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Roots of Violence Track Back to Childhood Trauma

A single, brief exposure to an overwhelming event can throw a normally functioning individual, especially an infant or a young child, into an abyss of emotional and physical suffering. In the case of children, for example, hospital trauma can occur during fairly common but invasive medical or dental procedures that may seem routine to an adult but are profoundly traumatic to a child.

Consider the cases of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who dismembered his victims and stored their body parts to consume later, and the alleged Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, who engaged in a mail bombing spree that spanned nearly 20 years, killing three people and injuring 23 others. As boys, these two men experienced traumatic hospital procedures that abruptly and irrevocably affected their behavior.
While not every child who experiences a traumatic event will become a mentally unstable adult—these are extreme examples indeed—recent studies by Lewis and Pincus (among others) have shown that virtually all violent criminals have suffered extremes of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and trauma. This evidence is compelling enough to significantly alter the way we as a society view violence.

If violence is born out of traumatic stress, then we need a new paradigm to address the roots of violence, one that does not lay the blame solely at the feet of the criminal justice system or speak to some discussion of anger management. Rather, we must acknowledge the critical role that unresolved trauma plays in the production and proliferation of violent crimes.

What is Unresolved Trauma?

An event is potentially traumatizing if it is perceived (consciously or unconsciously) to be life-threatening. Humans go through a series of physiological—not psychological—changes that prepare them to survive stress, just as tigers, zebras and opossums deal with stress in the wild.

Unresolved trauma is actually the unresolved physiological reactions to a traumatic event.

Put another way, if we do not allow our bodies to release the “survival” energy we built up to prepare and protect ourselves for the event and thus complete the process, then we are stuck in that moment until we do “come down” from it. The human nervous system is literally stuck on “high alert!”

Unresolved trauma keeps people—adults and children alike—trapped in this unfinished sequence. Rape victims, victims of torture, witnesses to violent crimes, even survivors of crashes or accidents, all will be frozen in that one moment of time if they do not release their physical reactions to it. If left unresolved, the emotional brain is then forced to translate that instinctive energy into emotion—anger, rage, shame, love or sadness.

What is Meant by Reenactment?

The drive to complete and heal trauma is as powerful as the symptoms it creates, and the urge to resolve trauma through reenactment is compulsive. We are inextricably drawn into situations that replicate the original trauma in both obvious and unobvious ways—think of the prostitute with a history of childhood sexual abuse or the ex-combat soldier who joins a police SWAT team.

Reenactment is an unsuccessful attempt to resolve that survival energy mobilized for defense against a perceived life-threatening experience. Traumatic reenactment actually perpetuates violence, by creating a vortex of violence in which people caught in this physiological mindset “act out” their violence on others. And so we become a world of the walking wounded, hurting and exploiting one another because of past traumas.

Consider the young mother, raped by a family member when just a child, who years later calmly drowns her own children in the bathtub. In the psyche of a victimized person, no time has passed since the initial trauma. They act out, discharge and complete thwarted survival responses.

Trauma is Not a Disease

Theoretical as well as current clinical psychology research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) points to a causal link between trauma and brain damage.  Such “broken brain” studies infer that the symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety, depression and violent behavior are due to an irreversible and incurable brain disease.

However, Dr. Levine’s firsthand experience with over a thousand traumatized people demonstrates that PTSD is not only preventable but in many cases reversible. The fact is, many people experience symptoms of PTSD within forty-eight hours of a traumatic event, much too soon for “brain damage” to occur. And many patients, some of whom have been plagued for decades by persistent signs of PTSD, become symptom-free in a relatively short period of time. When trauma is resolved successfully, most people's nervous systems naturally normalize and they go on with their lives.

Trauma is not a disease. Nor is it incurable.

Living in the Vortex of Violence

In today’s world, trauma is everywhere—in our subways, on our streets and on our television screens. It raises critical questions concerning the potential damage upon future generations of children ravaged by abuse, neglect and violence. Unless we learn to successfully treat the effects of trauma, we may be unintentionally spawning hyperactive, learning-impaired, violence-prone citizens whose actions could rival Hollywood's wildest nihilistic fantasies.

Solving this threat to local and global social stability is now one of our greatest challenges. It is humbling to own up to the possibility that a significant portion of human behavior is attributable to hyper-aroused, post-traumatic states.

Creating a Healing Vortex Instead

Trauma is about the loss of connection to the self, to others, to nature—to everything. If we work together, our success in healing and restoring these broken connections will increase dramatically.

In her book, Beyond the Trauma Vortex and its companion workbook, Gina Ross proposes just that, a collaboration between the media, trauma researchers and officials in order to break the vicious cycle of trauma and violence. The media, Ross suggests, can use their tremendous influence to promote peace rather than violence and to heal wounded psyches, communities and nations. By focusing on the interrelatedness of personal and collective healing, the author makes a compelling case for why—and how—media professionals can play an influential role in effecting widespread trauma healing for their viewers and for themselves.

Beyond the Trauma Vortex
Gina Ross
North Atlantic Books, 2003

Research Writings from Peter A. Levine, MD, can be reviewed by clicking Trauma – the Vortex of Violence

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