One of the many ways a person learns to cope with intense trauma or abuse is to dissociate or detach from their immediate environment. For some, this is a natural reaction born out of a survival instinct. For others, it requires effort and practice to shut down their feelings, intentionally ignore surroundings, and completely disengage from the people around them.
In the case of long-term abuse – whether it be physical, emotional, mental, verbal, financial, spiritual, or sexual abuse – the dissociating can reoccur in almost the same way as it would in the case of a post-traumatic stress disorder. This means that reactions happen immediately when triggered by a similar situation, object, or person to the original abuse.
The sudden and unexpected response activates feelings of anxiety, panic, and sometimes paranoia while fear cripples the person into believing that they will never be free from the abuse. Even those who have learned new coping mechanisms, healed from the trauma, and done considerable therapy to recover can still be affected. Despite what some may believe, this does not discount the work previously achieved; rather, it is a manifestation of the reality and intensity of the abuse.
Old abuse brought back to life. Most people don’t realize the full impact of an abusive situation when they are in the middle of it. This is especially true when the abuse occurs while the victim is a child. Children have a unique ability to bury difficult situations, hide from harmful people or environments, and discount or disregard their hurt. As adults, this can create a far more problematic effect because of the tendency life experiences have to build off of each other. A negative experience coupled with too much time evading the original issue built on top of it can result in an almost volcanic emotional response. Adults who hear about or personally witness children experiencing the same level of abuse they did usually react protectively as they simultaneously become aware of the severity of how they were mistreated. This in turn brings the maltreatment to the surface with greater emotional reactions than expected.
Heal from the previous abuse. After realizing the severity of the effect of abuse, this is the ideal time to reach out for help from a professional and heal from the mistreatment that has occurred. Trying once again to bury the event and ignore the feelings will only increase the intensity of reaction and delay the recovery process. Often this response spills out as anger onto those closest to the victim, which can create unnecessary dysfunction in an otherwise functional relationship. Recovery is not as time-consuming as most believe, but it is specific to each event and is necessary to thoroughly heal.
Recall the healing process. Sometimes even after healing has already occurred, a dissociative reaction can be triggered by a new situation or person. Once again, this does not mean the hard work of recovering has been invalidated. Instead, consider this as a time to remind the person that they have already recovered. Have them remember the transformation from victim to victor and the lessons learned about themselves and others by recalling the progression. The simple act of reminding a person where they began and helping them to regain a sense of where they are now creates a more realistic perception of just how much the person has accomplished.
Why feelings seem more intense now. In many cases, a victimized person is so numb after the abuse occurs that at first, they can feel very little. However, when this is compared to a healed person who is more self-aware of their emotional responses, the feelings appear to be more intense than they are. Imagine watching a sporting event from the top of a stadium with no visual enhancement, and then suddenly watching it through binoculars. The binoculars provide a clearer view and everything seems more intense when it is closer. Feelings work in the same manner. It is not always because a person has not healed properly from an event that they are hurting now. Instead, it can be because they are aware of their feelings now that it hurts more than ever.
Proper perspective can restore peace. When a more accurate perspective is brought to light, a person can quickly reduce anxiety and restore peace. It is also beneficial to speak words of encouragement and consistently but gently remind the person that the cycle of abuse can be broken. Being retriggered by an event, object or person does not mean a loss of freedom. Instead, viewing these events as an indication of progress from the reality and intensity of the abuse is therapeutic and strengthens recovery.