The word ‘trauma’ is derived from the Greek term for ‘wound’. Very frightening or distressing events may result in a psychological wound or injury – and trauma in psychological terms in the emotional response to such an event. Traumatic events certainly include one-off events like natural disasters, terrorist attacks or acts of random violence. Some include exposure to war. But the reality is that around 80% of trauma happens within the family setting. This means if your character has experienced a traumatic event as a child, then it is most likely to be abuse or neglect. And like all the PsychWriter topics, if it happens in the real world, with real world consequences, then that will be reflected in stories (and poems and paintings and sculptures…).
How a trauma affects your character will depend on their temperament and resilience factors, but what it will do is set the stage for unhelpful and counter-intuitive responses to subsequent stress. How? Let me show you.
But first – a brain biology lesson… (Bear with me peeps, I’ll keep it short and relevant.)
Our brain evolved in stages, but there’s two that are most pertinent to our discussion. The animal brain – the central bit that we share with every other mammal, and the smart brain – the part that is unique to humans. The animal brain is the part that fight, flight or freeze lives in – it’s the bit that we used thousands of years ago to keep up alive, that got us here today. The smart brain evolved later and is the part where all of our human capacities reside – the ability for abstract thought, for language, for problem solving. That’s the grey matter layer that we use to consider about our choices, our actions, and their consequences.
The reason this is relevant is because the moment the brain perceives it’s in an unsafe situation (the key term is ‘perceive’), the animal brain takes over (it uses the ‘I was here first’ argument). Our evolutionary roots knew that we didn’t need to solve algebraic equations or ponder existential questions in those moments where we need to think and act fast. When we need to choose between fight, flight or freeze the neural networks to our smart brain are considered superfluous and unnecessary, so they get shut down.
Think about it. Have you ever studied like crazy for an exam, jammed every piece of information you can into the folds of your grey matter (your smart brain in fact)? Then sat down at that too-small desk, looked at the white sheet of paper filled with questions, and couldn’t remember a darned thing? That’s because as your anxiety increased, your animal brain felt threatened and jumped into action. It shut down the seemingly unnecessary links to your higher order thinking as it prepared to respond (flight seems like a pretty tempting option…) and bam! Goodbye complicated and impossible to spell names for the parts of the brain…
So what does this have to do with childhood trauma? Childhood trauma compromises a child’s sense of safety. Because they spent a part of their lives robbed of the guarantee of security and protection, the animal brain spends much more time activated. This means those networks get strengthened – they have to be. This child needs to be ready to run or hide at times when other children are playing, eating or sleeping. Trigger that too often and for too long, and it never gets a chance to come back down.
This means your character will grow up with an animal brain that is likely to be over-active and easily triggered. How that transfers into emotions and behaviours will depend on their own constellation of personality traits and life experiences, but research has found that the following themes will dominate:
Difficulties with Mental Processes
For optimum brain development children need the security of attuned relationships free from the extremes of stress and trauma. Compromise, undermine or remove this and they can inherit cognitive difficulties. They may find learning at school challenging, the may find it difficult to remember day to day events. If they have difficulty regulating their emotions (more on that shortly) they will struggle to pay attention while in a hyper aroused state. To top it off, if your character experiences flashbacks – overwhelming memories of the trauma/abuse – this will also reduce their capacity to concentrate.
This means your character may be vague or forgetful some of the time, or all of the time. They could be disorganised, they may have dropped out of high school. They may have moments when their job/responsibilities/family becomes overwhelming, or the moment when they have to make a life-changing, split-timing decision, they make the most illogical, unhelpful choice you would expect.
Trauma can have a significant and varied impact on your character’s social functioning. Trauma generally involves a total lack of control over what has happened to us. This means children and adults alike may try to control their environment and the people around to gain back that sense of helplessness. This can range from needy or manipulative behaviour, through to aggressive and violent behaviour. Couple this with attachment difficulties, and connecting with others can become threatening. They may control others to reduce the feelings of being out of control, and to try and keep them with connecting with them. Also, they may struggle with relationship skills e.g. reading body language or facial expressions, or may not understand the usual rules of relationships such as sharing or giving.
So your character may have difficulties making friends or keeping friends. Maybe the friends they do make are those with similar problems as their own. Their tendencies to withdrawal or being reactive may strain their romantic relationships.
Difficulties Regulating their Emotions
When it comes to regulation your emotions, there are two ways the body will tend to handle overwhelming, painful and unresolved trauma experiences – hyperarousal or dissociation. Both are intensely painful and uncomfortable emotional states.
Hyperarousal can mean your character has difficulty controlling their angry or impulses and maintaining their attention. These peeps wills tend to react now, think later and be prone to aggression or flight. Hyperarousal often goes hand in hand with hypervigilance – being psychologically prepared for danger. Unfortunately, these people can often perceive neutral stimuli as threatening and will over-react.
Dissociative people disengage. They may feel distant or numb. Their brain has opted for the ‘freeze’ option and they are looking to make themselves ‘disappear’. This character may present as vague or unreachable. They are often not thinking, nor do they want to.
A Sense of Shame
We’ve all experienced shame (a credit card being declined, over-reacting to a cup of spilt milk…), but in the case of trauma and abuse, those feelings of worthlessness can quickly become a part of their identity. Feeling like you’re never good enough, isolated and alone compound all the factors we’ve already discussed. They can limit your character’s ability to feel empathy, they may want to hide. The may become defensive and blame others. Have something happening in your plot that triggers their sense of shame (e.g. being accidentally or purposely embarrassed), their perception that they’ve failed or done something wrong, and their animal brain will be tripped (hello again fight, flight or freeze).
As a school psychologist, I work with individuals affected by trauma on a daily basis. I see it in the children in their classrooms, I see it the teachers tasked with their learning. I see it the parents that are doing their best to raise them. Many of them have inspired characters in my ‘smart’ brain that carry stories of struggle and resilience waiting (mostly patiently) to be told. What about you? Do you have a character that’s endured childhood trauma? How does it affect them now?
PS Did you see my guest post? I headed over to Writer Unboxed and discussed The Top Two Reasons Readers Will Leave a Negative Review. The abundance of comments shows that it’s a topic that impacts many authors.