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Repeating and reliving trauma: An abnormal response to an abnormal situation

Posted on 03-25-16 in Mental Health

Repeating and reliving trauma: An abnormal response to an abnormal situation

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust concentration-camp survivor, once said this about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”

In other words, even though the symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder seem to be strange or maladaptive, individuals who struggle with PTSD have experienced something terrible — or abnormal — and respond to the situation as any other person would.

Repetition compulsion is just one way in which a person with PTSD behaves “oddly” after trauma.

What is repetition compulsion?

Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which patients with PTSD repeatedly reenact their trauma, whether by writing about it, re-envisioning it or even repeating it outright. As an example, a child who had experienced a car accident might constantly crash toy cars together. A woman who was in an abusive relationship might seek out a new partner who resembles the person who abused her. A man who was mugged might intentionally wander around dangerous neighborhoods late at night.

Repetition compulsion was first described by Sigmund Freud. In his words, the patient “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of … remembering it as something belonging to the past … the compulsion to repeat the events of his childhood in the transference evidently disregards the pleasure principle in every way.”

Since Freud’s coining of the term, repetition compulsion has been repeatedly described and examined in the scientific literature.

Why do PTSD patients struggle with repetition compulsion?

In many ways, repetition compulsion doesn’t appear to make sense. Why on earth would people with PTSD want to relive the worst moments of their lives?

Some researchers theorize that people who struggle with repetition compulsion are trying to “fix” the traumatic memories. These individuals may be consciously or unconsciously placing themselves in danger with the idea that this time — maybe — things will be different. For instance, a traumatized child who makes toy cars crash may also bring out a Superman action figure to save the people in the accident. A woman who had been abused may gravitate toward a person who resembles her abuser with the hope that she can fix the situation this time. A man who wanders bad neighborhoods late at night may want to fight his next attacker — and win.

This theory is only one possibility, since the human mind is complicated, and research on repetition compulsion has been relatively sparse. Regardless, repetition compulsion can be a serious issue for some individuals with PTSD. If you see signs of repetition compulsion in yourself or your loved one, consider speaking with a therapist about the best ways to conquer the condition.

The Sovereign Health Group’s mental health treatment program uses both technology and counseling to identify each patient’s neurological state as well as any lifestyle issues that could be hampering the person’s path to sobriety. Our clinicians strive to educate not only patients about their condition, but also their loved ones. We provide patients with scientifically based cognitive training to improve brain wellness as well as individual therapy, group therapy, yoga classes, equine therapy, stress management and group outings. For more information, contact us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at