Surviving Trauma

What constitutes trauma? It many be different for all of us but the core feelings are the same. Fear, anger, withdrawal, confusion, intimidation are all emotional elements of those who have survived a traumatic situation. Working through it can be a lifelong process and it involves many types of coping skills to deal with it effectively. I am not speaking about physical trauma but rather psychological trauma though one can certainly lead to the other.

Many years ago emotional trauma brought up the feeling of shame. It was hidden away by families and never spoken about, fearing the stigma of having survived trauma would cast a disgraceful light on the victim. The ‘we do not air our dirty laundry’ syndrome. Blocking out the incident was the only means of treatment but, of course, this did not solve the problem. Learning to withdraw or disassociate from the memory of the event was encouraged but this merely suppressed intense negative feelings, rendering the victim to live a wounded life. Never being able to escape the multitude of emotions associated with surviving trauma. And when those feelings are ignored, they eventually re-emerge in the form of self-destructive behaviors.

This was especially the case with soldiers who had experienced the horror of war. So overwhelming were the experiences causing death and severe injury, the mind could not comprehend the magnitude of the situation at the time. Long after the event, if not processed, a triggering (reminde event caused them to live the memory of the trauma over and over again and believing that it was happening again. Never being able to obtain peace. Thus, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) became a diagnostic psychological impairment in the psychiatric world and a new way of approaching treatment came to light.

We do use our survival skills to get through the trauma (though it may not seem like we do at the time) to ensure self preservation. It is the aftermath that creates the severe difficulties in our thinking and behaving. As I have said, repression is usually the first condition noticed. We use this as a defense mechanism in which to deal with the event but this usually cannot last forever. At some point, when the sufferer cannot function well in the day to day living situations of society, the issue must be gently addressed. Associated with repression, reoccurring nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety, addiction and depression can consume one’s life. The decision to address the traumatic event is a major breakthrough and only then can the intricate work can start to occur. It is not a decision that is easily reached. With the guidance of a qualified mental health professional, the victim discovers that they are really a survivor. This change in thinking sets the stage for the rest of the work. It is important to address the details of trauma in a safe environment. A therapist can pace the amount of information revealed and will recognize when the survivor is become overwhelmed. In some cases, it is a delicate balance but the therapist usually takes his/her cue from the client with the hope that, in time, the entire event can be processed.

I usually discourage those sitting alone at a computer to relive the details of their trauma as they can become devastated by the disclosure and there is no safety net in which to fall. I understand the human need to allow others in but emotional safety must be considered. A therapist will remind an overwhelmed client that the trauma is not happening in that moment. The trauma was done in the past and that the client is not in any immediate danger. This is very grounding for the client as they realize that they are, indeed, talking about the past without the danger of re-occurrence. The goal of therapy is not to eradicate the trauma from the clients psyche but rather to make the memories more manageable; no longer paralyzing them or destroying their quality of life. Discussing the event on a regular basis assists in reducing the emotional power that the client initially feels their trauma has over them. In support groups, talking to others who have experienced trauma and discussing the feelings that they all share can be very therapeutic in showing the client that they are not alone. Once the event no longer rules over the life of the survivor, they are free to experience the positive aspects of their lives. We all want the best possible life and learning healthy coping skills to deal with past traumatic events can be life saving.

Remember to be kind to yourself during this process. You did not ask for this. We are all fragile human beings, sometimes feeling alone with our past so processing it takes love and patience. No one wants to live in fear. We want to live in the sunshine, reclaiming our lives and relationships. It is never a requirement that past traumatic events must rule over our lives indefinitely. We learn to be the ruler over the after effects of our crisis situations. We can live with the knowledge that our trauma is behind us and we can have exactly the kind of life that we want. It is all possible.

National Center for PTSD:

How to Recover From Trauma

Emotional trauma can be as debilitating as physical trauma. Emotional trauma is an automatic side effect of physical trauma. Although one can have emotional trauma without physical trauma, emotional trauma affects us physically. The debilitating effects of trauma are well known. Therefore recovery from any kind of trauma is vital, if an individual wishes to live as healthy a life as possible.

