“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
In a study done in West Germany on concentration camp survivors, it was found that each of the subjects, in a sense, still live in the concentration camp. 1
The same is true for survivors of child sexual abuse, who have not yet dealt with their subconscious mind.
Any stress, or feelings of being threatened or unsafe, can cause trauma survivors to return to earlier patterns of behavior that were utilized during the abuse. During this state of “high arousal,” the survivor will do what they know, which is rooted in the instinct used while they were still a child. They will demonstrate defensive strategies –even if it didn’t work the first time. 2
This is why adult survivors of trauma are commonly hyper-vigilant and why they handle their feelings of being out of control by acquiring obsessions or phobias. This allows them to remain continuously ready for real or imagined, but no longer present, dangers. 3
This behavior is observed in the form of obsessive compulsive behavior and PTSD symptoms. It can also be found in survivors who regress to a child-like state when memories first begin to come back to them. 4
Before the actual abuse memories return, the person will have no idea that childhood damage is dictating the way they are handling stress. They usually have no conscious understanding of why they are excessively fearful.
The memories have been pushed into the subconscious mind, but the memory is still present in daily life. The memories are coming out in behaviors, unwarranted fears, emotions, and physical problems.
Powerful experiences, like child sexual abuse, which are omitted from consciousness, are preserved as “unconscious fixed ideas” and will not be blended into the person’s normal consciousness until the abuse is remembered, comprehended, and overpowered at the subconscious level.
When abuse is not dealt with, the emotions and the original traumatic incident—still repressed—will affect one’s life with obsessive preoccupations, anxiety inflictions, and frightening concepts. 5
When an event or experience takes place in the adult life of a person who was traumatized as a child, the brain matches it against events which are already stored in the unconscious mind. If it is connected to a recorded danger from the past, an “alarm response” is triggered. This is the exact mechanism that kicks in when a person suddenly experiences over-reactive fear, an anxiety attack, a flashback, or when somatic symptoms arise. 6
This reaction of alarm explains why certain people trigger anger, fear, or anxiety in a survivor but other people do not. As long as a previous victim of child sexual abuse does not allow the past to come forward with helpful psychoanalysis, they will continue to subconsciously seek out people who bring up their unresolved guilt, pain, or fear.
The subconscious mind wants to be healed. Until then, misdirected anger and fear will be aimed at spouses, children, the teller at the bank, and even strangers. Anyone can become the enemy. It is often safe for the survivor to become aggressive towards, or verbally attack, people who did not abuse them as a child. It’s not okay to do, and unhealthy, but the survivor often feels safe releasing their emotions onto those who did not abuse them as children.
During the abuse, it wasn’t safe for the child to defend his or herself, or to confront their perpetrator, so when the victim becomes an adult, they subconsciously attack innocent people. The rage is often taken out on spouses because survivors frequently marry a partner who characterizes their abuser.
Nevertheless, even if an abuse survivor leaves their marriage, walks away from a friendship, or leaves their job in an attempt to run away from someone who triggers them, they will invariably wind up in a new marriage or get a new employer, only to find that they have established a relationship with a person who again triggers what has been left unresolved in the unconscious realm.
The subconscious mind forces people to re-experience the suffering in order to get help. When fear, anxiety, depression, physical symptoms, rage, and PTSD symptoms persist inside an abuse survivor, it is their past saying “Hey, I’m still here, deal with me!”
1. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Psychiatric Disorders among Persecution Victims: A Contribution to the Understanding of Concentration Camp Pathology and its After-Effects, William G. Niederland, M.D. Vol 139, 1964, page 469
2. The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989
3. Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press page 244
4. The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411,June 1989
5. Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Bessel A. van der Kolk & Rita Fisler HRI Trauma Center 227 Babcock Street Brookline, MA 02146 and Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry
6. Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Child Trauma Academy http://www.ChildTrauma.org Academy version of a chapter originally appearing in “Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma” (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Basic Books (1999)