Complex Trauma – the Slow Poison

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In the previous article (trauma and its consequences), we examined the continous and deep-seated pain as well as its consequences for the entire life of severely traumatised persons. The impact of the described exceptional situations is obvious and comprehensible. This is true, despite the fact that it may take a little more detailed knowledge to grasp why even, after half a century, some experiences cannot be forgotten and processed. Even more complicated, incomprehensible and for various reasons also uncomfortable, is the suffering of victims of long-term abuse. We are neither physically nor emotionally equipped to deal with such enduring threatening scenarios.

The resulting conditions range from immobility or severe musculoskeletal injury and lung disease due to tensed up forward leaning posture to stomach ulcers, obesity (as soon as enough food is once more available), or hormonal problems from the constant release of anxiety and stress messengers that disturb the body’s overall energy balance. In addition, there are all the other symptoms that also occur with punctual trauma.

War and tyranny

The civilian population under any regime, in trouble spots or wars, is often subject to the constant fear of violence, imprisonment, denunciation, and hunger for many years or even generations. The feverish austerity and hoarding of things that used to be unavailable are examples of compulsive acts that we know from our own grandparents and great-grandparents. The constant fear of breaking an unspoken rule is, in turn, a common reminder of the control-obsessed communist regime in some of our neighboring countries.

Exodus

The number of displaced people, most of whom have narrowly escaped death several times – right in the midst of our seemingly civilized world – is deeply shocking. Whole countries experience an endless state of emergency. Both the displaced and those who remain there are increasingly wounded every day without a home, future, and security. Added to this are the victims of land grabbing and climatic disasters. The seed for new horrors is sown daily – and will continue to produce ugly new flowers for a long time.

Deportation, slavery, cults, and sects

All these situations have one thing in common: here the breaking of the will is a purposeful act carried out with the most cruel of means and psychological expertise. One survival tool of the human psyche, which can easily be used against us, is our tendency to associate with the torturer in such a hopeless situation and to feel a deep connection with him and his goals. Stockholm syndrome and trauma bond are the terms for this.

One reason for this are biochemical processes that over time make us literally addicted to the hormone cocktail that the maltreatment releases in us. The intensity of the emotions is not comparable to any everyday situation and, above all, makes the targeted gentleness given between bouts of heavy abuse appear like a trip to seventh heaven. Breaking away from it is as hard as ending any substance dependency (which is often brought in as another control tool on top). In addition, an escape puts the victims in danger to life and limb.

Partnership or dependency relationship with violent persons

The victims of physical violence are generally people who also experienced violence as children – anyone else would break the relationship at the first sign. Not so in the case of someone with whom it has literally been drummed home through all their years of development that giving love is the unconditional forgiveness of every abuse while being loved and being beaten or humiliated are one and the same. Here one must not forget that the possibility of being unloved is unthinkable for a child in the most literal sense. So the only possible explanation is that there must be a good reason for the abuse and that it lies with the victim – a belief that burns deep into the child’s worldview and self-image.

Cognitive dissonance, in this case, the insurmountable proscription against recognising that something is fundamentally wrong with the other person, leads to such strong repression that there are real gaps in perception (see dissociation). Next to the drive to relive traumatic situations (repetition compulsion) and the unconscious search for familiar patterns, this adds to the explanation why beaten children easily slip back into relationships with violent partners as adults …

Police and friends tend to quickly lose patience and leave the seemingly self-destructive victims to their fate.

Sexual abuse of children

The situation of a child who becomes a victim of abuse is unbearable on so many levels that survival is possible only through massive repression. Not only does the child experience the loss of his or her own integrity and the constant fear of the next encroachment, he or she also has to suppress the rage at the tormentor (as it is almost always a family member or a close relative) and forgive the insufferable betrayal of the impassive second parent. (The “blind” caretakers are usually abused survivors themselves, descending into such profound denial that they literally delete all the obvious signs from their perception.)

The entire world thus presents itself as threatening, hostile or at best indifferent and deeply infatuated with lies and deception.

All of these situations have one thing in common: they are an all-encompassing mental prison and, over the course of many years, clutter every day-to-day situation with unsettling memories. The constant terror shows its face unannounced and persistent, sometimes quiet, sometimes roaring. Accordingly, the flashbacks for survivors of such long-term exceptional psychological situations are quite different and harder to grasp than is the case with the victims of punctual traumatization.

On the one hand, links with traumatic situations end up scattered randomly throughout the victim’s psyche and memory. Accordingly, even the most common situations, smells, objects or even a person’s own body perceptions can turn into triggers. For the most part, the memories have no discernible form, but express themselves as sudden, overwhelming, uncontextual emotions that repeatedly cause disproportionate stress over petty or even neutral causes. This distorts the perception of the present since the inner turmoil is not experienced as being separate from the current situation. Only with deliberate mindfulness training does this gradually become distinguishable.

Sufferers often feel anger dozens of times a day due to trivialities, feelings of betrayal and abandonment following minor acts of thoughtlessness, or deep desperation over a harmless rebuke. These feelings are completely real and profound but are interpreted by the environment as a gross overreaction and unnecessary fuss – which in turn makes trauma victims feel isolated, degraded and unloved and plunges them even deeper into flashbacks. The fact that this is gruelling for all involved and also that the entire life of the PTSD sufferers has to be massively affected are obvious.

Help is urgently needed, but is well beyond the financial means for already weakened people, thus cementing their painful condition and inevitably leading to old-age poverty. Numerous “stranded” people could be helped to a new start with this knowledge if only the political will for genuine, conclusive help were available.

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