Trauma is something that has become much more well understood with a combination of scientific research into the brain, and studies on the effects of therapeutic interventions. Unfortunately is still one of the most under-diagnosed and misread and therefore mistreated experiences. Here are 8 tips that might help you recognise and respond to trauma.
1) Trauma isn’t that scary
Whenever I talk to people about trauma, or it’s apparent that the person sitting with me has been impacted by traumatic experiences, I hesitate to mention the T word. I’ve seen the fear in your eyes many times. So let me reassure you: Trauma is way less scary than a ‘diagnosis’. Once you have a ‘diagnosis’ you can be forgiven for thinking that the problem is now out of your hands, and the professionals will take care of it. The truth is that we do not have a foolproof ‘treatment’ for any mental illnesses, diagnosis or not. But we now understand that many experiences we previously bunched into a variety of mental disorders are actually caused by the impacts of trauma interrupting how the brain sends messages around. Here’s the amazing bit: your brain is capable of growing new neural passages. This is called neuroplasticity, which was discovered in… wait for for it… 1998. What this means is that the impacts of trauma can be healed! The more research uncovers the way the brain responds and grows with new experiences, the more we need to move away from useless diagnoses and over-medication, and towards strategic efforts to grow healthy healing neural passages.
2) Trauma is a normal response to abnormal circumstances
The reason why ‘trauma’ isn’t that scary is because trauma is a normal response to abnormal circumstances. Anything that happens that the brain can’t make sense of can cause an interruption to the way your brain sends messages around. When the ‘normal’ way this occurs is interrupted by some kind of shocking experience, that’s when you might have: anxiety attacks, trouble connecting emotionally with new memories, nightmares, high levels of stress and difficulty coping in ordinary circumstances. If you think about it, it makes sense. The brain likes secure, safe conditions to nest in. Individuals perceive experiences differently, so what is unbelievable and unsafe to my brain might be fine to yours. You may have lived through a war, survived a violent relationship, lost a loved one (through separation or death), lost a vision of the future you were connected to, been through a natural disaster, worked in stressful circumstances for a long time, had an accident, been subjected to ridicule, to bullying or survived child abuse (of ANY kind- not just physical) to name just a few experiences that might have an impact on how your brain sends messages around.
It is also very common to not experience the impacts until well after an event or series of events have occurred (6 months to several years). Generally, once you stop ‘doing’ and you think ‘Phew! Now I can relax and get on with my real life’ the brain is also thinking ‘Phew! Now we can relax. We are safe, we are out of danger and so I can drop the ball on my job as your brain, and just melt into a messy puddle and stop making sense’
3. A brief history lesson on trauma in society (coz this is ‘school’)…
You might be wondering how it is that we have known about neuroplasticity since 1998, but little of these understandings seem to have entered the common language of medicine or psychology. It may interest you to know that we have a history of ignoring studies on the impacts of trauma.
Our favourite father of Psychology, Freud, actually did extensive research with women who suffered from what used to be called ‘hysteria’. From the reports at the time (of which there are many, but little are known these days) the women he worked with found some relief in his ‘talking treatment’ and they were moving towards far greater discoveries, when Freud realised something unsettling. All of the women displaying signs of ‘hysteria’ had experienced some kind of significant abuse as a child- physical, emotional and/or sexual (incidentally, ‘hysteria’ might now look a little like a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis- one of the most offensive and frankly misogynistic descriptions of a misunderstood mental illness predominantly diagnosed in women but occasionally men). He wrote, painfully, about this discovery and pondered what it might mean for how we understand mental illness. Perhaps it was too much for him, to reflect on the damage humans do to one another, or perhaps the wider society wasn’t ready to believe (and in 2016 we still struggle to just believe women, so I doubt many were keen in the late 1800’s) but he very suddenly changed tack with his bewildered patients. He began accusing them of wanting sex when they were children, and writing about the terms we are now familiar with: ‘penis envy’ and ‘castration complex’. You can even read transcripts of some of these sessions: women confused and unsure of what must have been quite a shock from someone they thought was going to help them. All of the work on trauma was buried.
