When words fail, haunting images capture the experience and return as nightmares and flashbacks

Posted by

All trauma is preverbal. Shakespeare captures this state of speechless terror in Macbeth, after the murdered king’s body is discovered: “Oh horror! horror! horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee! Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!” Under extreme conditions people may scream obscenities, call for their mothers, howl in terror, or simply shut down. Victims of assaults and accidents sit mute and frozen in emergency rooms; traumatized children “lose their tongues” and refuse to speak. Photographs of combat soldiers show hollow-eyed men staring mutely into a void.

Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. Their bodies reexperience terror, rage, and helplessness, as well as the impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are almost impossible to articulate. Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.
This doesn’t mean that people can’t talk about a tragedy that has befallen them. Sooner or later most survivors, like the veterans in chapter 1, come up with what many of them call their “cover story” that offers some explanation for their symptoms and behavior for public consumption. These stories, however, rarely capture the inner truth of the experience. It is enormously difficult to organize one’s traumatic experiences into a coherent account—a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even a seasoned reporter like the famed CBS correspondent Ed Murrow struggled to convey the atrocities he saw when the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald was liberated in 1945: “I pray you believe what I have said. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.”

When something reminds traumatized people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing and reenacting the past—they are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it. They behaved the way they did way because you were ten minutes late, or because you burned the potatoes, or because you “never listen to me.” Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness, and, over time, our research demonstrated why. (Pg.43)


What had happened to Marsha in the scanner gradually started to make sense. Thirteen years after her tragedy we had activated the sensations—the sounds and images from the accident—that were still stored in her memory. When these sensations came to the surface, they activated her alarm system, which caused her to react as if she were back in the hospital being told that her daughter had died. The passage of thirteen years was erased. Her sharply increased heart rate and blood pressure readings reflected her physiological state of frantic alarm.

Adrenaline is one of the hormones that are critical to help us fight back or flee in the face of danger. Increased adrenaline was responsible for our participants’ dramatic rise in heart rate and blood pressure while listening to their trauma narrative. Under normal conditions people react to a threat with a temporary increase in their stress hormones. As soon as the threat is over, the hormones dissipate and the body returns to normal. The stress hormones of traumatized people, in contrast, take much longer to return to baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli. The insidious effects of constantly elevated stress hormones include memory and attention problems, irritability, and sleep disorders. They also contribute to many long-term health issues, depending on which body system is most vulnerable in a particular individual. (Pg.47)

For a hundred years or more, every textbook of psychology and psychotherapy has advised that some method of talking about distressing feelings can resolve them. However, as we’ve seen, the experience of trauma itself gets in the way of being able to do that. No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality. I am continually impressed by how difficult it is for people who have gone through the unspeakable to convey the essence of their experience. It is so much easier for them to talk about what has been done to them—to tell a story of victimization and revenge—than to notice, feel, and put into words the reality of their internal experience. (Pg.48)

Trauma constantly confronts us with our fragility and with man’s inhumanity to man but also with our extraordinary resilience. (Pg 356)

E&P by EZorrilla.


    1. Thank you for your comments. I believe healing takes several approaches given the concept of dual diagnosis. My mother was a medical doctor, but she still preferred acupuncture before medications. However, she didn’t deny the effectiveness of antibiotics. I believe in physical therapy like yoga, where one takes a posture and possibly internalizes it, talk, and medications. We are quite a combination. Cheers and have a great day!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s