The most important ingredient in recovery from any kind of trauma is safety. Safe people in safe places are a must. The safest people are those who have been trained to listen, to be nonjudgmental, and to be empathic. My experience is that most of those people are mental/emotional therapists and counselors. Ongoing research supports talking to another person about a trauma experience as the most effective way to recover from trauma. Telling the story as many times as is necessary in order to remove the onus of total responsibility from one’s self, to try to make sense of the trauma and to integrate the experience into our self understanding. This also can involve processing the traumatic experience on different levels, including the somatic and visual levels.

Finding a therapist/counselor one feels safe with is challenging. There are many articles written about how to find a good therapist and what good therapy is. A good therapist will not pathologize the client, but will perceive a client to be greater than his /her problems. Therefore a good therapist recognizes that when an individual expresses anger, the person needs to process her/his issues and learn how to cope with and express that anger safely. A good therapist will not label a person as being an “angry person”. Good therapists also know how to empower their client’s and have experienced many people changing and growing as they become healthier. A good therapist is self-aware, sensitive, empathic, creative, and confident in her clients abilities. In good therapy there is a spirit of collaboration and the relationship between therapist and client is vital. Good therapy is both expressive and cognitive, using emotional and cognitive techniques that allow an individual to heal holistically and deeply. A good therapist will also be able to refer a client to another therapist if they believe that is best for the client.

Group work is another powerful method for healing traumatic experiences. In a group setting a client is able to discover that many people have similar issues. Another benefit is that of listening to different techniques that have helped different individuals. While support groups are excellent for this type of healing, therapy groups can be better. A support group is comprised of people with similar issues and often does not have a trained leader. A therapy group is also made up of people with similar issues, however a trained therapist will facilitate the group process. Education is an important element of recovery from trauma. Therapists have been educated about trauma and often will use research supported approaches, such as Dialectical Behavioral therapy, to facilitate the group work.

At times an individual will be working on a trauma they are aware of and will find memories of other traumas beneath that one. Our unresolved, implicit memories from our early childhood often result in our re-creating similar situations in an attempt to resolve early childhood trauma. Our implicit memory is hard wired to create a “self fulfilling prophecy”. As an individual is working on a current trauma they will also be working on earlier trauma’s.

It is important for individuals to research the type of therapy they would like to use. Recent research is supporting the use of expressive therapies. Expressive therapies involve recognizing and validating the emotions that are the results of trauma. Emotions involve several processes that are a vital aspect of the mind. Cognitions and emotions work with each other. They cannot be separated. Emotions connect people with one another. Unfortunately, many people were not given a healthy attachment experience during the first three years of their lives, which often results in those individuals being unable to be aware of their feelings. It is vital to be aware of our feelings, they continually give us important information. Trauma can result in individuals trying to anesthetize their feelings. Sometimes these efforts take the shape of an addiction. Other times a person will simply convince themselves that they have no feelings or that they are “not emotional”. Expressive therapies can be very helpful for these individuals, as well as, for those who are more aware of their feelings.

A combination of cognitive and expressive therapies is often best. Expressive therapy can elicit emotions with relative ease. Cognitive therapy can then be used to teach coping skills for the emotions. Behaviors are the result of thoughts and feelings. Behaviors will improve as the individual’s emotional and cognitive health improves. A hallmark of good therapy is when the therapist is able to meet a client “where they’re at”. An example of this would be the highly intellectualized client. A good therapist would begin by using a lot of cognitive and educational work, while gradually introducing emotional and expressive work.

Good therapy is hard work. It involves the individual choosing to use what they’ve learned from their therapy on a daily basis. Or not. Good therapy can be messy. It involves feeling emotions we might not want to feel. And there is only one way to go through it. We cannot work through trauma without going through it. Unresolved feelings affect us negatively. Because I have worked with many individuals who have had the courage to work through their trauma, I have developed a deep and high regard for the resiliency and strength people have. Most people surprise themselves with their own ability to fully recover from trauma and create the life they wish to lead. This is why I now have unending hope.

