Betrayal trauma, a form of traumatic experience that is interpersonal or relational in nature, occurs when someone violates us in such a way that it damages the trust, safety and security of the bond(s) that existed. Interestingly, many women across the nation are experiencing a sense of betrayal upon hearing the news about the former host of the CBC radio show, “Q”, Jian Ghomeshi, even though they only knew him indirectly through his capacity as a radio personality. Ghomeshi is alleged to have physically abused and sexually assaulted several women. Why is it that these women are having this reaction despite not knowing Ghomeshi directly?
In my counselling practice in Victoria, BC alone several women have expressed a sense of feeling vicariously traumatized in the wake of the Ghomeshi story breaking. As these clients and I look beneath the surface of these feelings a bit, we discover that it is because they have been betrayed directly by significant men in their own lives and have never thoroughly resolved these betrayal traumas. These traumas from their pasts have remained in a sense awake in them such that they are reactivated upon hearing news about how others were allegedly abused by Ghomeshi.
How is it that past traumas remain in us to be activated by present day reminders (such as the Ghomeshi story)? In very simple terms, the parts of the brain that organize and “file away” memories can become temporarily disabled when we experience a traumatic event. Although these memories remain unorganized and “unfiled”, they are nonetheless highly potent and likely to become activated by reminders in the present of experiences related to the particulars of the traumatic past. When activated, these memories invoke a sense of reliving rather then of recalling the experience. In other words, a person’s mind and body relives the sensations and emotions associated with the original trauma.
Which types of experiences tend to become traumatizing in the sense described above? It is generally thought that an experience has the potential to be traumatizing in this way when it is perceived as extremely threatening and overwhelms one’s capacity to cope. Thus, the main elements of potentially traumatic experiences are the perception of intense threat coupled with the an inability to effectively deal with that threat. It is easy to see how this could include the potentially overwhelming feelings of being betrayed by someone on whom we rely for our well-being such as a parent (or other family member), a partner, or even a person in a position of authority.
In addition to the adversity associated with chronically reliving traumatic experiences, there are also longer term effects associated with unresolved trauma which can be devastating. Unresolved trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction, poor decision-making, physical pain, disease, trauma repetition and other adverse effects.
It is possible, however, to free ourselves of the debilitating symptoms of unresolved trauma. The next post in this series will discuss how to work through unresolved traumatic experiences so that they become “resolved”.