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Toward a Jamesian account of trauma and healing

Shannon Sullivan


In this essay, I use William James’s theory of emotion from his Principles of Psychology to develop an account of trauma as fully and non-reductively psychophysiological. After explaining James’s account of emotion as bodily change, I develop a Jamesian understanding of trauma and healing in three steps. Drawing from examples of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by both soldiers and victims of sexual assault, I argue that (1) all traumatic events, even ones that seem to leave no physical wound, are physiological because they are emotional, and (2) a Jamesian understanding of trauma need not be confined to the individual; it can account for the prememories and postmemories of collective and transgenerational trauma. Finally (3), I argue that because trauma involves bodily movement and change, so too should successful recovery from trauma, a Jamesian insight that supports the use of movement therapies to promote healing.

Shannon Sullivan
University of North Carolina at Charlotte


William James; emotion; body; trauma; healing;

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