When you hear the word trauma, many things may come to mind. Of course there are the big contenders, including school shootings, natural disasters, and child abuse. Traumatic stress can also include things that didn't happen such as lack of emotional support and lack of protection.
By definition, traumatic stress is an overwhelming experience which cannot be integrated into the larger sense of Self. This can range from a one time event with a clear beginning and end, to ongoing, chronic exposure within the family environment. When the impact of a traumatic experience outweighs one’s inner and outer resources available at the time, symptoms of PTSD can develop, among other common mental health diagnoses including depression, anxiety, panic disorder, eating disorders, addiction, and so forth.
On a neurobiological level, the unprocessed body sensations, movement impulses, images, emotions, and negative beliefs are stored in an undigested, implicit form, and devoid of a sense of “it’s over”. The hippocampus is a very important part of our brain whose job is to act as a time stamp so that we know “something from the past is being activated right now” and "I'm safe now". When experiences overwhelm a person's resources the processing remains stuck, much like a record player looping. It's important to keep in mind some factors which increase the likelihood of this looping, including developmental age, length of time exposed, and degree of support available.
Turning Toward Healing
There are many helpful teachings that help me stay hopeful and passionate amidst the difficulty of this work. Bonnie Badenoch suggests using the terms “touched” and “awakened” rather than the more familiar language “triggered”, when implicit memory comes to the surface. In her newly released book The Heart of Trauma, she writes “it may sound strange…but the shift in language seems to put us in a different relationship with the memories, and they begin to respond by arriving more gently” and goes on to say “perhaps it also better honors that the implicit is awakening in search of healing rather than to harm us”.
Approaches to Healing Trauma
Effective trauma treatment requires that we attend to all levels of our being-mind, body, emotions, and spirit. One of the most effective forms of psychotherapy available to us is EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy). EMDR therapy pairs bilateral stimulation eye (alternating taps, or tones) with traumatic memories and healing resources, to support our whole system in riding the waves of the past while held in the safety and compassion of the present moment. Negative beliefs about oneself can transform from “I’m bad” or "I'm not good enough" to “I am okay as I am”, as an example. Other effective treatment approaches include somatic therapy (Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing), Parts Work (ego-state therapy, Internal Family Systems, gestalt), and Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy.
Energy therapies such as Healing Touch and Reiki describe how our energy field diseases from the outside in, and heals from the inside out. From a mindfulness perspective, the principle of Organicity (Kurtz) helps us remember that our bodies/hearts/minds/spirits are a wellspring of resources for self-healing. Exploring your own personal needs and preferences is essential, and may include complimentary healing approaches such as qigong, nature bodywork, energy healing, nutritional care, yoga, acupuncture, and creative expression (journaling, dance, art, music), letting your intuition be your guide. For me, the combination of weekly personal therapy, nutrition, and a daily yoga practice helps me maintain a grounded, compassionate space to attune to inner experiences and nurture myself.
While this looks different for everyone, the act of curiosity into our deepest selves can be a transformative and satisfying experience as we allow our innate healing to unfold, like a lotus in muddy water.
For more information on this topic, please refer to EMDRIA.com