, we may become intensely lonely and socially isolated.
AVOIDANCE AND MEMORY :
We can think of our memory as working rather like a bank – we store our experiences there and every time we remember a particular experience that memory itself becomes stored. This means, when memory is working in the normal way, the original memory becomes ‘updated’ according to what has happened to us since the original memory was stored. For example, let’s say that the first time we tried to swim a length of a swimming pool we were frightened that we might drown. However, because no such harm occurred either then or during later swimming sessions, the original memory is updated in the light of this new information. Consequently, our fear of swimming dramatically reduces.
However, if we have a traumatic experience in childhood, the traumatic memory is stored along with its associated feelings of fear, but, if we avoid reminders of that trauma, the original memory NEVER GETS UPDATED.
For example, let’s say that our experience of childhood trauma left us believing that all people are dangerous and exploitative. As a result, we avoid interacting with people or making friends. By so doing, we deprive ourselves of the chance to learn that not everybody is actively seeking to stab us in the back – the original memory NEVER GETS UPDATED.
Indeed, the same principle applies even when we avoid THINKING about our original trauma.
Paradoxically, then, avoiding things by which we feel threatened actually PERPETUATES the feeling of being constantly threatened.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).