Tag Archives: Psychological trauma

CG Jung and the ‘Leap of Faith’ Into Individuation

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The Red Book has been described as Jung’s creative response to the threat of madness, yet it has also been seen as a deliberate exercise in self-analysis. I believe it’s likely both. When creating The Red Book, Jung knew he was on the verge of madness, and he also knew his analytical skills and expertise as a psychiatrist were his best chance at alleviating suffering, if not creating the conditions for transformation.

In many regards, The Red Book reads like a healing journey — a phrase often used to describe the reclaiming of self after a history of abuse — which is a transformative period that happens for many people committed to overcoming early life trauma. On the way to an authentic self there is first the need to step away from the person one became to survive abuse. Those confronted with this journey often experience a period of ‘going crazy’ on their way to establishing an authentic sense of self.

As The Red Book shows, individuation is a blessed curse. It opens the way to becoming one’s authentic self, and yet also the risk of alienation from the ‘tribe’. Childhood trauma survivors often know this conundrum intimately. Transformation requires a significant reorienting away from the beliefs, feelings, fantasies, and body states that made possible living in traumatizing conditions. Invariably, there is a part of the self that has gone unacknowledged or rejected, and aches to be reclaimed.

In The Red Book Jung found a process for continually rediscovering authenticity. As he often remarked, individuation is an ongoing journey and not an endpoint reached. Jung also intimated the need for what I called in an earlier post leaps of faith: turning away from the larger world’s expectations and towards one’s inner world of wisdom with acceptance and curiosity.

This quote from The Red Book inspires the impulse to creatively go forth into all that you are:

“Woe betide those who live by way of examples! Life is not with them. If you live according to an example, you thus live the life of that example, but who should live your own life if not yourself? So live yourselves.

“The signposts have fallen, unblazed trails lie before us. Do not be greedy to gobble up the fruits of foreign fields. Do you not know that you yourselves are the fertile acre which bears everything that avails you?”

Jung knew such a ‘leap of faith’ is not easy. He also wrote:

“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering since you must become your own creator.”

But he gives helpful advice for the journey, particularly how to live if the world feels contrary to whom you are becoming. Then you must learn to be your own guide:

“To certain things of the world I must say: you should not be thus, but you should be different. Yet first I look carefully at their nature, otherwise I cannot change it. I proceed in the same way with certain thoughts. You change those things of the world that, not being useful in themselves, endanger your welfare. Proceed likewise with your thoughts. Nothing is complete, and much is in dispute. The way of life is transformation, not exclusion. Well-being is a better judge than the law.”

Reprinted in full with permission by the original author Laura K. Kerr, Ph.D, who moderates the blog, Trauma’s Labyrinth: Finding Ways Out Of Trauma. Laura K. Kerr is a mental health scholar, blogger and trauma-focused psychotherapist. [Her] focus is on healing, with special attention to trauma, modernity, and mental health systems of care.

About trauma

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Traumatizing experiences shake the foundations of our beliefs about safety, and shatter our assumptions of trust.

Because they are so far outside what we would expect, these events provoke reactions that feel strange and “crazy”. Perhaps the most helpful thing I can say here is that even though these reactions are unusual and disturbing, they are typical and expectable. By and large, these are normal responses to abnormal events.

08d0ab8d1b1a5435a32a3e5134150cd2Trauma symptoms are probably adaptive, and originally evolved to help us recognize and avoid other dangerous situations quickly — before it was too late. Sometimes these symptoms resolve within a few days or weeks of a disturbing experience: Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It is when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, that professional help may be indicated. On the other hand, if symptoms persist for several months without treatment, then avoidance can become the best available method to cope with the trauma — and this strategy interferes with seeking professional help. Postponing needed intervention for a year or more, and allowing avoidance defenses to develop, could make this work much more difficult.

