Repetition Compulsion and PTSD – The missing link….

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is usually a term people associate with war veterans and those who have experienced natural disasters such as tsunamis. However the frightening reality is that it is far more widespread than this. For example, ANYONE who has experienced significant abuse in childhood whether it be physical, mental, sexual or a combination, is likely to be suffering from the effects of PTSD. Major tell-tale signs are hyper vigilance and hyper sensitivity; these are very common in such cases.

Every psychologist worth his salt and many laymen are aware of the phenomenon of repetition compulsion.

It was the great Sigmund Freud who first coined the phrase having noticed that many of those who experience the worst suffering in childhood seem to suffer most in their adult life and relationships. He realised that this was unlikely to be a coincidence; I don’t think Sigmund believed much in coincidences!

So in summary, he noticed that those of us who experience the most abuse in childhood seem to attract “bad experiences” like a magnet in later life. Most of us can think of someone we know who is just the loveliest person yet seems to get nothing but “bad luck”.

This principle is well documented and as a psychologist I was painfully aware of it. However, even, knowing that every unconscious manifestation has a positive intent, I could never fathom what the purpose of repetition compulsion was…. Until I came across the ground breaking work of PTSD expert Dr Peter Levine.

Peter started to piece this all together whilst watching animals in the Serengeti. He observed a cheetah running down an impala, as the cheetah caught up with the impala and closed its jaws around its neck; the impala went limp and lifeless as if it had died from shock.

Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight response, however, it is not the whole story. That primeval instinctual reaction to threat is actually a three option behaviour; fight, flight or freeze! Each has its own specific value in preserving life.

Given the hunted was an impala and the hunter a cheetah, what were the impala’s chances of outrunning the hunter, the fastest land animal on earth? Zero! Given the cheetah was many times more powerful, clearly fight was not an option either. The only remaining action? Freeze! But what purpose does freeze serve in preserving life in such situations?

If the cheetah believes the impala has died from shock, he may at some point drop the impala and thereby afford it the opportunity of escape. If this does not happen and the impala is indeed going to be eaten, because it has gone into freeze mode and shut down as much of its autonomic nervous system as possible, it will not hurt as much. Nature is in fact very clever!

As it turns out, the cheetah did indeed seem to think the Impala had died from shock and dropped it to go off and round up the cubs for dinner.

Within moments, the impala stood up and for a brief period began to shake violently, after this it ran off to safety, never to have the experience trouble its mind again.

When Peter slowed down the film of this event far enough, he further discovered that the violent shaking was not random but in fact minute gyrations which simulated the action of running away. That is, the animal was completing the actions of the flight response it had been unable to complete at the time of the attack.

After further investigation, Peter realised this was a common experience for animals in near death experiences and seemed to be how they dissipate trauma from their bodies. Humans however keep the trauma locked in the body because of their unique psyche.

This is why humans can suffer from PTSD whereas other animals do not. The trauma gets locked in our bodies and our unconscious minds continually look for ways to dissipate it. This is what repetition compulsion is, our unconscious attempts to recreate similar circumstances whereupon the trauma charge can finally be released from the body.

This is why small children who have been through traumatic events such as witnessing a parent killed or a natural disaster are often observed playing out the event with their dolls. This is where we get the term “acting out” from; the psyche is attempting to recreate circumstances whereby the trauma can be released from the body.

Adults do the same thing! But in there adult relationships, hence why often children who have experienced the most horrifying abuse in childhood, end up in the most destructive relationships with the most abusive partners. This IS repetition compulsion, or as some schools of thought may refer to it, life script….

There are wider implications to this, PTSD at milder levels can result from a number of childhood experiences, but once locked in the body, it will drive behaviour at an unconscious level. It is likely responsible for most of the inappropriate reactions in human interactions. If a person’s reaction to stimulus seems disproportionate then it is often a trauma reaction, the individual concerned is reacting to the trauma locked in the body and not just the present moment situation. On a worldwide scale it is therefore a massive problem and the cause of much suffering

Successful treatment of PTSD therefore requires a cognitive element such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) AND bodywork. The cutting edge treatments for this are in my opinion Eye Movement Sensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR)  Somatic Experiencing  as developed by the great Dr Peter Levine and the ground breaking techniques of Trauma Release Exercises (TRE) developed by Dr David Berceli.


Mr Trevor D.G. Roberts

Senior Consultant

Dolphin Psychotherapy Practice

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