Similarly, when soldiers were returning from World War 1 and ‘Shellshock’ was discovered and named, extensive research into the condition and support for these traumatised men began. However the primary research was, once again, buried by a society that didn’t want to face the damage humans cause to humans (and particularly Governments invested in war and needing soldiers) and what they saw as a brain condition we didn’t know how to fix. Funding ceased and soldiers suffering from Shellshock and their families were generally left to fend for themselves and stigmatised as hopeless men who couldn’t ‘handle’ the conditions of war.
If you peer into history, you’ll see many other examples of similar stories. So it’s actually unsurprising, in this context, that we seem to be very slow to acknowledge the impacts of trauma and what we do know about it. We don’t like to believe that we may- even accidentally- be responsible for causing ongoing trauma in our fellow humans.
4. When we are born, the part of the brain that experiences the world and the part that makes sense of it are not able to speak to each other
A newborn baby is born with only 25% of its brain fully formed. Crucially, the Amygdala and the Prefrontal cortex are not talking to one another because the communicator- the Hippocampus- isn’t formed (the part that retrieves memories and uses them to inform us how to act and react, like in this classroom’s humorous depiction).
Just to be clear: the part of the brain that experiences the world- the ‘animal’ reactionary part, the part that tells you to run, or the parts that tells you to lift your arm to scratch your itchy arm, and the part of the brain that forms memories and narratives, stories about our lives that make sense of the world and help us know how to act in new situations because of previous situations are not on speaking terms. Not at all. All the experiences a baby has, therefore, are growing neural passages rather than forming story-memories. Its like happy little ‘ping ping ping pings’ in the brain when babies feel secure. The brain is setting up the conditions for narrative memories to be able to form and be responded to: when we are age 3-5.
5. Trauma is stored in the body as well as the mind
From this understanding about the brain, it might make more sense as to why we think that trauma is stored in the body as well as the mind. As every parent will know, babies learn to do many things before narrative memories are formed. So there are other stages of memory, of brain formation and growth. But where are these memories stored if not in the Prefrontal Cortex? Good question.
Well, basically the answer is: somewhere else. When we talk about trauma being stored in the body, I guess what we really mean is still the mind, but in a part of the memory that isn’t easily reached. A part that may be triggered by physical experiences, intense emotions, or if you have been impacted by a traumatic experience, it might be any old thing that reminds the Hippocampus of the original experience/s and it sends a message to the Amygdala to react- to get to safety. If you aren’t actually in danger, this can send you into some kind of explosion: a fear response such as immediate high stress or a panic attack or chaotic chain-reactions of behaviour that you cannot make sense of when you aren’t ‘in them’. The Amygdala is, unfortunately, not sensible.
6. Trauma can be healed by giving love to the Hippocampus to grow neural passages
Did I mention that trauma can be healed? I just love saying it, over and over. The awesome thing about Neuroplasticity is that our brains can grow new neural passages. You can teach the Hippocampus to work properly again: to retrieve appropriate memories and calm the Amygdala down when it’s supposed to. This may take a lot of time- or it may not.
Key findings show that certain kinds of activity can assist neural passages to grow:
- Yoga: (specifically trauma-healing, google can help you find this)
- Massage: (n.b.: can also be triggering, so find a practitioner you feel safe and secure with)
- Music: (playing and listening to: whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to be ‘calming’. You may also consider going to a Music Therapist if music just makes your brain sing)
- Rigorous exercise: and training (if that’s your thang)
- Mindfulness: (it’s not just a fad. Mindfulness activities such as anchoring your feet or hands into a surface by pushing into it, describing every day activities in minute detail to yourself, Looking, Hearing and Feeling whatever is around you and internally describing are all ways of popping the brain into Here and Now: where you want to be, not in the past. The Amygdala can actually hear Mindfulness because it’s action-based)
- Breathing: (deep diaphragm breathing with a focus on the calming out-breath and counting).