We create meaning out of the context in which events occur. Consequently, there is always a strong subjective component in people’s responses to traumatic events. This can be seen most clearly in disasters, where a broad cross-section of the population is exposed to objectively the same traumatic experience. Some of the individual differences in susceptibility to PTSD following trauma probably stem from temperament, others from prior history and its effect on this subjectivity.

Traumatic experiences shake
the foundations of our beliefs
about safety, and shatter our
assumptions of trust

In the “purest” sense, trauma involves exposure to a life-threatening experience. This fits with its phylogenetic roots in life-or-death issues of survival, and with the involvement of older brain structures (e.g., reptilian or limbic system) in responses to stress and terror. Yet, many individuals exposed to violations by people or institutions they must depend on or trust also show PTSD-like symptoms — even if their abuse was not directly life-threatening. Although the mechanisms of this connection to traumatic symptoms are not well understood, it appears that betrayal by someone on whom you depend for survival (as a child on a parent) may produce consequences similar to those from more obviously life-threatening traumas. Examples include some physically or sexually abused children as well as Vietnam veterans, but monkeys also show a sense of fairness, so our sensitivity to betrayal may not be limited to humans. Experience of betrayal trauma may increase the likelihood of psychogenic amnesia, as compared to fear-based trauma. Forgetting may help maintain necessary attachments (e.g., during childhood), improving chances for survival; if so, this has far-reaching theoretical implications for psychological research. Of course, some traumas include elements of betrayal and fear; perhaps all involve feelings of helplessness.

 

About Trauma

Emotional and Psychological Trauma
Nice explanation of the causes, symptoms, effects, & treatments of psychological or emotional trauma — broader than PTSD.
Information on the Threat Response
Detailed and well-done article on responses to threat, by Eric Wolterstorff.
APA Topics: Trauma
American Psychological Association webpage offers information on emotional trauma.
Facts for Health: PTSD
“The intensity of experiencing a life-threatening trauma can take time to subside. For some, it simply never does…”

How we remember, and how we forget

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How We Remember and How We Forget: Trauma, Denial, and Dissociation

I “forgot” a good part of my life.  I “forgot” the 3-6 months I spent in foster care, the events that led up to it, and the intense grief of being returned to a biological family I felt no connection to.  I “forgot” being trafficked for sex by my own father.  I “forgot” being placed in a freezer, tied to a wall in the dark in the garage like an animal, and forced to hang myself.

For a long time, I “forgot” about appointments, bills, and things I had done and said within the last 24 hours.  Sometimes, I still do.

I know a lot about forgetting.

Since then, I’ve been working at remembering.  I know a lot about that too.

A diagram of a neuron.

We remember information, experiences, and ideas because there are robust neural pathways between them.  If I am trying to remember a person’s name, I will most likely start with a piece of information that seems like it will lead me there: the face, trivia about the person, our last conversation.  If I am really intent on remembering, I will continue to dredge up these bits of associated memory until I am able to locate it.  So, the more connections we have between something we want to remember and other things and the more robust those pathways, the easier memory becomes.

Neural pathways become faster and more efficient with use.  When we stop using a particular pathway on a regular basis, it becomes less robust, slowing us down when we try to use it.  We may not “forget” information so much as lose the connections that allow us to find it.

I suspect that denial and dissociation both affect memory because of how they impact the neural pathways between parts of a memory.

Both the cortex and the limbic system are involved in memory formation. The amygdala, in particular, plays an important role in emotional memories.

In the case of dissociation, I speculate that the lack of robust neural pathways occurs at the time of the event.  Sensory impressions, thoughts, and emotional reactions are recorded, but with very little connection between them.  Whether this is because the brain functions that create order and connectivity are suppressed during traumatic events or because the parts of the brain involved in forming memories during life-or-death situations are different and don’t form connections as well, I’m not sure.

But I am sure that it happens because of how my own memories arise for me.  A major part of working through the trauma I’ve experienced has been simply finding things and putting them together–connecting pictures to words, declarative knowledge to sensory impresssions, physical responses to my knowledge of feeling states.  I “remember” nearly everything significant that has happened to me, but when I first began to work with them these memories stood in no particular order and in no relation to one another.