Trauma Is Transformed

You are dying as you read this. You are also birthing something as you finish this. There are about 75 trillion cells in the human body. Each cell is individuated with a specific task and a life span. They die before “us” and are replaced with new cells. They also outlive us. According to Forensics specialist, when a person dies, their cells take another day or so before they are all dead. Essentially, we are in the state of an ongoing resurrection with parts of us dying being replaced with parts of us being born. No wonder I am not the same person I was last year.

Your skin is a tattoo covering your soul. We cover it, ink it, pinch it, poke it and caress it, but what you felt 3 weeks ago is different than what you feel right now. Your baby’s touch may have felt good a month ago, but caught off guard or in a rush, the same touch is annoying. The skin changed, but the brain being old, stubborn and reptilian has yet to catch up because it likes to horde memories. The skin sheds and the brain retains. Surely both are required; but they are working in opposition of each other. If they were working in tangent, the resilience of the skin would teach the brain to let go after it has obsessed over the same words a million times. In turn, the brain would remind the skin to stay around a little longer to read what is written on its old skin before it is released.

I often assist patients by first engaging their senses so that the process of demystifying the power that abuse claims is gone. I often begin with the largest organ on the body. The skin. Touch it, read it and remember, it can teach you something about resiliency and trauma. When a person thinks of trauma, they remember the cringe worthy feeling or numbness that burns in disgust on their skin. Most sexual abuse victims most often say they feel, dirty, nasty and disgusting. Unable to touch their skin to see it is not the same skin the abuser touched a year ago. On a psychical level, when you away from the abuse, your skin you are touching now is not the same skin the abuser touched. It shed and replaced itself with a new jacket. This is good news for everything; from addiction to old feelings

It is a smart organ that erases other fingerprints taking over. The skin changes and shed itself; yet the mind doesn’t like serpents more clever than its coiled brain. When violence lacerates the skin, the memory of that laceration is anchored in the mind. The brain is much slower in renewal. Some say it doesn’t renew its cells and others say yes, but slower than any other part of the body. Suffice to say while they figure it out, it is not exactly the most apt to shed itself. It is afterall the library. Best we can do is organize it or shred its pages.

Though you have to master the coiled mind if you want your soul to master you. The chmabers like to play mind games with the skin. The catch -22 is they evoke the worst images and replay back onto the new skin you just grew. So now it is not your abuser who is touching you; it is your chaotic memories that are torturing your skin. It is you tormenting you.

Worse yet, memory can become so suffocating that you suffer from amnesia and remember nothing; thus becoming ignorant of yourself. If you realize that triggers are those rooted in the dead skin that is shed, then one part of “letting go” can occur. Yet, truly “letting go” also requires ordering memory or you will become the source of your pain and never turn torture into poetry.

Whereas the skin must shed; the mind must order itself. Anxiety associated with PTSD that is all too common with trauma victims arises when thoughts are colliding into each other trying to be heard in the crowded room of your chambers. Memories overlap and before you know it the trauma takes over and turns everything into a trigger, even good memories. Flashbacks enter and even the smell of your once favorite perfume becomes saturated in the feces of the beast that overthrow your thoughts and there you are caught in a whirlwind of chaos. The coup d’├ętat. The overthrowing of your very mind by a dictator of trauma controlling all movement until your skin is dead.

Well this crazy dance is not in vain. What you just did is introduce the brain to skin. They need each other but operate like they are foreigners on your own divorced body. You must connect them. How? Now enters the soul who is wiser than both and instructs that trauma doesn’t let go of you. It just changes you. The brain doesn’t change, but the way it narrates memory does change. Like energy, it simply changed form and went somewhere else. You are treading on this vital tool called active detachment; which is the best of logic and emotion working as one. Careful because avoidance is not active detachment but can trick you to feel like it is one as it gives ego a false sense of strength.

