Traumatic events come in all shapes and sizes however, the common elements are:
a) The event is unpredictable and causes intense feelings such as fear and terror.
b) The event involves an irreplaceable loss of some kind.
c) The person’s usual ways of coping with stress become overloaded and confused
d) There is a feeling of being out of control.
During the last 25 years I have worked with many clients, children and adults, who have suffered from the debilitating impact of traumatic stress. They have, each in their own unique way, found the resources and the ability to process their trauma so that they can now live more fulfilling and successful lives. I have been privileged to be part of their healing journey. For some the healing is quick, for others it takes patient attentive focused attention and time.
I would like to share with you some key lessons that I have learned over the years about trauma and healing from trauma and the resiliency of the human mind/body/spirit:
1) To survive a traumatic experience, we initially go into shock and our thoughts and feelings and sensations become compartmentalized from each other. An important part of healing is the integration of all parts of the memory.
2) Memory is extremely complex and involves far more than just recalled images, or snatches of pictures, it also includes sensory memories, sounds and smells and kinescetic (movements) memories and feeling states. For instance, for infants memory is mostly sensory and a traumatic event can cause long bouts of inconsolable crying or deep sleep.
3) Brain Research has now proven that it is not enough to just talk about traumatic experiences to achieve resolution, although it is an important part of the healing when the time is right. The body needs to be included: in action and movement, in expression and stillness. in the healing process. We can see this in Children mostly, but adults also, in their attempts to heal the trauma, they will often reenact their trauma, in play and sometimes in repetitive negative behavior, over and over again to try to find a different outcome. This is like a dog chasing its tail trying to find a good place to rest and be comfortable and never doing so. A trained therapist can interrupt and focus this expressive energy and guide the client to some resolution to find rest and comfort. Expressive arts, dance, meditation practices, martial arts, self defense trainings, and massage when used appropriately at the right time can also be very helpful.
4) Gaining access to the ability to relax again, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system in a consistent way is an important part of healing from trauma. Physical exercise and Meditation; having a child join a sports team to run off energy and connect with peers, receiving a therapeutic massage from a knowledgeable practitioner; participating in a support group, or community can be useful.
5) When the brain is activated by a threat, whether it is a real time threat or activated memory, it is not the time to problem-solve or expect thoughtful insight. (the neo cortex goes off line when the ‘survival reaction team’ of the brain, amygdala and limbic system, is fully activated) This is most useful for parents to remember when their child ( whether 3 year old or teen) is having a melt down or hissy fit and you are trying to reason with them or as often happens, join them in their state of dysregulation and upset.
6) When trauma occurs there is a rupture in time where past and present merge and a story becomes frozen. An example of this is when an adopted child with a history of physical abuse, may start interacting with the adoptive father as if he is the birth father that hurt him and could not be trusted to keep him safe.
7) Finding some lightness in the dark:, like singing, dancing, laughing and being silly and finding company that accepts you while you are going through the process is also important. And if you have lost your sense of humor hang out with people who can help you find it again! Unreasonable Trauma and Silly Absurdity, can often be part of the same coin at times.
Healing occurs once you have:
- A free flowing access to your internal and external resources and strengths and can call on your abilities to sooth and relax and ground yourself. You have learned the ability to regulate and manage your distress when it occurs. The time it takes to calm and sooth yourself has diminished in increments from lasting a week to just a few hours or even minutes or seconds.
- You can process the trauma in a safe environment which often includes grieving a loss or losses and have access to all parts of yourself - senses/feelings/thoughts while processing that loss.
- You are able to integrate your memories of the trauma - thoughts, feelings and sensations. You have a sense of integration of your past, present and future which a allows you to feel whole and move forward through time with a sense of hopefulness and optimism. This is important as trauma survivors often do not have a sense of having a future and feel at the mercy of their past until the trauma is resolved.
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