What is an Abreaction?

An abreaction is a catch-all word for traumatic memories. According to Onno van der Hart, PhD and Kathy Steel, MN, CS, traumatic memories are, hallucinatory and involuntary experiences consisting of dissociated sensorimotor phenomena, including visual images, sensations, emotions, and/or motor acts pertaining to past traumatic experiences that may engross the entire perceptual field. From the scope of a layperson’s knowledge, this clinical definition maybe difficult to ascertain. We can think of a traumatic memory as a bad movie in our head that feels real, complete with sound and visceral body reactions and experiences.

Traumatic memories can be brought on by unconscious triggers that activate a trauma we experienced in the past. They unsettle us, evoke strong emotions, and they can be frightening. Traumatic memories can be so overwhelming that we choose to take drugs in order to lessen the impact they have upon us. The danger from taking drugs is that we may continue taking them and soon find we can’t stop. And, they may exacerbate the traumatic memories.

If we have traumatic memories and take drugs it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional with dual diagnosis experience, or a licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselor (LADAC). The therapist can help us get off the drugs, and slowly uncover the original memory. We say slowly because we need to stay in the present, so as not to get triggered again. The more we observe our triggers, the more we can normalize them, and thus lower the occurrence of traumatic memories.

It may take a while for our minds to assimilate the reality that the traumatic event happened in the past and is over. With a therapist’s help, we will gradually come to this realization. In order to lessen the impact of the original traumatic event we will need to desensitize ourselves from it. For example, we may get triggered by someone who yells at us, or we’re in a room where people are yelling at one another.

We can practice telling ourselves that our uncle is not the one yelling at us. In fact, he’s dead and can’t hurt us anymore. We now have our brave new adult self to protect us. He or she is not going to allow anyone to yell at us anymore. If they try, we can tell them to stop. If they still don’t stop, we can walk away. It takes courage to learn the whys of traumatic memories. Drugs won’t help us cope, but therapy will. We may feel vulnerable, but we are nonetheless in charge. We are getting stronger everyday, and we’re drug free!

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