The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Sansa Stark

Drea Letamendi

The Night King has been defeated but the bitter wars for the crown in the Seven Kingdoms have yet to be settled. With so much still at stake, who among the throne-seekers will prove to be successful? To understand their personal motivations, strategies, and vulnerabilities, we must examine their psychological functioning. As part of a series of articles — including others focused on Jon Snow, Daenerys TargaryenCersei Lannister, Arya Stark, and Tyrion Lannister — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

“The North Remembers.”

Sansa Stark is a silent storm. She has suffered through some of the darkest traumas but has emerged a strong and mentally resilient woman. It’s as if she’s found a way to settle all the hells she’s been through, as if her demons rest quietly in a secure place inside of her. When will her demons be released, if ever? Is it possible for a person to heal after recurrent, traumatic experiences? Can Sansa form a healthy sense of self, one not defined by victimization and violation? If she has found a way to integrate past suffering into her psyche, not through forceful numbing but through self-preservation, Sansa may prove to be the best fit to lead The Seven Kingdoms.

Broadly defined, a trauma is any experience that causes intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, or threat of annihilation. There are multiple types of traumas ranging from accidents to personal loss to random acts of nature. But Sansa’s traumas are nearly all interpersonal, and this distinction is important. Interpersonal traumas include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse – these types of violations are interpreted by the brain and body in much different ways than, say, a natural disaster. She didn’t get hurt by chance; someone wanted her to suffer. Interpersonal trauma is experienced as invasive, intentional, and exploitative. At only thirteen, Sansa became a hostage of House Lannister, and although she initially expressed much interest if not excitement in the prospect of marrying Queen Cersei’s son, Joffrey, (after all, it did fit her early childhood schema of privilege, royalty and ladyhood), Sansa learns that she is considered an object of negotiation and trade. She realizes how brutal and sadistic Joffrey actually is and quickly learns to fear him.

Her first menstrual cycle stirs Sansa’s fear even further; the thought of having children with a psychopath like Joffrey terrifies her. Cersei reminds Sansa, “A prospect that once delighted you was bringing little princes and princesses into the world.” Cersei also warns Sansa that any love she feels will likely be for her children, not for her husband. These messages normalize the duty but not the pleasure of sex: “You will never love the King.” Not yet emotionally ready for sex, Sansa’s exchange with Queen Cersei is quite formative: The concept of physical intimacy is not associated with connection and love, or satisfaction. This “parental” advise is strikingly different than the endearing moment Sansa shares with her mother, Catelyn Stark, back at Winterfell. As her mother gently braids her hair, Sansa dreamily speaks of love, marriage, and becoming a queen one day. One can argue that Cersei’s callous worldview may have had penetrating effects on Sansa’s development, but Catelyn was present during critical periods of attachment forming. Our adult caregivers are instrumental to the formation of our esteem and understanding of relationships, as well as how we learn to cope with distress. If Sansa sees her mother as a source of consistent physiological safety, noticing Catelyn’s own ability to self-regulate when she herself is upset, Sansa is more likely to develop similar healthy responses to her own distress. This intergenerational effect will prove useful later.

There is no sense in describing each traumatic event she experiences, but it bears noting that Sansa’s perpetrators are typically men. It is also very important to talk about what happens to a person after sexual assault. Emotional distress from sexual trauma has a significant impact on our bodies. These lasting effects can range from sensory sensitivities, such as feeling on guard all the time, to more existential challenges, like a general distrust of others, chronic despair, or a damaged sense self. Nightmares and flashbacks also characterize a post-traumatic stress response. In Sansa’s case, the memories of rape are triggered in her dreams, when she is the most vulnerable and her body is still – trauma experts explain that due to the horrific nature of some traumas, the brain “chooses” to give them a “separate existence.” In thinking of difficult or adverse events in our lives, we tend to have fragmented memories or even amnesia-like symptoms because they were not “solidified” memories. In dreams, the brain is attempting to reconcile the memory. During states of alertness, the brain finds other ways to make meaning of memory tapes or “clips.” Because Sansa is victimized by people she knows, and because her traumas were recurring, she is likely experiencing triggers on a frequent basis. A psychological trigger is a physiological and emotional response outside of the survivor’s control that reminds them of past trauma.

