The trials of trauma
32. Holding on when it hurts
For medical doctors, trauma means any life-threatening physical condition, but the mental health definition is wider, interpreting trauma in the more classical theatrical sense of unusual events that would induce major stress in most people. When applied to real cases, this description is vague and doesn’t take into account variations in interpretations, individual sensitivity, resilience and other salient factors. Symptoms showing that trauma has set in include extended feelings of being overwhelmed, afraid and unable to function as before, sometimes to the point of immobility.
Draining behavioural sensations such as constriction, hyper-arousal and dissociation are commonly reported. Early trauma, according to many studies, can mutate into more sustained neurosis and psychosis if not checked in time. Judith Herman’s 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, broke new ground by confronting social antecedents of personal trauma and charting recovery through six stages.
According to Peter Levine, energy failing to discharge from the nervous system as it does in wild animals escaping predators, leads to sustained tension, re-enactment, and re-victimisation in human beings. In his classic book on trauma, Healing The Tiger, Levine outlines how healing can occur by consciously re-directing unconscious physiological instincts, that have gone awry and got stuck, through a natural creative process that allows nervous-emotional self-regulation to be restored. The topic of post traumatic growth focuses on the character gains that can rebound to survivors after enduring terrible pain.
An increasing amount of theoretical attention is being paid to trauma pathways. Dr Anne De Prince and others associate re-victimisation with betrayal and an interpersonal cognitive schema resulting from, and subsequently attracting, harmful relationships. Recent reports suggest that hostile dispositions alone, such as racism, inflict trauma. So does combat.
Ahead of her time, Alice Miller demolished Freud’s dismissal of childhood traumas, and pioneered the championing of the child’s arduous battle against endless manipulations by parents, who are inexorably inclined to foist outstanding unmet needs on their offspring, impeding the child’s progress with a sense of self intact. “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery and emotional acceptance of the truth in the individual and unique history of our childhood,” she said, in one of her best-selling books, The Drama Of The Gifted Child. Her work continues to be respected, while undergoing some criticism for row-backs, hypocrisy and re-assessment.
When someone is severely provoked, anger is a natural response, but there are good arguments to replace an urge to punish with non-violent transformation and understanding. This approach diverts the energy of destruction and can effect decisive change. Liz Roehmer, a long-time trauma researcher, co-wrote, The Mindful Way Through Anxiety. It outlines strategies to alleviate chronic worry states which sometimes feature in post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s blockbuster on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, sections elaborate on various kinds of stress, anxiety, panic, emotional pain, and getting stuck in cycles of uncontrollable horrid reactivity. The clarifying healing power of the present moment, the only real time available to take in what’s going on, is promoted, instead of letting things happen on autopilot. Instructions on practices are set out in detail to help readers regain the energy to dance in the face of assured catastrophes likely to be encountered just by virtue of being alive; not only the big crises and losses but the little infuriating incidents, the weight of everything. It’s no small matter to keep going through daily uncertainties and disappointments.
In coming to grips with the difficulties though, there’s potential for growth and wisdom, especially, it is argued, if seven favourable attitudes are fostered: non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. With improved insights into the effects of post-traumatic stress, many different tactics have been tried and tested to help people lighten the baggage that usually trails in the after-tow. Knowing what’s available, after prevailing through the worst of the unwelcome maelstrom, is the first step in selecting the best option to safely reach the far side.