Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Rhythm of the Trauma Trap: Intrusion and Constriction

Several authors identify post-traumatic stress by three cardinal signs. The cluster of symptoms is described as hyperarousal. Intrusion becomes the cause which produces these symptoms, and constriction results as the response to the pressure of both.


Hyperarousal presents the most difficult challenge and the most notable feature of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). Hypervigilance refers to the sense of anticipation that another traumatic event will soon occur, and that feeling finds its expression in the heightened sensitivity to nearly every stimulus experienced.

This baseline level of stress competes for the energy that would otherwise be spent on living in the present, and other matters of living become a source of frustration. Think of what it is like to be deprived of rest, distracted by something of great importance, but still required to be attentive to a task at hand. Irritability, difficulty with attention, anger, and aggression become a path of least resistance. When rest does come, the thoughts of danger and threat become a compulsive nuisance, creating insomnia, restless sleep, and nightmares which add to the battle fatigue of everyday life.


Intrusion describes the way that painful memories invade the present life and consciousness of trauma that is long past. In the short term, immediately after a trauma, this intrusion serves to keep us safe, teaching us the lesson that life is fragile and that we are not invincible. Within a few months after a trauma, if it is processed in a healthy way, the intensity of the memory of the event begins to fade. It becomes an element of the past that may be unfortunate and life-altering, but reminders of it do not disrupt the events of the present.

In PTSD, it is as if the trauma teaches the wrong lesson. Rather than understanding that our lives are fragile and certain forces must be respected in order to better our lives, we instead learn the wrong lesson. We surmise that living presents a constant threat which will likely result in our demise. Intrusion drives this into the belief system of the person afflicted with PTSD.

Long after the danger of that trauma passes, those who do not heal from the event relive it continually instead of just recalling it. It is as though life stops moving forward for the traumatized person, for they must always contend with the present sense of annihilating threat. These abnormally intense memories of trauma thrust themselves repetitively into the consciousness of the person in a way that they cannot control or suppress.

Though it is attributed to Lewis Carroll, the Pennsylvania Dutch in the region where I was raised would claim this saying as their own: “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.” I think of this sense of futility as true of intrusion as well. As much as one tries to avoid intrusive memories and symptoms, the more aggravated and hyperaroused they become. I don't know the context of the statement made by Carl Jung, but I think that it also encapsulates the way intrusive memory works: “That which we resist persists.”

Constriction: The Numbing Response of Surrender

If feelings of intrusion are defined as the cause of distress in chronic trauma, then constriction of behavior and initiative becomes the manifested effect. When a person loses their sense of safety, they adapt to their circumstances by changing the way that they live to preserve that which they still have left. The focus of living shifts from pursuing a meaningful life of fulfillment and joy to an impoverished one of concern with mere survival. This pervasive response affects every aspect of life from a person's thoughts, emotions, behaviors, attention, relationships, and aspirations.

As noted in a previous post, trauma causes the loss of imagination. With it, we lose hope and optimism about living in a better way by picturing of better future. We can't set goals because we can't wrap our minds around them when we are constricted by trauma. Concerns of living shift from one of connection with the world and others into an unbalanced focus on the internal aspects of a meager and solitary life.

The ability to shift into an altered state of consciousness allows for survival of the dissonant and conflicting set of rules for living an unbearable life. Dissociation – that altered state of consciousness that arrises from the stress of cognitive dissonance – helps to protect the sense of self, but at the high cost of alienation from identity before the trauma. It has been called the “numbing response of surrender.” For Second Generation Adults (SGAs) who are raised in traumatic, high demand groups, they have no previous identity to which to return.

Living a life of futility in this traumatic state of constriction has been likened to the Orwellian concept of “doublethink.” The mental gymnastics of holding two contradictory ideas as both true becomes a game that is both conscious yet unconscious. The person can remain true to themselves to a limited extent, but a certain amount of reality must be suppressed and avoided. A certain amount of this requires a deliberate and therefore conscious choice to do so, and the trance state of dissociation ensues to ease this process.

Zealous Initiative Confined by Bounded Choice

As another means of adapting, especially for SGAs, some people respond to the constriction by embracing as much active achievement as they possibly can whenever circumstances allow. Ingenuity and determination come about within the limited scope which life allows for them, even though it is limited by bounded choice. Only that activity which the system will allow provides an outlet for the trapped soul to find expression and optimism needful for living.

Vicious Cycle

The process created by intrusion and constriction perpetuates and reinforces itself over time. Intrusion never brings about any kind of helpful change, further aggravating the symptoms of hyperarousal and proving the necessity of constricted living. There is no happy medium to be found amidst this cycle, and balance becomes a nice idea that it accessible only to other people. Avoidance and overwhelm, amnesia to intense recall/reliving, feeling to much and feeling nothing, no action to impulsivity become the norm of life.

The only lesson taught by this process is that the person who has been traumatized? Life is a process of unpredictable experiences and helplessness. 

For further reading until the next post: