What Does it Mean to Relive a Trauma?

 The truth about trauma doesn't only lie in the hurt, the wound or the defeat suffered, but most importantly in the remembrance of it.

And even before I'd want to begin with how that leads to PTSD, I am reminded of a beautiful idea about memory that one of my writer friends had shared: "Memory lies in the particular, and not in the collective, my friend".
The thing about trauma is also somewhat similar. To elaborate, emotions are controlled by almost the entire nervous system, but there are two particular areas in the brain that are primarily responsible for regulating our emotions:
* The Hippocampus – Involved mostly with 'memory'.
* The Amygdala – Involved in dealing with aggression, emotional behaviour and motivation.
Now, when a trauma occurs, a stress hormone called 'cortisol' is released. This in turn goes and stimulates the amygdala. Which in turn again leads to releasing of 'cortisol' and increase in the overall augmenting of stress and aggression, accentuating the 'flight/fight' sympathetic response. It's like a never ending cycle. Over time, the hippocampus shrinks, affecting memory and the perception of it. Also, the neocortex keeps on sending signals to the body to react in the same sympathetic way whenever the body comes across a similar situation that has even the slightest of common points related with the trauma.
A common example I often give my clients is: Matthew is seven years old. He is travelling with his father sitting in the front seat of his father's Ford Anglia. Everything including the weather, the sun up in the sky, the speed, and the breeze coming from the fields nearby is absolutely sublime. Suddenly, a red truck comes from somewhere and hits their car. Matthew loses his father in that accident. He grows up with an inability to drive a car. The memory haunts him. He however goes to college, becomes a top automobile entrepreneur and with the persuasion of his wife learns to drive a car. However, he refuses to sell any red car and whenever he sees a red vehicle, say any red vehicle, he feels the same anxiety and the same fear in his body, the kind he had felt when he was seven. He eventually feels paralytic about driving his own car and breaks down in the middle of the road, sometimes in his meetings and even in his sleep, as the anxiety of certain fragmented memories keep coming back to him with greater intensity. He is forty-eight years old today and his wife finally asks him to see a therapist. 
That is where he learns how 'things' from seven never left him and the PTSD itself became a form of complex trauma. The neocortex had been signalling him for the last four to five years once he found himself again in the front seat of his own car?-?when he began to learn driving.
This is how PATTERNS are formed. As the neocortex will invariably send the same stress-signals to the body upon identifying a similar situation, however late in life it may seem. In this case, the trigger being the front seat of the car, along with the secondary trigger of a 'red vehicle'. The repetitive nature of trauma lies in this triggering & body-reacting mechanism.
However, in adults, the effects can be reduced by therapy because as human beings they have the great power of 'meaning-making'. Once the body realizes (through therapy) that 'that' time of the trauma is over and 'this' body of today is the present day body and is not the body from the time trapped within the trauma, it is easier for the survivor to accept that things have nowchanged. The brain because of its natural neuroplasticity is wired differently then. Or undergoes a change in its present day wiring. However, one has to keep reminding oneself that "that was then, this is now".
With complex trauma where the body (as well as the mind/sprit) is exposed to an unpleasant experience again and again, is difficult to work with. Even while going back to the trauma and working with it with full awareness, takes time. Purely because in such cases the number of experiences are quite large, so are the number of times the body and the spirit is traumatised. One may need to go back to them again and again (within therapy) to finally realize that 'that' long span of time is ultimately over. But this again, takes a lot of patience and an equal amount of conviction & energy on the part of both the client and the therapist.
(Dr. Gaurav Deka is a Delhi-based medical doctor and psychotherapist. His work is based mostly on the transpersonal model of the mind, which includes ideas and processes like Past Life Regression, Inner Child Integration and Holistic Healing. He can be reached at