Explaining Trauma Response
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
I'd like you to imagine for a moment an annoying commercial, one with a jingle that drives you batty, one that when it comes on you quickly change the channel, but by then it's too late, and that song is repeated over and over in your thoughts. Can you think of one?
Ok, so, now that the annoying jingle is playing in your thoughts (sorry about that by the way), I'd be willing to bet that it's difficult to make it stop. You probably need to distract yourself with something else, or turn on a song you love to replace that frustrating annoyance. Your brain has been trained to remember that jingle, it is a trigger. What is an annoyance to you, to a victim of emotional and psychological abuse, a trigger from their abuser can completely disrupt their life.
In moments of distress our brains become hyper-aware. Chemicals are released to not only protect us in the moment, but to also create a memory so that we will avoid a similar situation in the future. Our brain doesn't recognize the difference between a physical threat and an emotional threat. A threat is a threat period. That is why it is easier to focus on and remember the hurtful things someone says.
In the beginning of a relationship with a toxic person, they are friendly, thoughtful, and charismatic. They ask questions and listen intently. They pay attention to the little things, things that make you feel noticed. They compliment you, and make you feel on top of the world. They give extravagant gifts. They are attentive and seem to understand you in a way no one ever has. There seems to be an instant connection with them. They like the same things as you. They show concern and sadness for anything painful you reveal to them, so you then feel safe enough to be vulnerable and tell them more. (This is love bombing) They seem like your soul mate! You fall for them hard and fast. You feel blissfully lucky and in love!
Then, something changes. It shocks you, and scares you. You wonder what you could have done wrong to cause this amazing person who clearly loves you, to change? You're devastated, you don't know what happened, and you desperately try to figure out how to get back what you had with them when you first met. When they tell you what's wrong with you, you believe them and try to change to please this wonderful person who holds your heart.
When learning, memorization comes from repeated action. Instinctively, an abusive person knows this and will repeat phrases or actions that cause a reaction in their target. They 'study' a victim down to the smallest detail...change in breathing, body language, facial expressions, and any negative reaction will be used to get what they want. Do not be fooled, this is intentional, they have learned how to hurt you, how to get you to do what they want just like a skilled interrogator would.
A victim is slowly and methodically trained. A victim studies their abuser as well, usually subconsciously so they can avoid undesirable reactions. That is where abuser and victim differ; the abuser gets a high off of conflict and will intentionally bait their victim so they can then blame the victim for being, "irrational, over reactive, sensitive, depressed, paranoid," or even, "crazy." A victim becomes controllable to avoid conflict. If this hits home for you as a victim, I want you to know, avoiding conflict does not make you weak! It makes you a survivor!
Once in a while your rational mind will tell you this isn't ok, something is very wrong, and you may try to end things, or you may become distant with this toxic person. That's when they swoop in, setting a trap with love bombing round two. You feel a sense of relief, and believe things are getting back to normal and when they are happy, you are happy.
Things are never as wonderful as they were in the beginning. And popular opinion will tell you, "Relationships are hard." So, you justify and work even harder to make things work. You doubt your sanity because you believe, everyone loves this person, and if they are so wonderful, it must be your fault that things are so hard. I can tell you from personal experience, "they" do not know what things are like behind closed doors, and if they did, they would tell you something is very wrong!
Once we break free from our abuser, we still have weeds to pull. The longer we were with them, or the more often we were devalued, the deeper the roots grew.
Add to that, not every moment was bad, some moments made us feel special, loved and hopeful things would get better. The blessed ones are able to recognize things are not going to change, and in order to stop the abuse, we leave.
But, once we are out from under the constant oppression, that little jingle surfaces at the smallest prompting. If we have to remain in contact with our abuser, even a typed message or a side glance will re-establish the negativity that was used to control us.
To the outside world what the abuser says or does doesn't seem that bad, if at all. To their victim, one look, one message, a few words can be like the opening of a dam and all the past devaluation comes rushing and crashing over us; it knocks us down again.
Just as there are cycles of abuse, so also are there cycles of recovery from this type of abuse. I have felt misunderstood when I didn't have answers to questions like,
If it was so bad why didn't you leave?"
"If you didn't trust him, why did you marry him?"
"How could you have stayed for so long?"
"I would have put him in his place, I never would have put up with that!"
-Comments like those are victim shaming from people who are either making excuses for their own lives, or have zero understanding.
After knowing my marriage could not be saved then figuring out and studying this type of abuse, something in me changed. I have been angry and confused by my own actions, doing things completely out of character and even down right reckless at times.
I have felt so alone, so broken, so damaged that I've begged God to just take my life, that it's too much, that I'm not strong enough, that I don't know what to do anymore or how to change to be who I believe He wanted me to be. (That memory still makes me cry)
I've made so many mistakes. I still have some wounds that haven't even scabbed over yet. This type of abuse kills a persons spirit and I believe the only way to escape is with God's love leading the way. I will share anything God lays on my heart to share with you. I will not hide because I want you to know more than anything that you are not alone! You are a survivor! Your are a beautiful soul who's light just needs a chance to shine!