Traumatic experience is by definition experience which we have not been able to think about in a normal way because it is too disturbing to us. We find ways to push these experiences far away not only from our conscious minds but also far from our unconscious minds because the information about the trauma is not stored in the normal way unconscious thoughts are usually stored. Normally unconscious thoughts are stored as symbolic impressions which can easily be retrieved and thought about when needed. Traumatic experiences are not stored as coherent symbols, but as scrambled bits of experiences which are meant to be very difficult to decode.
It is something like the mind’s version of the encryption of internet data. When experience has become too disturbing, overwhelming and threatens the mind’s own stability, somewhere a decision is made to encrypt the information so it cannot be easy to retrieve and can be safely kept from threatening the functioning of the mind. Many different types of experiences can create this type of threatening condition.
For children, an unstable and troubled family environment can easily overwhelm their capacity to cope effectively. Physical and sexual abuse are often sources of traumatic experience which can be very difficult to get help with because of the sensitive nature of the injury and the fears which surround their re-experience. Psychoanalytic work is uniquely suited to help with these early problems due to the emphasis on developing a strong working relationship with the clinician. It is often through the shared work of decoding early experience that traumatized individuals can come to integrate their painful early experiences and move past the fear which has been reinforced because of their own emotional isolation.
Other difficult problems of childhood, whether it is the early loss of a parent, the emotional breakdown of a parent, the chaos and threat of growing up in an alcoholic family, or the frightening experience of a contentious and or painful divorce can all lead to traumatic experiences which silently affect your adult life without your ability to change them. In all of these cases, psychoanalytic work can be very effective in ways other treatments cannot because of the focus on a relational sharing and understanding which can open this level of hurt to healing in ways which were not possible in other types of relationships.
Trauma which happens as adults can also be very debilitating and difficult to treat. Many of my patients over the years have had physical and emotional injuries as adults which have had a similar impact as childhood trauma. This often is the case because very disturbing experience as an adult can evoke the same types of fears and instability that disturbing early experiences can. This can happen because some early disturbed experience which were otherwise managed in an effective way until some experience as an adult undid this otherwise adequate coping. Looking at the experience of adult trauma from the standpoint of one’s whole life is often a very important therapeutic experience which can help address disturbing adult experiences which have been difficult to treat.