Sexual trauma can have lasting adverse effects on a woman’s mental, physical, social, emotional, and existential well-being. It can damage her self-esteem and sense of purpose because it completely shifts the way she perceives herself, the world, and her future. Often times, a sexual assault survivor internalizes the messages of victimization, turning the blame and shame inward. “Bad things only happen to bad people; I must be bad; therefore, I must have deserved to be raped.” In a compelling if not heartbreaking comment, Sansa helps us understand the deterioration of her personhood and the loss of the goodness within herself: “If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left.” The moment Theon and Sansa jump off the side of Winterfell’s walls marks a turning point for Sansa, as if she’s decided to reclaim ownership of her body. No matter what occurs at the pit of the jump, at least her death would be her choice.

In the book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk explains the concept of a threat perception system, which is the way our brain tells us we are in danger. Complex trauma –or exposure to multiple traumatic events—can overload that messaging system. For instance, a survivor might misinterpret “ordinary” or neutral situations as threatening. Sexual trauma survivors sometimes see danger where it doesn’t exist or even fail to recognize threatening cues because their brain’s “detector” is offline. From what Sansa has learned from the Lannisters, the Boltons, and Lord Baelish, danger appears to be everywhere.

Sansa’s stoic presentation may likely be a result of a complex battle inside of her. “After trauma, your experience of yourself gets blunted,” Dr. Kolk explains. The reason this happens is that the body has mechanisms to protect itself from overwhelming emotional sensations during life-threatening attacks. In months and even years to follow, a “dampening” response kicks in, in order to mitigate feelings of shame, guilt, or horror related to the event. But this protective stress response comes with emotional casualties; shutting out pain also dampens the response to pleasure, excitement, connection. If we are not alive to feel pain, we are not alive to feel joy. Symptoms of trauma can remain dormant, and can accumulate over years if not decades. After defeating Ramsay, Winterfell is under Stark control once again, and Sansa is finally in a safe environment. As part of her healing and recovery, she must regain access to her imagination and joy. Understandably, she may actually feel numb most of the time. Feeling alive may also bring back feelings of pain.

Sansa’s quietude can be interpreted in a couple of ways. It would make sense if she unconsciously believes that men and danger are synonymous, and that safety therefore lies in solitude. Reasonably, she goes into emotional hiding, isolating herself and eschewing human contact as much as possible. But Sansa doesn’t seem as though she’s offline, or dissociating. The concept of interoception may better explain her state of mind. Interoception is the process of looking inward and simply noticing yourself. Sounds easy, but we actually don’t do this quite enough in our lives. By tuning in to ourselves, we notice the ins and outs or the “full landscape” of our bodies. Think of this as a “body scan.” We address the thoughts in our mind as well as the sensations in our body. We exercise full, unblocked consciousness, a process that allows us to then guide ourselves toward needs. Trauma survivors who spend a lot of time being silent and introspective do well in recovery because they notice how their body is living. If Sansa is noticing her internal world, in very intentional and nonjudgmental ways, she is learning how to activate her body’s “watchtower” and will feel more in control.

Sentencing Lord Baelish to death signifies Sansa’s ultimate reclaiming of control. Throughout their relationship, he guided her with manipulation and deceit; and though his abuse may not have been as horrific as Ramsay’s, Littlefinger reduced Sansa to a mere instrument in his larger plan. Trauma is cumulative. Littlefinger’s long-term exploitation is affixed along a string of abuses and becomes a part of a larger narrative she carries with her. As she repeats his own words back to him, Sansa reclaims her agency and reveals that she can no longer be played. “Sometimes when I try to understand a person’s motives I play a little game. I assume the worst.” Littlefinger’s death will not undo all the horrors in her life; it isn’t his death that matters as much as Sansa’s recharged beliefs in herself. This supports a concept of writing her own narrative, one worth cultivating and sustaining. This is part of a process called trauma integration. Sansa will begin to write her life story that honors previous experiences but also leads to individualized sustainability and the potential of self-ownership and self-compassion.

Overlooking Winterfell, Arya and Sansa reflect on their journeys. “I never could have survived what you survived,” Arya admits to Sansa, acknowledging that she understands her sister has endured incredible cruelty. I wish Arya had gone further and named it. By labeling the trauma what it is – rape, abuse, torture – Arya would affirm the belief that Sansa’s confusion, fogginess, memory lapses, pain and anguish, all of it, are valid and real. Arya’s assurance of support, however, is truly what will lead them both to healing. It is true that empowerment, choice, and agency are all crucial in trauma recovery and that that these experiences even expand one’s capacity to endure pain in the future, which we know they will need during the Great War. But connection and trust between one another is one of the strongest predictors of healing, and our ability to thrive as humans. For the Starks, living beyond trauma has purpose. “In winter we must protect ourselves, look after one another,” repeat the ladies of Winterfell. “The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

Click on the links below for our psychological profiles on other key Game of Thrones players…

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.