Trauma and Recovery | Judith Lewis Herman

Summary of: Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
By: Judith Lewis Herman


Trauma and Recovery highlights the ways in which political and social environments affect the study, understanding, and treatment of psychological trauma. Judith Lewis Herman explores the history of psychological trauma studies, from hysteria in the late 19th century to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after World War II and Vietnam War, to the recognition of sexual and domestic violence. The book delves into the nature of trauma, the symptoms and consequences on an individual’s psychology, and the impact of connections with others during the recovery process. It further discusses the strategies used by abusers and the unique challenges faced by survivors of repeated abuse.

The Study of Psychological Trauma

The study of psychological trauma has been both supported and impeded by the political environment. Jean-Martin Charcot led the first serious studies of hysteria in the late 19th century but did not consider a patient’s thoughts or feelings or search for a cure. Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud followed and found that psychological trauma caused hysteria. Freud postulated that child abuse was the root cause. Soldiers’ reactions to the horrors of war led to more attention being paid to the condition, and advances in the study of psychological trauma continued after WWII and the Vietnam War. The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s led to a focus on studying rape, sexual, and domestic violence and their associated traumas.

Effects of Trauma on Personality

Humans have natural responses to danger, which triggers feelings of fear and anger, with the ability to either confront or flee. However, traumatic events can render a person helpless, leading to intense and lasting changes in their psychology, cognition, and memory. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arises when trauma damages a person’s self-protection system. The symptoms can fall into three primary categories: “Hyperarousal,” “Intrusion,” and “Constriction.” Traumatized individuals experience persistent expectations of danger, feel as though the traumatic event froze them in time, and may go into a state of altered consciousness, exhibiting numb emotions and a perceived indifference and passivity.

Coping with Psychological Trauma

The impact of trauma on victims is profound and far-reaching, leading to a loss of faith, guilt, anger, and alienation. In “Psychological Trauma,” the author points out that trauma victims need positive connections to help restore their sense of self, while criticism and judgment can worsen their symptoms. Recovery is a long and challenging process that requires understanding, empathy, and acceptance from family, friends, and the community. Through studying psychological trauma, we confront the fragility of human nature and the capacity for both good and evil.

Understanding the Captive Abuse Syndrome

Repeated abuse instills fear, creates dependency, and destroys autonomy of victims, making them captives. Such trauma leads to an intensified form of posttraumatic stress disorder, known as complex posttraumatic stress disorder.

Captive Abuse Syndrome is a form of trauma that results from repeated abuse within a relationship, including captives in prisons, war camps, brothels, and domestic situations. Perpetrators follow a specific pattern of behavior, including instilling fear with threats, unpredictable behavior, or violence, and creating dependency by intermittently showing love or providing rewards. Victims are isolated and lose connections to the outside world, leading to a loss of autonomy. Ultimately, they may be forced to participate in atrocities that violate their moral codes. Even when they escape, the trauma may last a lifetime and can intensify symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, eventually leading to complex posttraumatic stress disorder.

Complex posttraumatic stress disorder is a progressive form of PTSD that is harder to overcome, and its symptoms can be intensified. Understanding the Captive Abuse Syndrome is critical to recognize and treat patients who have suffered prolonged abuse. Practitioners can use this knowledge to help victims recover from the profound psychological impact of their experiences.

Effects of Child Abuse

Children who suffer abuse are forced to adapt to unbearable situations and rely on their abusers for survival, hindering normal development. Survivors of abuse have coping mechanisms such as dissociative defenses, fragmented identities, and pathological regulation of emotions. Accepting the reality of abuse can make survivors feel crazy and lead to long-term PTSD symptoms, such as trust, independence, and relationship issues. While only a small percentage become abusers themselves, survivors are more vulnerable to victimization as adults.

Revitalizing Traumatized Victims

Traumatized victims can regain their lost identities by reconnecting with others, leading to successful recovery. Recovery involves the establishment of safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection with ordinary life. Survivors must take charge of their recovery, and therapeutic interventions must be supportive, empathetic, and validating. The therapist must emphasize truth-telling, establish trust, define boundaries, and maintain neutrality. Empowerment and reconnection are the core experiences of recovery, compared to helplessness and isolation, the core experiences of psychological trauma.

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