Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Trauma Challenges Basic Beliefs

October 11, 2004

Hurricanes have repeatedly battered and traumatized residents of Florida this fall. What are they going through? How can they cope? What can they hope for?

Traumatized people experience overwhelming anxiety and fear. Their basic beliefs about the world are undermined. Sometimes this results in a dramatic change in personality.

A trauma victim often experiences a combination of the following symptoms:

- confusion, disorganization, impairment of memory and concentration,

- hyperalertness and elevated arousal,

- inhibitory and avoidance reactions to reduce anxiety,

- negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness and guilt,

- low self-esteem,

- withdrawal and/or antagonism toward people,

- inability to establish intimate relationships.

In his book, "You Are Smarter Than You Think," psychologist Seymour Epstein of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst explores positive and negative changes in basic beliefs that follow a traumatic event.

Epstein believes that people make interpretations of the world that are emotionally useful for them. A "good" theory of reality makes life livable. They can become happy and fulfilled under the perceived circumstances.

Epstein's theory of personality suggests four basic needs that guide people's personal theories of reality. He believes that each of these needs balances each other so that life doesn't get too one-sided.

1. The need to maximize happiness and minimize pain.

2. The need to understand reality and to cope effectively with it.

3. The need to relate to others.

4. The need for self-esteem.

The degree to which we see the world as harmful or beneficial helps us assess our chances for happiness. To measure our understanding of reality, we assess the degree to which the world is meaningful, predictable, controllable and just. How we judge relationships depends how we see others as sources of support and affection. How we think about ourselves is determined by how we view ourselves as worthy, competent, moral and loveable.

A traumatic event undermines beliefs. A traumatic experience has the potential for invalidating a person's basic beliefs about the goodness of the world, the comprehensibility and controlling of the world, the goodness of people and the worthiness of self.

Following a major trauma, life can be viewed as meaningless, the world as malevolent and capricious, the self as weak or guilty and other people as untrustworthy or dangerous. New experiences are distorted by the trauma.

Self-protection. What is emotionally useful about keeping such a punishing view of reality? It is insurance against being traumatized again.

According to Epstein, "By being sufficiently guarded, hostile, and rejecting, the person ensures that he or she will never again be vulnerable in the manner he or she was when overwhelmed by the traumatic experience." Trauma victims pay a price in current misery as insurance against the occurrence of future traumas.

Beliefs trigger negative emotions. Particular beliefs trigger emotional responses that in turn have typical coping styles and symptoms.

- Beliefs associated with fear: the world is dangerous, the self is weak and vulnerable. Others are dangerous and not helpful. The way to cope is through vigilance and escape. The symptoms would include a hyperalertness to danger, chronic anxiety, sensitivity to trauma related cues and psychosomatic symptoms.

- Beliefs associated with anger: the world is malevolent, the self has been mistreated, exploited, deceived or betrayed. Others are unjust and untrustworthy. The way to cope is to be strong, defend the self and attack one's enemies. Symptoms are suspiciousness and acting out.

- Beliefs associated with sadness: the world is dangerous, impersonal, and uncontrollable. The self is unworthy, unlovable yet self-sufficient. Relationships with others are dangerous. The ways to cope are to reject others and rely on one's own resources. Symptoms include withdrawal, alienation and incapacity for intimacy.

Finding meaning in trauma. The challenge to a trauma victim is to develop a new belief system that can assimilate the traumatic experience. Traumatic experiences bring reduced security, a sensitivity to trauma-related cues and an increased awareness of the existential problems of life. Trauma challenges people to come to terms with injustice, evil, suffering, death, ugliness, blame, selfishness and loneliness, yet still affirm life, love, goodness, beauty, trust, confidence and meaning.

A positive resolution of trauma would include beliefs that one can find meaning and pleasure in life, that the world is predictable and controllable, that the self is worthy and competent, and that others are a trustworthy source of support and affection.

Trauma produces growth. In a study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychologist Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues investigated the kinds of personal changes that occur in people challenged by traumatic events. They were compared to the changes in people who experience positive life events.

Those who had been through a major trauma experienced more positive change in their lives than those who had a major success or achievement. The courageous assimilation of a traumatic experience serves not only to help resolve the loss through greater depth of meaning, but helps create an openness and flexibility that wasn’t there before.

Trauma survivors experience an increase in their sense of humor, become more self-reliant, have more appreciation of things they previously took for granted and develop a greater ability to understand others. They have greater personal strength and wisdom to deal with future difficulties. Bitter and crushing traumatic experiences often bring in the germs of new and quite unimagined happiness.