Why Trauma Survivors May Find It Hard To Learn From Past Behaviour.

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Many of us who have experienced severe and protracted childhood trauma, particularly if we have gone on to be diagnosed with conditions such as complex PTSD or BPD as a result, are frequently liable to ‘act out‘  unbearable inner pain (being unable to express it in healthy ways or even to understand its origin) in ways we later regret and feel ashamed of; indeed, such feelings of shame can be intense and devastating. [Related to this concept is the theory that anger, a frequent component of ‘acting out’, may sometimes operate to soothe emotional pain.]

However, despite such regret and shame, many, too, find themselves trapped in a perpetual cycle of repeating such self-defeating, ‘acting out’ behaviours, often at a very high cost to themselves and those who trigger their trauma-related feelings (e.g. feelings of rejection). In this way, the traumatized individual seems powerless to learn from experience and past mistakes, as if driven by unconscious psychological forces beyond their control (which, without effective therapy, may indeed be the case).

THE ROLE OF FAULTY MEMORY PROCESSING :

Such apparent helplessness to learn from experience is, however, much easier to understand when we consider how the severely traumatized individual’s memory processing abilities may have been negatively affected by his/her traumatic past.

To be more specific, trauma can impair brain and memory function in a variety of different ways, including adversely affecting the functionality of a part of the brain known as the hippocampus (indeed, research has shown that those who experience severe, long-lasting trauma in childhood can develop SHRUNKEN HIPPOCAMPI due to the chronic over-stimulation of the body’s stress hormones which have, in excess concentrations, a toxic effect upon the brain and other bodily organs)

Such impairment of brain and memory function, in turn, leads to DIFFICULTIES IN TRANSFERRING MEMORIES FROM SHORT-TERM STORAGE TO LONG-TERM STORAGE and, furthermore, interferes with the brain’s ability to process and make rational sense of information. Episodic memories (memories of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place) may not be properly processed which prevents a corresponding semantic memory (a form of long-term memory essential for the use and understanding of concepts and language) from being formed, making it hard for the individual to use knowledge (which, in normal circumstances, would have been gleaned from the episodic memory and have made it available to be subjected to rational analysis)) to inform and beneficially adjust future behaviour.

DISSOCIATION:

Studies also show that memory function is impaired due to the tendency of traumatized individuals, especially those suffering from complex PTSD and BDP, to dissociate when ‘acting out’ as a result of a trauma-related feeling triggered.

Both of the above (i.e.impaired memory processing ability due to organic damage and dissociation) impact on learning ability which, in turn, then, help to explain why traumatized individuals find it hard to learn from experience, particularly in the context of interpersonal conflict that mirrors early-life traumatic experiences and results in dissociated, ‘acting-out’ type behaviour). Furthermore, such individuals may also suffer from depression which is itself known to impair learning, memory and cognitive processing abilities.

Impaired memory, learning and cognitive processing ability, of course, can also interfere with other crucial areas of life, such as academic and occupational performance.

THERAPY:

Therapies that reduce stress and increase emotional resilience can help people who have been affected in this way and there exists some evidence that antidepressants can increase hippocampal volume (N.B. Always consult an appropriately qualified expert before deciding whether or not to take antidepressants).

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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