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Chapter 12: Separating Trauma and Personality
In the previous chapter, we looked at the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and, specifically, the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state and the parasympathetic (relax and sleep) state.
We looked at the profound effect the sympathetic and parasympathetic states have on our personality and at how people can be neurologically sympathetic dominant; what Myers-Briggs called: Perceiver.
We’ve discussed how events and situations can trigger a sympathetic response; how at any moment, anyone can go into the sympathetic state. We’ve briefly explored the difference between a person’s apparent personality and their “true” or neurological personality.
I think it’s important for individuals, as well as counselors, coaches, teachers, and therapists to understand the effects of stress and trauma on personality. It’s important for us to be able to distinguish between neurological personality traits and trauma-based personality traits.
Why? Because, for the most part, you cannot remove, erase, or substantially change a person’s neurological personality traits. You can, however, change a person’s trauma-based personality traits (and their subsequent behaviors).
So, for anyone looking to make changes in their behaviors (or the behaviors of others), the ability to see the difference between neurological personality traits and trauma-based personality traits is imperative.
Therefore, this chapter is devoted to looking at Personality and trauma.
Cathy: Can you talk about how the FACE Personality Model helps us understand the effects of trauma on people’s personality?
Gerry: Sure. Think of what it takes to respond to stress? What happens in the sympathetic nervous system? When the sympathetic nervous system goes into the fight-or-flight response? Blood flow increases to the muscles, pupils dilate to let in more light, digestion slows, growth slows, healing slows.
Those are the physiological changes. But we also go through psychological, or you could say, personality changes. These changes can be significant.
In addition to the shift from the parasympathetic state to the sympathetic state, many persons will shift from an emotional Consideration to a logical Consideration. Many will shift from an auditory Access to a more visual Access.
Cathy: My own personal experience is that under stress, I tend to get very detail-oriented and analytical.
Gerry: Yes, you’re naturally visually dominant and emotionally dominant. You are the Influencer, the Tigger, the ENFJ when you’re relaxed and in the parasympathetic (Judger) state.
Conversely, as you see in your friend, the Director, when he feels sufficiently threatened or cornered, he will flip from maintaining complete control to throwing up his hands, saying, “Forget it! I quit”.
Cathy: So, do all influencers flip-flop like that or just some?
Gerry: I would say just about all, so they go to the opposite quadrant when they are sufficiently stressed. This can be contextual so that’s how you get real funky answers and profiles in Myers-Briggs and DISC.
The first thing to realize is that PTSD is a combination of specific personality traits (nature) and one or more traumatic events (nurture). It is also an example of how very different issues can result in very similar thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
We’ve gone through much of the relevant information and laid the foundation for this discussion in the chapters, The Personality of Feeling, and The FACE of Trauma so I will try to limit redundant explanations.
The umbrella within which the stress vs. non-stress phenomenon occurs is the ANS and whether the dominant Feeling is either sympathetic or parasympathetic. While anyone, regardless of personality, can acquire PTSD, those who are sympathetic dominant seem to be particularly susceptible to PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction.
The four quadrants remain the same in the context of all the changes that can come when one is in the sympathetic state. As discussed, when we examined the similarities between the MBTI and FACE, in the sympathetic state, your Perception is dominant.
Ideally, your thinking goes into a non-linear, visual-spatial, puzzle-solving mode and your Dominant Consideration moves from Feeling to Thinking.
Those who are naturally parasympathetic dominant have a much tougher time getting into the sympathetic state and making the physiological and psychological changes that go along with that state.
It’s these reactive, sympathetic dominant people who tend to engage in careers and activities that require incredibly fast reflexes and hyper-alertness: the military, police officers, firefighters, racecar drivers, and professional athletes. Add almost any traumatic event or series of events to this sympathetic dominant personality and you have a recipe for PTSD.
To be clear, I have no definitive proof that only sympathetic dominant people can be traumatized sufficiently to cause PTSD, but my own research, spanning 40 years, and interactions with thousands of alcoholics, addicts, and veterans, seems to indicate that while anyone can be traumatized, PTSD as defined in the DSM-5 almost only occurs when traumatic experience is combined with a sympathetic dominant personality.
An interesting aside is to examine what happens during basic military training. This results in reconditioning participants to dissociate from (ignore) their feelings, reduce their independent (cognitive) thought, and to intensify their reactive, sympathetic nervous system. It strips away any sense of independent, responsive, thoughtful, parasympathetic, emotional response, and increases the sympathetic, fight-or-flight state.
U.S. Military training is so effective that by the time even neurologically parasympathetic dominant people have completed basic training, they will respond to external stimulation just the same as an already neurologically sympathetic dominant person: the perfect soldier.
Add almost any traumatic event or series of events to this intensive neurological manipulation and you have a recipe for PTSD.
It’s no wonder then, that more than half of the soldiers returning from any war have signs of PTSD and one-third of all homeless people in America are veterans. But it does beg the question, why don’t all soldiers, even those with similar experience, return with PTSD? The explanation may be found in the original neurology of the returning soldier rather than the specific trauma or experience.
It appears that soldiers whose original dominant Feeling was parasympathetic (relaxed and focused) are far more likely to recover from PTSD with minimal therapy, whereas those soldiers whose original dominant Feeling was sympathetic (fight-or-flight) are far less likely to respond to therapy.
When you look at the psychological issues facing returning veterans, it comes as no surprise that, as a whole, this group suffers from unusually high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, and suicide.
Let’s be clear: anyone who is traumatized can acquire PTSD. It could be overt trauma, such as rape or molestation or physical abuse. It can also be psychological or emotional trauma. Their neurological personality doesn’t change. The PTSD is like an overlay to their personality, and their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, are then correlated to their PTSD.
A word about behavior: Some people get angry when threatened and some people get fearful. Some people react with “fight” and others react with “flight”. Still others will simply “freeze”. What causes a person to react one way or another? It’s not a conscious choice; it is a reaction. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we do not respond, we react.
So, what governs that reaction? What governs that subsequent behavior? Once the fight, flight, or freeze reaction is triggered, what determines the actual behavior?
Our own research would indicate that the specific behavior is going to be driven by both experience and perception. If a person’s perception is that they can dominate the situation and if that person has “survived” previous similar experiences by fighting, that person will most likely react with anger and aggression.
If, however, a person’s perception of the situation is that they may be dominated and if that person has “survived” previous similar experiences by fleeing or freezing, that person is far more likely to react with fear.
To be clear, nothing is written in stone. It is not uncommon for people who have been the victims of aggression and abuse to become aggressive, and even abusers, themselves.
The critical issue is to identify the source of the stress as quickly as possible. Is it personality-based (neurological) or is it event-based (trauma)?
Excerpt from "Finding Your FACE: a Brain-Based Personality Guide". Copyright 2019. Gerald Hughes. All rights reserved.