If we experienced significant trauma in the past we may find we became intensely, psychologically caught up in it, and it retains such a mental hold over us, that it now feels we are almost ‘trapped in time’, unable to contemplate, let alone plan for, the future. Instead, we may find, very much against our own wishes, that we are obsessively thinking about our traumatic experiences and how these experiences have emotionally damaged us.
In young people, this can result in a phenomenon known as arrested psychological development which means that the affected person gets ‘stuck’ at the stage of psychological development s /he was at at the time of the traumatic experience.
Hence, a forty-year-old who experienced severe childhood trauma in his/her teens, if s /he has not undergone therapy, may find s /he still has the emotional maturity level of a thirteen-year-old (or, indeed, a highly disturbed thirteen-year-old), perhaps prone to child-like tantrums and explosions of fury, impulsivity and difficulty forming mature relationships.
Herbert (1998) theorised that ‘a person’s energy gets stuck’ at the time the trauma occurred so that, from then on, everything that this person does in life is clouded, overshadowed and dominated by the memories of the trauma.
In psychological terms, it is always Groundhog Day. Emotionally, we are mired in quicksand. Sinking. Always sinking.
Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember how we felt before our traumatic experiences. It is as if our life before the trauma was lived by another person, to all intents and purposes a stranger, and a stranger with whom we tragically no longer have anything in common.
We may feel our position is hopeless and that we are powerless to do anything about it. We may once have been confident and outgoing, but now feel psychologically delicate and fragile and, therefore, highly vulnerable. We no longer ever feel safe and secure.
On top of all this, our views, opinions and general interpretation of life’s events, especially our interpretation of what others say and do, becomes warped and distorted by the lens of trauma through which we are condemned to view things. Cynicism and pessimism are now likely to take their place amongst our primary characteristics.
Is Recovery Possible?
People afflicted in this manner CAN and DO get better (irrespective of how bleak one’s prognosis may subjectively seem).
However, in order to achieve recovery, it is imperative that we take the first step which will lay the foundation of our recovery: a belief that we CAN get better.
This can be extremely hard if we are clinically depressed as it leads to feelings of utter hopelessness and powerlessness (and therefore also to an extremely tenaciously held view that things will never get better, even when this is quite clearly (in objective terms) not the case.
Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
As some readers will know already, CBT can be a very effective treatment for people suffering from the kind of condition described above.
M. Herbert (1998). Clinical Child Psychology. Social Learning, Development and Behaviour, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley (414 pp).
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.