Trauma Reenactment Can Run (and Ruin) Our Lives

By Natalia Balasundaram, Trauma Therapist, Promises, Young Adult Program Amy grew up in a household that was dominated by her father’s cocaine addiction. She stayed away from drugs, but she always seemed to find partners with drug problems. A part of her hoped she could save them in a way that she could not save her dad. Brian had a mom with a severe mental illness who needed constant caretaking. As he grew, he dated women who were emotionally frail and who needed to be taken care of. Being with people he could intensively care for was familiar and comfortable. Yolanda’s father hit her when she was a child and her mother called her names like “fat” and “pudgy face.” Both parents dished out enough abuse to help shape Yolanda’s life into one filled with fear of ridicule, shame and low self-esteem. For most of her life she drifted toward partners who abused her physically and verbally. Although Amy, Brian and Yolanda grew up in different circumstances, they shared something that studies show is very common:  Trauma reenactment. It is the often subconscious compulsion to recreate the traumatic circumstances of youth. Because of this undercurrent and need to continue what began in childhood, they select certain opportunities and draw certain kinds of people to them ― as adolescents and into adulthood ― who set the stage to reenact the kinds of behaviors and experiences of childhood.

Three Things You Need to Know

People who experience trauma may have a wide range of symptoms and experiences related to their childhoods. Trauma reenactment can manifest in different ways in different individuals until they become aware of the patterns they are recreating. It’s a chronic condition.  People with trauma may suffer from PTSD or live in a constant state of anxiety. Having experiences that recreate the original trauma can be terrifying or exhilarating. They may literally “get high” from the drama. It’s often driven by the subconscious. Some people go from one life experience to another based on the original trauma and never know what causes their behavior. They constantly find themselves in similar situations, with the same kinds of people. This could include always surrounding themselves with people similar to their family of origin ― the names change but the types of people do not ― or constantly getting involved in high-risk activities. Even if aware, they may try to suppress it. Some people realize they are constantly choosing unhealthy friends and partners, and getting involved in negative experiences. Unable to cope, they try to drown out the feelings in substances and process addictions such as overeating, sex, gambling, shopping and other experiences that activate adrenaline and excitement.

Seeking High-Risk Behaviors

Trauma impacts the parasympathetic nervous system and can keep people in a state of hypervigilance or flight, fight, or freeze. Trauma reenactment can perpetuate the physical experience of trauma, which is an underlying driving force of thrill-seeking and risky behaviors. For example, if someone has kleptomania, they will go out and steal or seek out high-risk activities because of the high that it releases.  Someone with childhood sexual abuse trauma may find themselves in the grips of a sex and love addiction, domestic abuse or in a consistent pattern of self-harm. Other trauma reenactment might lead people to seek out heightened feeling states that closely resemble those habits common to people we might think of as “adrenaline junkies.”  This may not be the precise activity that caused their childhood trauma, but it is somewhat familiar and provides an “extreme” experience. It escalates over time, with the need to have even more extreme experiences in order to feel anything. The nervous system becomes so used to being high on adrenaline that it is hard to bring it down. So they’ll go out and seek even more advanced, high-risk activities. Some will turn to substances for this extreme and, because of the need for the state of physical arousal, addiction can be the end result.

Trauma Reenactment Is Not Always a Bad Thing

In recovery, the first thing to do, always, is to identify the problem. When people begin to see the trauma that has driven the recreation of certain patterns and experiences, they can begin to heal. Trauma reenactment can also be used consciously as a way to reset the internal experience of trauma that drives the external behaviors. Some people relive their worst trauma and go back to the scene of the trauma as a way to heal themselves. For example, Kara witnessed the shooting death of a friend when she was young and for years she suppressed her grief and pain with high-risk sexual activities like one-night stands and maxing out her credit cards with comfort purchases and food. She avoided the scene of the crime for many years, sometimes driving by and wanting to stop but going to a bar instead of spending a moment at the scene expressing her grief. While in recovery for sex and spending addictions, she was able to return to the place where her friend was shot with a supportive person by her side and allow herself to mourn as she remembered that awful, traumatic moment that set her on a path of self-destruction.  There was still an old bloodstain on the concrete in front of the store where the shooting occurred. She was able to leave a rose where the body had been. Instead of heading to a bar for a drink and a pick-up, she went home and allowed herself to cry.  It was a huge step toward healthy recovery.

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