Sandra bloom writes that the realisation that humans tend to repeat traumatic experience has led to the fear that our society is suffering post-traumatic deterioration that could lead to self-destruction as it can do with individuals who remained locked into traumatic patterns. Trauma is not rare or unusual, but normative in modern societies. Trauma can become the central organising principle in a person’s life and likewise in a society and humanity generally. Without this understanding we will not attempt to create the changes we need, argues Bloom.
It was Freud who first drew attention to the repetition compulsion – the human tendency to repeat the past. In the aftermath of traumatic experience, people unconsciously repeat the past through their actions. The trauma response determines these repetitive behaviours in what is called ‘traumatic re-enactment’. The memories of trauma are dissociated, nonverbal and unintegrated. This need to repeat is a compulsion – an urge that is impossible to resist even if consciously the person knows it is wrong. This is the dissociated contents that are ‘pressing’ to be expressed. When it is possible to see it coming it is possible to stop acting and starting thinking about, feeling and integrating the split off material. This happens through psychotherapy. We are designed to function at optimal integration and so any barrier to integration will create a compensatory mechanism to overcome it. Splitting traumatic memories saves us in the short-term but these experiences must be integrated in the long-term. Janet and Freud argued that what causes trauma to be repeated is that is resides as mute, unsymbolised and unintegrated experience. For these affects to become conscious, they have to be put into words. Re-enactment behaviour is repetitive and ritualised and not seen for what it is – a communication to the social group.