The Subconscious Mind Never Forgets
As reported in the article, Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events, when a person who was sexually abused in childhood encounters an event, person, or experience, their mind (which is like a biological computer) matches it against events and experiences already stored in their subconscious mind. The subconscious mind then connects the experience, or person, to a recorded danger from the past.
This is when an “alarm response” is triggered in the mind and body of the adult survivor of trauma and abuse. This is the mental mechanism that is triggered when a person suddenly experiences a panic or anxiety attack, body memories, flashbacks, unknown fear, sudden sadness, anger, or anything associated with fear/emotional trauma/or the fight or flight defense. (This is also the same scenario for when memories can return).
There is a good example of this in a case I previously wrote about a year ago. The case shows how a child, or an adult, can recall sexual abuse physically, mentally, or emotionally…but not consciously.
The case involved an eight year-old boy who had a severe reaction to hot dogs. He would not eat hot dogs until his was cut in half by an adult. The boy shouted and became frantic for adults to cut his hot dogs. He would also only eat bananas that were cut in half, and he would take Popsicles off their sticks and eat them with a spoon.
When the child was asked why he did this, he responded that otherwise he would get scared or angry, and that he just had to do it, but was unsure why.
This young boy had been forced by his father from birth to perform oral sex on him, and later on, to do it for many other men, until the boy reached age six.
The child’s subconscious mind was associating these penis shaped objects with the trauma he once suffered.
Another example is from my own personal experience.
Prior to any recall of incest, I experienced a strange reaction to driving by the fast-food restaurants “Jack in the Box.” Every time I drove by one of these restaurants, I would get rapid heart rate, and or, chest pain.
This went on for nearly a year, until I remembered the incest, and until I began to face and heal the once-repressed memories of my father sticking his penis in my mouth (sorry, I know that’s hard and triggering for some of you to read).
The old Jack in the Box restaurants used to have the image of a Jack popping out of the box. Even though those images were removed, the mere name of the restaurant presents the image in the mind of a Jack popping out of a box.
If you have not figured it out by now, the Jack popping out of the box triggered (in my subconscious mind) the memory of my father’s erect penis popping out of his pants just before he put it in my mouth. Yes, this is hard to read. But it is true, it can help someone, and it explains how the subconscious mind works in relation to childhood sexual abuse and every day life.
The researcher in the case with the little boy and the hot dogs wrote:
“With each meal, some small part of T. [the boy] relives the abuse of his early childhood, some set of deeply burned-in state memories are accessed. These rarely, if ever, come to his awareness as a ‘cognitive’ memory — he will likely never be able to have the insight to make the association between his eating habits and his early abuse. Each meal scratches at the slowly healing scars of his childhood.”
An excellent example of how victims begin to dissociate the trauma and pain shortly after the traumatic experiences take place, is described by the case of a five year old girl who saw her father fatally shoot her mother and then commit suicide.
Five weeks later, she was asked by a mental health professional, what the worst thing was that had ever happened to her.
In that moment the child “had a marked alteration in her facial expression, stopped playing, moved her face and head away from the interviewer and stared into space. After a long moment, she stated, “I wanted to stay up late last weekend and have pizza, but I had to go to bed.”
After that, the interview consisted of the girl giving only single word responses.
Obviously the question evoked the trauma within her, but she dissociated from it by thinking instead about the pizza weekend.
Physical Illness and Disease in Relation To Trauma
If you suffer from cfids, like I once did, you know how exercise can bring on heavy physical symptoms that are associated with the disease.
For some people, some of those symptoms are also related to having been severely sexually abused in childhood. For me, some of my cfids symptoms, like extreme fatigue and headaches, were connected to feeling as a child, “what’s the use?” and for being punished by my mother as a child for having been with my father.
An interesting case of body memories is illustrated by an eighteen year old female who was brutally raped.
Before she was raped, she had exercised frequently and enjoyed it. About a year after the rape, the young woman was not able to run and exercise any longer. When she began to feel good again she would return to exercising and immediately have anxiety attacks, feel depressed, and have intrusive thoughts about the rape.
Exercise brought on an increase in heart rate which probably signaled to her brain that she was being attacked all over again. The rapid heart rate was telling her mind that she was in trouble again. It was another form of brain association. Once she made the connection, she was able to disconnect from the increased heart rate and therefore, stopped associating it with rape.
When I was desperately sick with cfids, any exercise (even just walking) often brought on chest pains, a debilitating fatigue, heart flutters, or other psycho-somatic symptoms.
Skeptics might think that because of this, and because of the Jack in the Box incidents, that I had a heart problem. Quite the contrary. Three medical doctors, including one of the top cardiologists in my state examined me numerous times, and I had several heart stress tests, only to discover I was “one of the healthiest patients” they had ever seen, and had a good heart.
Source Notes: 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 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)