If only life was one long, beautiful, inspirational journey. But it’s not. Some of us know that life can include experiences of such fear, helplessness and pain that we wonder how we survived. Over time, and with support, most of us get back to what we would call our normal. Yet others of us discover no matter what, we just can’t.
We call these experiences psychological trauma, the kind of experiences that steal our mental equilibrium. Many traumas have their origin in childhood; our bodies and minds are dependent, small, developing and vulnerable. The younger we are when they occur, the more impact they may have on the way we learn to relate, think, feel and trust the world around us.
Traumatic memories happen within the brain when we survive a life-threatening event and experience overwhelming shock, loss, fear, horror and helplessness. The words we have for what we experienced are just not enough to explain it to others. Motor vehicle accidents, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, parental neglect and addiction, domestic violence, plane crashes, witnessing homicide, military combat, escaping house fires: these are among the experiences that can overwhelm our emotions and capacity to bear what we have seen and known. The memory of the experience is stored in a kind of jumble in the brain, never blending into what we would call our normal sense of self, our everyday explicit memory.
Neurologists, psychologists and other researchers have made wonderful strides in the last 30 years in understanding how trauma effects the brain. And as the science of trauma becomes clearer, so has the clinical work of seeking effective treatments: treatments for the post-trauma effects that are expressed in our bodies in the form of chronic pain, sudden panic attacks, visual and auditory flashbacks, depression, anxiety, relationship and work problems, addictions and patterns of emotional dissociation.
First generation psychological care for traumatic memory was talk therapy; some relief was attained by patients helped to fully describe their experience in a private, compassionate therapeutic environment. Second generation care added strong prescription medications to calm the nervous system, limit emotional affectivity or target psychotic symptoms. What the most recent research has shown is that both methods are insufficient; talking uses the cognitive portions of the brain without adequately engaging the emotional and survival systems, systems that were in charge during a trauma, and dulling trauma memories or disengaging them temporarily with psychotropic drugs won’t heal the damaged and chronically misfiring memory patterns.
What does work is helping the sufferer to carefully, artfully, and in a controlled and focused way to re-experience the memories, feel the experience again in the body while expressing the energy, body movements, sounds, sights and postures that were suppressed at the moments of helplessness, dissociation and physical restriction. To think the thoughts that seem too terrible to think, and to help the mind link up the original memory to the fuller, day to day explicit or narrative memory that we live and work in every day.
This is what the work of Francine Shapiro’s EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing (SE), Albert Pesso’s Psychomotor Therapy and Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Approach all seek in their similar models: to have the sufferer become integrated with their physical bodies, those same bodies that have experienced the trauma, to feel, tolerate, express, observe and rewrite their story in the present sense of the self.
All this is to say: there has never been a time in human history where more can be done to help the trauma sufferer than now. If you are besieged by physical and mental echoes of a terrible event in your past, please seek out care from a psychotherapist trained in the newer trauma resolution techniques. Many of us have found peace where there was no peace, and wish the same health and healing for you.
Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine
Getting Past Your Past, Francine Shapiro
Waking: A Memoir, Matthew Sandford
Yoga for Trauma: Mary NurrieStearns