Triggering Cascade, Trauma Imprinting, and Total Reactance

Uploaded 12/3/2019, approx. 10 minute read

Recently, I have been traumatized by a stream of requests to renew the long-lamented introduction to my videos.

People said they missed the introduction. It was my brand and my ballpark.

So, by popular acclaim and demand, here goes.

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

You didn't know how much you missed it.

Today, we are going to discuss new concepts in trauma and post-trauma, starting with the concept of triggering cascade.

A triggering cascade is when a seemingly minor trigger results in vastly disproportionate trauma.

You see, painful memories, replete with the attendant negative emotions, are walled behind mental barriers. They are isolated. They are fenced off.

These are combinations of mental dams and psychological firewalls intended to kind of sequester pain, hurt and negativity so that they don't affect our daily lives.

But sometimes even an innocuous mishap or a merely unpleasant event rupture these defenses, destroy the dams, disable the firewalls, and then decades of hurt, years of pain are released in an avalanche that at times can be life-threatening.

Narcissists and psychopaths are dream-breakers. They are particularly adept at provoking triggering cascades by aggressively and contemptuously frustrating both individual and social expectations. They negate, vitiate, and attack cherished and life-sustaining hopes. Narcissists and psychopaths destroy deeply held beliefs and ingrained fantasies and values.

And it is the lack of empathy of narcissists and psychopaths, their innate goal-focused cruelty and ruthlessness, their absent impulse control and mind-boggling recklessness, all these create a whiplash of shock and disorientation in people around them.

And this shock and disorientation are coupled with agony, for lack of a better word, a pervasive feeling of being existentially negated.

Intolerable angst, extreme anxiety are the inevitable outcomes of long-term friction with narcissists and psychopaths in relationships or otherwise.

Narcissists and psychopaths are characterized by total reactance, but it also characterizes people with borderline personality disorder and, surprisingly, trauma victims, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, people with mood disorders, people with impulse control issues, all these people have what we call total reactance.

What is total reactance?

Total reactance is when the person escalates every conflict, however minor, however imaginary, to the level of nuclear, apocalyptic, cataclysmic, all annihilating warfare. These people, and that includes trauma victims, make disproportionate use of every weapon in their arsenal simultaneously.

Defiance, posturing, hostility, aggression, recklessness, and abuse are part and parcel of these recurrent pitch battles with one and sundry. All bridges are burned, all relationships are shattered hurtfully and irrevocably.

At first, when we started the study of personality disorders, especially Cluster B personality disorder, in clinical settings in the 70s, we thought the total reactance, this kind of nuclear explosion or explosive rage or explosive defiance, we thought that this is typical only of psychopaths. Then we learned about narcissists, then we learned about borderlines.

And lastly, in the last few years, we realized that trauma victims, people who have been exposed to traumas, long-term traumas, repeated recurrent traumas, which create CPTSD, or single event traumas, natural disaster, a terrorist act. In both cases, these people also develop total reactance.

I coined the phrase psychopathic and narcissistic overlay to describe this change, this transmogrification of the trauma victim.

Trauma victims tend to become somewhat psychopathic and narcissistic in their reactions.

And so trauma changes the trauma victim, luckily and reversibly, but still changes the trauma victim and converts the trauma victim into a mild version of a psychopath or a narcissist.

In contrast, the reactions of healthy people are differential. They are in-kind. They are proportional. Healthy people weigh the consequences and correct course every step of the confrontation. They don't go all out and out of control.

The thing is that trauma imprints everything and everyone involved or present in a stressful event.

Even people who are there accidentally or tangentially are imprinted by the trauma. Places, other people, smells, sounds, circumstances, objects, dates, time, and categories of the above, they all get stamped with a traumatic experience.

If you go through a trauma, the place in which the trauma had occurred is stamped with the trauma.

Similar places are stamped with the trauma.

Smells, sounds, objects, the date when it happened, anniversary, trauma anniversaries, all these are stamped and imprinted.

Trauma imprinting is at the core of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and it is at the core of complex PTSD.

It is what underlies triggering.

Trauma imprinting is a condition for triggering. Triggers are the places, the people, the smells, the sounds, the circumstances, the dates, times, or objects that are reminiscent of the same classes of stressors involved in the original trauma and that evoke these stressors, recreate the stress.

Many exposure and re-traumatization therapies, including most recently the treatment modality that I have developed, cold therapy.