- Trembling: (‘tremoring’, purposely in a controlled environment. A trauma specialist can help)
- Meridian Stretches Exercises: (The Makka Ho’s come from traditional Shiatsu practice and the notion that different parts of the body relate to and store different areas of experience and emotion. Makka Ho’s are quite simple exercises, check out this instructional video you can do at home
- Art: (However you make it, however you do it:drawing, painting, writing, building, creating. You can also look up Art Therapy Exercises online. If you are into it, I would encourage you to move beyond colouring-in and seek art therapy exercises specifically for healing or go to an Art Therapist)
- Self-Talk: (A mantra or catchphrase that you can grab easily without thinking. 2 favourites of mine are ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and also ‘Bring It On’ when the weird feeling rises. Here’s another simple idea from my blog)
7. You can ReAuthor trauma by discovering your responses alongside the experiences
How can I heal if I can’t feel time?
Leonard Shelby in the film Memento
While the above exercises can assist positive neural growth, additionally it might be helpful to explore the ‘trauma narrative’ in an entirely different way to assist you to ‘feel time’ in ways that are not re-traumatising and stronger. Most Narrative therapists and community workers will tell you that they firmly believe no trauma occurs without a response.
This means that you were never a helpless victim, no matter what the circumstances: You always, always did something with what was available to you at the time that spoke of your values and your identity.
This isn’t to minimise what happened to you or what was done to you without your permission. It doesn’t mean you ‘should’ have done something bigger or stronger or different from exactly what you did do at the time.
What it means is that, while the brain was kicking into the Amygdala: the ‘keep safe’ automatic responses of fleeing, fighting, freezing, tending or befriending (the last two are stress responses we know from studies on women, more on in a future post) you were also doing something else that kept you being YOU.
Something that kept your identity poking out when it was or is being messed with. Something that may have been lost in a memory overwhelmed with pain or numbness, or within a current inability to see yourself as anything or anyone other that a useless person. Here are some ideas, from a variety of different situations:
- Rearranging ‘just so’ furniture in tiny, non-obvious ways
- Poking my tongue out behind [an abusers] back
- Standing up after he left the room
- Protecting or saving someone else
- Combing my hair and washing my face every day, even though no one was looking and I was in extreme circumstances
- Writing notes, then crumpling them up and throwing them away
- Saying to a mum I saw struggling that I understood
- Seeking justice, fighting for rights for myself and others like me
- Sharing my story, anonymously, online to help others
- Posting something on Facebook about what I believe in
- Screaming out with my eyes
- Crying when i’m told i’m ‘too emotional’
This list goes on and on and on. In groups I have run for women survivors of domestic violence and childhood abuse, we make and add to lists like this, and I am always amazed and often deeply touched by the enormous variety things that make the ‘Response’ list (sometimes called Acts of Resistance, for further info check out this blog post which demonstrates how exploring your survival skills can be an amazing experience).
Getting to know yourself and your story through your responses rather than just the impacts can be incredible empowering and beautiful. No one and nothing can steal your identity. Try writing your own Act… just one thing you did or have done that demonstrated how you were and are still YOU.
8. You are not alone
You can be tricked into remaining silent about traumatic events, particularly if they were done to you by someone else. You can be tricked into thinking you are the only person who feels like you do, or that it is in some way shameful or even selfish to tell others.
It is never shameful to seek help.
There are other people who understand what you have been through- even if they are completely different from you- and there are people either in your life now or out in the world who want to support you and want to create the conditions for healing.
I once helped a couple in counselling with only 6 sessions, where one partner was suffering the impacts of trauma 7 years after 2 significant losses had destroyed his world. Sometimes having more than one person in the room can help, because you can do physical activities together as well as bear witness to one another’s stories: particularly as new understandings about your selves and new narratives arise about who you are, they are being witnessed in real time by someone who is with your more than 1 hour/week.
Family, friends, pets, support groups, healing groups, online support, counsellors, music teachers, gym instructors, meditation teachers, classroom teachers, some doctors, the woman who *knows * at the Centrelink counter, lovers, chance encounters, artists, films, books, writers, hikers and a myriad of others and what they share with the world can be of help.
You aren’t alone. You aren’t alone. You are not alone.
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