How the events were recorded in my mind in the first place has something to do with this.

Now, I know that the general wisdom is that we suppress trauma because we are trying to protect ourselves from the knowledge of what happened until we are in a position to deal with it.

I don’t entirely believe that.  I don’t think the memories are difficult to locate for the sole reason of emotional self-protection.  Partly, yes, but not entirely.

At the time of the event, we shut down certain types of awareness for two reasons that really come down to physical survival: one, we do this in order to suppress an awareness of physical pain so that our reactions to pain don’t interfere with doing what we need to do to survive.  Two,  we do this because conscious thought is the slow-track to action, and if we engage in it we could be killed before we’ve even come to a decision.  Much better to think like a lizard and just run away.

It is this state of suppressed conscious awareness that limits our ability to form connections between parts of a memory.  If a traumatic event is extremely intense, or if we have a lot of experience with being traumatized, touching on one aspect of the memory can re-start the process of suppressing conscious awareness, and our brains remain unable to form connections.

That is what PTSD looks like.  Elements of a memory are triggered, but instead of this access to the memory allowing us to form robust connections between parts of the memory, the connection is instead formed to whatever processes are involved in dissociation.  The more this happens, the better we get at dissociating as the pathways involved in dissociation get more and more robust.

But we may never figure out why red sweaters scare the bejesus out of us, or what happened after we put one on.  We may never link the scratchy feeling of the sweater with the color, or with the queasy feeling in our stomachs.  Not because we are avoiding that connection, but because we are busy doing something else.  We aren’t trying to protect our psyche.  We are trying to protect our bodies, and our brains don’t know that they can stop.

Denial, on the other hand, can lead to a kind of deliberate forgetting.  Every time the memory is accessed, we shift our attention away from it.  (For why, see Unsolicited, Bad Advice.)  The connections are there, but we train ourselves not to use them.  With time, the connections become tenuous, weak, frail.  They may break altogether.  The memory then becomes suppressed.  It is there, but we no longer know how to find it.

In dissociation, there may not be enough connections to the memory or between parts of a memory to start with.  In denial, we can intentionally remove them.

In the case of childhood trauma, the family can aid in this.  Children remember events partly because others in the family rehearse what happened with them later on.  Those pleasant sessions of “Remember when…?” reinforce and strengthen neural pathways between the details of events.  They also help children construct comprehensible narratives of what may be more fragmented impressions.

When traumatic experiences occur in the family, members often actively avoid doing this.  The message implicitly or explicitly stated may be that it would be better to talk (and think) about other things.  Without those rehearsals, children lose the connectivity between traumatic events and the rest of their lives and may have trouble accessing them as adults.  Or they may be able to access them, but assume the memories were simply bad dreams or the products of a fertile imagination.  The memories may not seem like memories because no one else seems to have them.

In cases of family abuse, both mechanisms involved in “forgetting” can work to “repress” a memory.  Elements of memory start out disconnected and isolated because of the functioning of the brain in the midst of trauma, and the connections that are there can become disused, slow, and inefficient because of denial within the family that means those pathways are deliberately avoided.

No wonder I feel like I’m giving my brain an extreme home make-over–cleaning, organizing, and re-designing.

Further reading:

The Brain Athlete. (2012)  Brain Plasticity Forms Who We Are.  Retrieved from: http://www.brainathlete.com/brain-plasticity-forms/

—-Neocortext and Not Hippocampus May Form Memories.  Retrieved from: http://www.brainathlete.com/neocortex-hippocampus-form-memories/

How to Forget Unwanted Memories.  (2012, October 20).  Medical News Today.  Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/251655.php

Plasticity and Neural Networks.  Canadian Institutes of Health Research.  Retrieved from: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cl/d_07_cl_tra/d_07_cl_tra.html

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Factsheet.  (2011, October 17).  National Institutes of Mental Health.  Retrieved from: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-research-fact-sheet/index.shtml