Most of these treatment modalities make use of trauma imprinting to generate new, less stressful, and less panic or anxiety-inducing associations between extant triggers and the present.

This way, we induce integration of the haywire emotions involved in the primary situation.

So going through the trauma again, re-traumatizing in an environment which provides alternative coping strategies and mechanisms seems to have a healing effect.

Major traumas can lead to either of two opposing outcomes, regression into infantile behaviors and defenses, or a spurt of personal growth and maturation.

It all depends on how the trauma is processed.

Faced with devastatingly hurtful, overwhelming, and dysregulated emotions, personalities with a low level of organization react to trauma with decompensation, acting out, recklessness, and even psychotic micro-episodes.

This can be life-threatening. Major depression and suicidal ideation are very common.

In an attempt to restore the sense of safety, the individual regresses to an earlier, familiar, and predictable phase of life.

The individual evokes parental imagos, parental internalized images, parental introjects, voices of parents, and other role models.

And these imagos and introjects are supposed to protect, comfort, soothe, and take over responsibilities from the overwhelmed and dysregulated individual.

In a way, the trauma victim parents herself by splitting her mind into a benevolent, forgiving, unconditionally loving inner object, mother or father, and a wayward, defiant, independent, and rebellious child or teen who is largely oblivious to the consequences of his or her actions.

So the mind splits. There's a parent part and a child part.

But this happens only with people who have low organization personalities, people, for example, with cluster B personality disorders, borderline especially.

More balanced, emotionally regulated, and mature people reframe the trauma by accommodating it in a rational, evidence-based, not fictitious, not counterfactual narrative.

Healthy people modify their theories about the world and theories of mind and about the way the world and other people operate.

What they do, they set new boundaries. They generate new values, beliefs, and rules of conduct, new schemas.

Healthy people process their emotions fully, and are thereby rendered more self efficacious.

In other words, trauma drives healthy people to grow up having leveraged their painful losses as an engine of positive development geared towards the attainment of favorable long-term results.

The most common form of trauma could be rejection, withholding, including, for example, sex withholding, and denial of intimacy. These are all common in relationships, especially relationships with narcissists and psychopaths, and they inexorably lead to CPTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

Generally, intimacy increases with time spent together.

But the more time you while away with a narcissist, the less intimate with the narcissist you get, not the more intimate, the less intimate.

And this effect, which I call reversed intimacy, is an outcome of the fact that one is interacting not with the narcissist itself, but with the narcissist's false self, a piece of grandiose fiction, a placeholder where an entire person should be found.

Traumatized victims of narcissistic abuse have therefore learned to emulate the narcissist himself in a post-traumatic state.

My recent work suggests that narcissism is actually not a personality disorder, but a post-traumatic condition.

So traumatized victims of traumatized narcissists, they learn to emulate the narcissist. They're imitating. Like him, they slap the label on their tormentor and then ignore him and relate only to the label, total labeling.

Where no intimacy is possible, stereotypes take over.

And there is definitely a stereotype of what it means to be a narcissist.

There is a lot more to every narcissist than his disorder.

Yet, following my pioneering work 25 years ago, people who are not familiar with the narcissist, people started to reduce the narcissist to figment, to merely his pathology. They ignore the person behind the persona, the core in the narcissistic nuclear meltdown.

And this renders any type of meaningful communication with the narcissist, all but impossible and inefficacious.

People react to rejection in intimate relationships with frustration.

And as Dollard taught us in 1939, frustration provokes aggression.

But aggression has two major forms, internalized and externalized. When aggression is internalized, directed inward at the rejected individual, there is an orgy of self-loathing and self-hatred.

And in this case, the outcomes are impotent and diffuse anger, depression, delusions, suicidal ideation, reckless and self-destructive behaviors, loss of impulse control, and in extremes, psychosis.

When aggression is externalized, not internalized, it targets the cause of the frustration, the rejecting party. Such aggression involves rage, fury, defiance, and acts intended to deeply and irrevocably hurt and traumatize the offender.

Though it is also brought about by impulsivity, externalized aggression is more premeditated, it is planned, and accommodates delayed gratification.

You see, there is no standard, universal mode of trauma. Trauma can lead to anywhere.

It depends crucially on the traumatized person, his background, personality, personal history, interactions with other people, environment, including immediate environment, stamping or imprinting of the trauma, cascading previous traumas, and a million other factors.

Trauma, therefore, is not an objective clinical entity. It is a form of reactance, a reaction, and there are as many types of traumas as there are trauma victims.

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