Writing Traumatic Memories Without Overwhelming Readers by Lisa Hall-Wilson - Canada
PTSD and trauma (both big “T” and small “t” trauma), affect our memory in different ways, and when writing in deep point of view, it becomes telling to label an emotion for readers. So, how do we write trauma memories realistically without overwhelming readers with gratuitous details and melodrama?
PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and trauma, either as current events or historical, are compelling elements in fiction. An essential tool then becomes backstory, memories, and flashbacks to show character arc and internal (and external) conflict.
Big “T” Trauma vs Small “t” Trauma
Trauma is a response to any event that overwhelms our ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes our ability to feel a full range of emotions. Keep that in mind, because anything can be traumatic depending on the individual and what they can cope with.
Big “T” trauma events cause an individual to feel they’re in mortal danger. Small “t” trauma events (a divorce for instance) are overwhelming for a short time. When crafting characters, don’t think of trauma as only big “T” trauma events like natural disasters, hostage taking, kidnapping, murder, rape, war, etc. Small “t” trauma can be just as devastating, and moreso for individuals who endure repeated small “t” trauma. A series of “t” events that pile up (like being bullied) can be trauma by a thousand cuts.
How Big “T” Trauma Affects The Brain
Small “t” trauma, because it lacks the life-threatening component, may be captured differently in memory. The character might remember what they were thinking for instance, where they were, what else they were doing that day. When asked to recall a traumatic event, brain imaging scans show that some parts of the brain light up and others go quiet. To oversimplify things, the part of the brain focused on survival is prioritized and the parts of the brain focused on communication, analytical thinking, etc. are slowed or at the least not prioritized.
People may react first without really thinking about their actions when when fight, flight or freeze is triggered. I walked five miles for help, but don’t remember walking. The ground crunched when I walked, every step on broken glass, but I couldn’t think of why it the ground would sound like that (see account below). The part of the brain that labels things, that rationalizes or understands the WHY behind the things we do, shuts down. Of course there are accounts where some were able to maintain a presence of mind and think their way out of a problem, but their ability to do that in life-threatening circumstances is remarkable.
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