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Traumatic Fixation


Explanations > Thinking > Traumatic Fixation

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Sometimes things happen to us that cause strong negative emotions. From them on, we think often of the bad event, re-experiencing the bad feelings.

Over time, the memory may become distorted, amplified or repressed. Whatever happens to this, bad feelings persist in some form as the negative event continues to dominate our lives.


A soldier gets caught in action where many of his comrades are killed. Later he is diagnosed with PTSD as he suffers flashbacks and recurring nightmares.

A child is bullied by others in kindergarten. While unseen by adults, it has a deep and lasting effect, making them fearful and feeling powerless for much of the rest of their lives.


Evolution has taught us that it is a good idea to remember negative events so we can avoid or cope better with them in the future. It uses strong emotion as flags to spot such events. Unfortunately, this can sometimes get over-done and the memory gets rather too persistent, dragging back the strong negative emotion with it.

Traumatic fixation can easily start in childhood, where the person lacks the mental ability to make sense of distressing situations. Later on, it can be caused by abuse, accidents and other stressful situations. PTSD is another example, typically caused by the horrors of war (although there are also many other possible causes).

Fixation can be caused by something that is unresolved. When we resolve things, we achieve closure and are able to put the thing behind us. If we do not find closure, the thing can just go around and around until we find a way to complete what is missing.

Fixation can also less traumatic and more psychological, such as when fans fixate on rock stars or people obsess about their careers. In any case, excessive attention to one subject biases choices, including through the starvation of thought about other important topics.

So what?

When people are in a traumatic state, then working with them to change how they think is a therapeutic intervention and not to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, many people live with traumatized others and the best approach is often simple acceptance and listening. Another approach when people are stuck is to distract them, getting them to do other things. Physical activity, especially if needs a moderate amount of thought, can help get people out of stuck thinking, at least for a while.

See also

Personality Disorders, Coping Mechanisms


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