Letter to Editor: The New York Times

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Re:  Private Trauma Sheds Light on Terrorism (6/29/2010)

The following is a copy of a letter sent to The New York Times in response to an interview with Jessica Stern, an expert on terrorists and terrorism, on the occasion of the publication of her own story, Denial:  A Memoir of Terror:

As a psychotherapist working for many years with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I recognized immediately the phenomenon alluded to by Jessica Stern in the June 29, 2010 article by Charles McGrath, Private Trauma Sheds Light on Terrorism.

She describes a state of disconnection from her feelings, where she goes “into a calm,” elaborating on it later with, “I mean just lose feeling…like being in a fog.”

That experience has a name:  dissociation.  It’s a common reaction to overwhelming, life-threatening events.  Although Ms. Stern recognized it as “…a chemical change in my body,” she was reluctant to “…medicalize it too much.”  But everything that happens in our bodies happens first in our brains.

To maintain equilibrium, the brain produces both excitatory and inhibitory chemicals.  States of high arousal, like terror, trigger reactions that prepare the body for action.  When the threat passes, equilibrium is reestablished and the body goes back to a neutral state.

Most people are familiar with the flight or fight categories of response.  Fewer are aware that there is a third, freeze, that occurs when neither of the first two is possible or either could exacerbate the danger.  In the frozen state, the brain releases chemicals that shut down activity, produce a disconnection from the body and alter perception of the external world, conserving resources and seeking protective invisibility.

Ms. Stern could expect to react similarly when faced with any situation reminiscent of the original trauma, a defining symptom of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  Revisiting her history to write her book would certainly elicit her original feelings and concomitant coping strategies.

The brain always seeks to protect the self from intolerable feelings.  In her research into the motivations for violence, Ms. Stern discovered that a history of sexual humiliation played an important role.  In my work with sexual abuse survivors, I have witnessed feelings of humiliation instantly morph into what my clients have called defensive rage, a state far more tolerable because of its power than that of their unbearable shame.

In another recent article about her new book, Ms. Stern observed that shame could be sexually transmitted.  I would like to thank her for the perfect description of what happens to victims of sexual violence.