Trauma and Language
November 7, 2014 9:34 AM   Subscribe

I have observed a new phenomenon in myself this year and noticed different patterns in how my brain interacts with language in the period after trauma. I have a lot of other stress reactions going on that seem to be hypothalamus stuff (loss of circadian rhythm, weird appetite things, feeling hot and sweaty) but am not sure how any of that plays into processing language. I would love to learn more about this, either from anecdotes or from a more research-based perspective.

I should perhaps include a disclaimer that I've been writing poetry since early adolescence, so it is likely that I am more susceptible to the effects of anything that might alter language. I will also add that I am somewhere on the bipolar spectrum but the jury is still out if I experience mania or an acute trauma hyper-response that looks like mania. I do currently take lithium (1500 mg/day) and sertraline (150 mg a day).

I don't know how to sum up the changes I have noticed after two distinct periods of trauma, but here goes. My brain is constantly spitting out random words or word combinations (velvet cactus. Chinese robot). I also keep thinking of nonsensical sentences that have all the structure of meaningful sentences (Let us sing our motorcycles before we go astray.). I also have a quasi-synesthetic thing where certain words "feel" better than others and it bothers me to use a word that doesn't feel right. I also get this profound sense of satisfaction when I use a word that seems the most right.

Nobody on my healthcare team has heard of this before, and I don't know of a term that might describe it so I can do my own research. I have only experienced this after prolonged trauma. It seems pretty harmless so I am not worried about it, but I am curious, especially because this could also explain why I might have chosen to write poetry in the first place.
posted by mermaidcafe to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have been a writer for a long time and I also get quite a rush out of searching for and finding the exact right word for a certain meaning I am trying to convey. I get a HUGE rush out of crossword puzzles. I think this is just a creative-brain type thing and I wouldn't worry about it too much.
posted by Brittanie at 11:04 AM on November 7, 2014

I have known people who suffered from obtrusive thoughts / words / phrases, and they usually popped in when another part of their mind was actively trying to suppress remembering something else.

So for eg: out of the corner of their eye, they see a red coat which reminds them of [shameful, terrorizing experience] but instead of remembering it fully, they felt like their mind blurted out random phrases to distract themselves. If it is really deep, they don't even consciously realize that they'd seen the red coat.

Could be related to OCD as well? OCD intrustive thoughts? That is where you could start with the research. In those cases I believe the intrusive thoughts are harmful, but in your case maybe your mind has just latched on to something more benign. But the underlying factors may be similar.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:33 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do these nonsense words creep into your spoken language? If you utter them, are you aware at the time you're injecting a nonsensical word into an otherwise coherent sentence or do you only know when someone tells you. Do you feel compelled to utter these words?
posted by grimtheelder at 12:07 PM on November 7, 2014

Interesting, I tried recently to research whether anesthesia or certain body trauma might change one's relation to language, specifically creative writing. I'm also a poet and stopped engaging with any type of writing rather dramatically after a) a laparoscopy which involved a general anesthetic and a disruption of the hormonal cycle I'd been in since age 11 (around the time I started writing), followed by a bout of severe vertigo for which I was given several medications which made it impossible for me to read, write or speak normal sentences for a few days. (I would speak sentences I myself could not understand.)

(I wasn't able to find that this had been studied in academic literature.)
posted by Riverine at 12:20 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a relative who, when on a certain medication (I don't recall which one), would say weird, nonsensical things like "The traffic is very blue today."

I have a son who has synesthesia when he is sick enough. I learned this when he was about 19 and he casually mentioned that he knew he was getting better (after a terrible bout of something) because he was no longer tasting colors.

I grew up in a bilingual home (German and English) and I have a serious medical condition. In the last few years, when I am really messed up and exhausted, I temporarily find myself unable to speak English (my native language) and can only speak German (which I am not even fluent in). The worst case of it lasted maybe two hours and that was a long time ago. I recently had a really short-lived episode that lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes.

Some of the weird neurological stuff I have experienced has responded well to nutritional support for the brain, such as a high cholesterol meal and B vitamin supplements. When I was having some episode where my attempts to communicate were resulting in a lot of frustrating gibberish-filled sentences, we cooked up bacon and eggs and served crackers or flat bread with organic butter and, once I had eaten it, I could very suddenly speak coherently again. I think I also napped for a bit, which is also a brain healing thing as the brain moves lymph while you sleep (whereas the rest of your system moves it while you are physically active, like walking and stuff).
posted by Michele in California at 1:21 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To answer grimtheelder's questions: I don't speak any of the nonsense sentences. I can always tell the difference between nonsense and meaningful phrases. I don't know if you were thinking about the word salad associated with schizophrenia, but this is very different.

I will look into intrusive thoughts more and see if I can find any similarity there. It wouldn't be surprising if I had some form of OCD; during trauma I also become indecisive to a degree which does disrupt my life because I'm convinced things will go differently if a read an email after brushing my teeth rather than before.

I like the idea of a nutritional approach as well and will see how that affects things. My nutrition has been disrupted for a number of reasons, namely a lack of money or other ways to access food. I am in a better position today to eat than I have been recently, so I'll see what I can do. And I also forgot to get my B12 shot in October so I will schedule that.
posted by mermaidcafe at 3:42 PM on November 7, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, yes, and sometimes the phrases come into my head with melodies already and I get a lot of pleasure out of singing them.
posted by mermaidcafe at 3:59 PM on November 7, 2014

You might be interested in reading about the sensorimotor approach to trauma. Briefly, it suggests that during a trauma there are things we might have wanted to say or do, or expected ourselves to say or do, that we weren't able to because we were overwhelmed in the moment (physically or emotionally) and our response is in some way to feel the urge to complete this task. An example might be someone who was physically assaulted not being able to "hit back". The feeling of satisfaction you mention in using the "right" word is referred to as an "act of triumph" that we get in everyday life when you react in a way that feels successful - an example is if you open a cupboard and something falls out and your reflexes are sharp enough to catch it: that "yes!" feeling you get is an act of triumph.

In your case I wonder is there something you felt you "should have" said during your traumas and weren't able to, and now your mind is searching for a way to express the "right" phrase? It might be useful to think about your traumas, not going into the memory as such but paying attention to your sensations in the here and now while thinking about them, and sensing is there something you want to say or some phrase you are reaching for. This is just a very rough idea of sensorimotor therapy but it might be something you'd find useful.
posted by billiebee at 5:34 PM on November 7, 2014

I had this when I was an adolescent. It was definitely part of neuropsychological stress and trauma responses, and not distressing in itself at the level I experienced it. I had occasional auditory hallucinations during the same period of a couple of years, and other features of mild psychosis. Frightening episodes for me were rare.

It's not well known about in primary care, as you've found. I'm commenting to say it is something I have directly experienced and not connected to the trauma itself in terms of working through or similar theories - because my situation was very different but the brain phenomenon the same.

I stopped experiencing these things quite abruptly when I changed life situations and had to adapt - my brain got busy with different things.

On a larger scale, things will change as you heal. I'm a bit too tired to check that this comment makes proper sense at the moment (not related!) but will drop by again later, possibly with some research leads.
posted by lokta at 3:27 AM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Cat pees in bed while we're in it   |   Suggestions for a Minecraft/Amazing World of... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.