The narrative therapy approach as well as visual arts are often used by me to allow the victim to take back their story and re-tell it in their way, as many times as they want; thus controlling the pen by taking it out of the hands of the uninvited colonizer. Add to that the realm of dreams and an existentialist’s imagination and you have a beginning blueprint. Imagination saved Viktor Frankl from the insanity of concentration camps; so learn that type of calculated imagination. He was rooted in the reality of ovens; but practiced active detachment that is Zen in form that allowed him to see reality without fear. Without this brilliant calculation he evoked, his imagination could have threw him into the inferno of disassociation and delusion. Instead, like most masters, he perfected it to invent and create whole schools of thought. He remembered every detail of the camp and still managed to rise over it through his inner orchestra of the most stunning chamber music we still hear from him years after his death.

He knew memory is divided into 2 spaces: what is real and what is an illusion. For example, violence is real; but the power of attackers over the rise of soul is not real. A soul is more powerful because it is beyond attack. It is the breath of God you are holding. Behold: Breath comes from the ancient Hebrew word Ruach- God’s soul. When that soul finds expression inside the body of each human, it is is funneled into each man. What fills us is called Nafesh; which is soul of God manifested as breath inside of form. You see not one human being can handle even a breath of divinity with care; so wisdom requires it is freely given to life forms to practice vision of infinite soul. Without the connection of all things, we are -ill-formed and can’t be a whole soul; but a part of it, or breath. We each have a piece of that soul inside of us. Our soul does not break because it doesn’t belong to any of us; but to all of us. Like Sisyphus we try to chain death and so trap our piece of soul in our rib cages, but it always escapes.

When it is gone, it not yours alone. It comes from the stars and goes back to the stars. When an old star dies, it sheds its light and pours the ashes of its death into the birth of a new star. Dust to dust could very well mean “stardust to stardust.” So trauma doesn’t seem so engulfing when we perceive things are not what we know; but what we do not know.

Perhaps that earth shattering explosion you hear may sound like a soul breaking; but it not. It is the lie you hear breaking. The lie that says the brain knows who we are and tricks us by using it to trap us with blackmail of crowded information. The lie is the skin that is over-touched and leaves us to renew ourselves with new skin, but forgets (thanks to the forgetful mind and hurried old skin) to leave us with the coding to do so.

That break we hear is not the spirit but the lie that assumes we are the graveyards of other people’s sins. There is either silence before the crime scene or injustice after. The scream you hear in between is the gavel of your character and the rise of your response. The traumatized can and should be the truth teller. The trauma is transformed when the illusion of innocence is broken. Everyone is a criminal and only she or he who screams in silent terror is the victim; but only in that moment. To stay there would mean we would scream with stitched mouths forever. They did not rescue us then and so they must rescue their humanity now. Not only for them; but for all of us.

So you see, trauma long stopped being a cross I bear alone. I am generous and will ensure I never enter the house of the selectively deaf, dumb and blind without a gift. Trauma breaks minds and bodies; not soul which is capable of both remembering light years of information and agile enough to shed what imprisons it to illusions.

The truth is our traumas are real; but they are not our own. Let them go means let them go so that you are not the crypt keeper of all of our sins trapped inside the little body that once held the vault of secrets. Let it go. It is a crime against HUMANITY and not a crime against you. Do you now understand why it is important to express your torment? My love, you nor I are graveyard. Not even the children that died in the name of your father’s sins are buried. They are here. We are here. Ensure your trauma invites everyone to the divine court of justice. Even death; trauma’s elder teacher is present. Trauma is a small death.

Evoke imagination, expressed in your art, work and life so that the criminal, both silent and loud are called out. If you are waiting for the flawed court of man’s system to determine what is fair, you will not die. You will become a ghost that never sheds its body and has the same reoccurring nightmares. Raise your standards until their standards are below you. There are so many other ways to reclaim who you are that do not depend on antiquated institutions. Explore them and if they don’t work, remember what deepened wisdom and worked and shed the rest with the ignorance that needs more time to grow the skin of liquid oceans and pearled coils of wisdom. That is trauma transformed. Forget nothing and shed everything.