Trauma and Fearfulness
Some of the reason why we are far more fearful, inhibited and sad than we should be is that we are – unbeknownst to ourselves – wandering through our lives with a huge burden of unresolved and unobserved trauma.
A trauma is not merely a terrible event, though it is very much that too. It is a terrible event that has not been adequately processed, understood and unpicked and that has – through neglect – been able to cast a very long and unwarranted shadow over huge areas of experience. Many of our greatest fears have nothing at all to do with actual dangers in the here and now; they are the legacy of traumas that we have lacked the wherewithal to be able to trace back to their origins, localise and neutralise.
The concept of trauma was first observed in military contexts. Let us imagine that in bed one night, in a country torn apart by civil war, we hear a car alarm followed, a few seconds later, by a huge explosion. Our neighbourhood is destroyed and several members of our family are killed. We are devastated but, under pressure to continue with our lives, are unable to reflect adequately or properly to mourn what has happened; we are forced to move on from a dreadful experience with fateful haste and lack of emotional assimilation. And yet the unattended memory of bloodshed, chaos and loss doesn’t disappear, instead it curdles into an unknown interior presence we call trauma – which means that in the years and decades ahead, even in the most peaceful circumstances, whenever we hear a car alarm or indeed any high pitched sound (that of an elevator’s ping for example) we are mysteriously, for reasons we don’t really understand, thrown back into our original panic, as if a thousand tons of TNT were about to explode once again.
However appalling this can be, psychologists have learnt that trauma can as easily be acquired in ostensibly peaceful circumstances. We don’t need to have been through a war to be traumatised in multiple ways. Imagine a six year old child who makes an error in a maths exam and takes the news home; suddenly, her father – who drinks too much and might be battling depression and paranoia – flies into a rage, shouts at her, smashes a household object and slams multiple doors. From the perspective of a six year old, it feels like the world is ending. There is no way to make sense of the moment – beyond taking responsibility for it and as a result feeling like a terrible human being. And from this, a trauma develops, this one centered around making mistakes. Every slip on this person’s part threatens to unleash an explosion in others. Far into adulthood, every time there is a risk of an error, there is a terror that someone else will get dementedly furious. Everyone becomes terrifying because one person in particular who was spin-chilling hasn’t been thought about and reckoned with in memory. Or we can imagine a little boy looked after by a very loving but very fragile single mother who is prudish and scared of masculinity. The boy feels her disapproval and grows acutely guilty about his own more boisterous, vital dimensions. From this, he eventually develops a trauma around his sexual feelings; to be sexual is to upset women, a part of him believes in adulthood – and therefore, even when he is with women who are keen on intimacy with him, he finds himself unable to feel excited or potent and always, for reasons he doesn’t understand, moves to end the relationship. Every woman is imagined as disgusted with sex because one important woman in his formative years was thought to have been.
The solution, in all such cases, is to get a better sense of the specific incidents in the past that have generated difficulties in order to unhook the mind from its expectations. The clue that we are dealing with a trauma – rather than any sort of justified fear – lies in the scale and intensity of feelings that descend in conditions when there is no objective rationale for them: it’s peacetime, a man is kind, a woman is full of desire… and yet still there is terror, still there is self-disgust, still there is shame. We know then that we are dealing not with ‘silliness’ or madness or indeed genuine danger, but with an unprocessed incident from the past casting a debilitating shadow on a more innocent present.
As traumatised people, the memory of the founding incident is within us, but our conscious minds swerve away from the possibility of engaging with it and neutralising it through rational examination. Unable to mourn or decipher the event, much of life becomes mournful and not worth living. At the same time, the trauma breeds symptoms and neuroses which we cannot trace back to their founding moment; we forget why we are so scared, we just know that there are risks everywhere. A trauma is an agony that the conscious mind has lacked the support and resources to process – at the cost of our ability to love, to be free and to think creatively.
Yet if we can finally feel comfortable and safe enough to dare to look back, we’ll be able to see the traumatising moment for it was, outside of our original panic and our youthful or illogical conclusions (that it was our fault, that we did something wrong, that we are sinful). Liberating ourselves will mean understanding the specific, local and relatively unique features of what has traumatised us; and then growing aware of how our minds have multiplied and universalised the difficulty, in part to protect us from an encounter which was once too difficult to grapple with.
We will realise that it was one bomb that exploded and destroyed the neighbourhood – and that however dreadful this might have been, there is no reason for all high pitched noises to terrify us. Similarly, it was one father who screamed at us for making a mistake when we were tiny, yet not everyone who is in authority threatens to annihilate us in adulthood. It was one particular woman who made us feel that our sexuality was unacceptable, and so it should not be all women whom we assume are revolted by us.
Our challenge is to make sense of a specific agonising hitherto obscure problem or event so as to strip it of its all-embracing impact. Countless situations will be problematic and frightening so long as individual incidents have not been understood and thought through with kindness and inventiveness. By properly gripping an original event in the claws of a rational adult mind, and stripping it of its mystery, we will be able to repatriate fearful emotions – and render the world less unnerving than it presently seems. Life as a whole won’t have to be so terrifying once we understand the bits of it that truly once were.