Afghanistan, 9/11 and the Parent’s Bedroom

War, terrorist disasters, childhood sexual abuse. What do all these have in common?

All can cause changes in the human brain resulting from trauma. Trauma is trauma, no matter how it occurs. The neurobiological results are the same.

What constitutes trauma? First it must be an event that is intolerable. Second, it is inescapable. When the human brain is faced with an event so terrible it cannot be tolerated and from which there is no escape, human survival has always depended on the brain’s ability to undergo changes. How does one survive a war zone, famine, child abuse? One of these adaptations is amnesia. The human brain is capable of forgetting something terrible happened. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory actually atrophies from lack of use. The victim of trauma may exist in a fog or with no memory of the traumatic events.

There is a downside to forgetting. Whatever we do not remember consciously we are doomed to experience unconsciously. Nightmares, flashbacks, rage and depression result. All of the emotions connected to the original suppressed traumatic event now burst forth triggered by innocent stimuli. The sound of a car back firing can send the war veteran diving under the coffee table. The screech of brakes will cause the person who survived a terrible car accident to panic. Ice cubes tinkling in a glass may awaken in the incest victim all the fear she felt as her alcoholic father climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

A pounding heart and rushes of fear are common to anyone who has been traumatized whatever the original cause.

2 comments

  1. Pam Wells says:

    Thank you for this! I repressed memories of childhood abuse and struggled all my life with depression, undiagnosed stomach problems, chronic headaches/migraines. The body has to do something with all the fear and rage bottle up.

    • Thanks for this Pam. You make me want to write about how the body remembers. The mind may forget, but the body does not. I’ll start working on a blog post about this very important issue you raise. As for me, I had no body when I was young. Just a head on top of whatever got me around in the world.

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