Is Trauma Reenactment Healing or Harmful?
Sometimes trauma is so life-altering that we subconsciously—or intentionally—reenact the events in an attempt to process their impact, i.e., trauma reenactment.
After being violently sexually assaulted in my mid-20s, I kept reliving the trauma in nearly identical sexual situations. My body and brain were subconsciously recreating what happened to reframe the assault as consensual.
Unsurprisingly, it never worked.
I revictimized and retraumatized myself instead, prolonging my journey to recovery.
What is trauma reenactment?
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., coined the term "trauma reenactment" in a June 1989 article in the journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America that explored people's compulsion to repeat trauma.
He suggested that trauma survivors may repeat actions, behaviors or relationship patterns associated with their personal history of trauma. It may be compulsive, intentional or unconscious.
Manifestations of this behavior include repeatedly returning to the scene of the traumatic event, pursuing romantic partners with similar behaviors to past abusers and/or obsessively replaying the memory of the trauma.
While the terminology is relatively new, the theory is not. Sigmund Freud—an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis—suggested, "mastery could be achieved by actively repeating a past uncontrollable and unpleasurable experience."
Some modalities of therapy tread (very carefully) in this arena by using repetitive recollection to process trauma.
While difficult to categorize, trauma reenactment is broadly split into two categories: conscious and unconscious. Many researchers describe some people as reenacting trauma to "remember, assimilate, integrate and heal from the traumatic experience." That was the conclusion of Michael S. Levy, Ph.D., in his article published in the Summer 1998 edition of the Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research.
"When we reenact a painful and traumatic memory, it's often because we either imagine it will occur anyway and we want it to happen on our terms, or that we feel the need to relive it in order to resolve it and move on," said Hailey Shafir, L.P.C.S., a licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor in Raleigh, North Carolina. "The first is a form of self-sabotage that usually arises from feelings of helplessness and fears that we cannot protect ourselves. The second is usually an attempt to try to rescript the story of what happened to us so we can change the way it ended."
Reenacting sexual trauma
When it comes to sexual trauma specifically, survivors may unconsciously recreate an event to reclaim their bodies.
"There is often a vengeful side to it," said Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist in London and the author of "What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires." "We can't have certainty and predictability so we stick with what reliably lets us down. There's a need to make lemonade out of lemons, to make it a good story, even if it means sticking with it obsessively for many years."
This kind of trauma reenactment is not always carried out deliberately but is rather a result of maladaptive coping mechanisms and unprocessed trauma.
My reenactment certainly was, at least to begin with.
After being sexually abused as a child, I developed hypersexual behaviors and treated sex frivolously. My trauma made me more vulnerable to abuse because I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse.
I found myself in increasingly toxic relationships, too. The chaos felt like home because it was all I had ever known.
"Getting into abusive, coercive or exploitative sexual relationships is one of the most common ways that people reenact sexual trauma," Shafir said. "Sometimes, people reenact sexual trauma by becoming very promiscuous, which can stem from the belief that their sexuality is no longer something valuable to protect.
"Often, there's a common theme of wanting to feel in control that shows up in all of these trauma reenactments."
Following a violent sexual assault in my mid-20s, my promiscuity returned tenfold as a means of burying the trauma. I could not acknowledge what happened, so I discarded my self-respect and threw my body at anyone who would have it.
While the reenactments were largely unconscious, there were occasions where I deliberately sought out rough sex to mimic the sexual assault I had endured. I was trying to reposition the memory as a consensual encounter to survive its impact.
Ultimately, I became more vulnerable to further abuse and aggravated the existing trauma.
Can trauma reenactment ever be healthy?
"There's a saying in the 12-step community that 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,' which highlights the paradox of reenacting trauma in an effort to heal from it," Shafir said. "In these instances, retraumatization is much more likely than healing because the same toxic elements and dynamics are usually involved."
At times, we may reenact trauma as a subconscious form of self-harm. Personally, I put my body through hell in a twisted form of self-flagellation for being the source of my own abuse.
"Reenacting a traumatic experience is knowingly placing ourselves in situations and relationships where we are likely to be hurt again," Shafir said. "This is a deep form of self-betrayal that can compound the original trauma and deepen the wounds, which lengthens the healing process."
My experiences of reenactment have been predominantly retraumatizing. However, I found a subtle use of the methodology helpful in therapy. I would advocate that this approach should be handled with extreme caution and under the supervision of a mental health professional.
"How a lot of therapeutic modalities approach healing is that they get the client to reenact, relive, describe however they experienced their past traumatic event in the hope that in the safe space of a therapeutic environment, it will neutralize the event," said Lisa Turner, Ph.D., a United Kingdom-based author and trainer at CETfreedom.
This is ideally done in the presence of a mental health professional because they can ensure a safe environment for the person reenacting or reliving their trauma, she added.
"One of the things about [trauma reenactment] with a mental health professional is that if the client is fully associating into the traumatic memory, I can break them out," she said. "If you're doing it on your own, you don't have that."
Interrupting the unconscious cycle
In my own experience, the only way to work through trauma is to confront it. Burying pain in trauma reenactment is not healing, but addressing trauma can prevent unconscious reenactment.
"We have a lot of incredible innovations in the field of trauma-informed treatments, and many of the newer trauma therapies—like EFT [emotional freedom technique] tapping, brainspotting, EMDR [eye movement desensitization reprocessing], somatic experiencing and ART [accelerated resolution therapy]—are highly effective in helping people overcome past traumatic experiences," Shafir said.
"Getting help early makes this process faster and easier, but even old traumas can be healed through these methods," she added. "And it usually only takes a few sessions to see results."
If you're consciously diving into trauma reenactment, use your words first, not your actions, as it will minimize your chances of adding to the existing wounds.
"I think that actually writing it can be really helpful. Write yourself a letter from that time period saying whatever you want to say to that person you were then." Weber said. "You don't have to get every forensic detail. There's often this pressure to be completionist about it and to say everything. Just say something and then say something else. No pressure."
Therapy may not be for you, and that's OK. But don't shy away from introspection either.