trauma recovery

TrumpTrauma Part 3: Trauma in Action

[image description: black and white drawing of a head/face. The top of the skull is omitted, leaving the image of an exposed brain, with two band-aids placed over the brain.]

[image description: black and white drawing of a head/face. The top of the skull is omitted, leaving the image of an exposed brain, with two band-aids placed over the brain.]

It has been over a year since I wrote the TrumpTrauma Part 2 post. In that period of time I have had plenty of opportunities to write the final component of the series, and repeatedly found that I could not get myself to even sit to begin to type it. 

In this time, I have presented nationally and locally on trauma, coping with traumatic stress, and healing from trauma. I have taken an advanced training in EMDR therapy for trauma resolution. I have worked with many clients. I have considered and reconsidered aspects of the neurobiology of trauma as well as the social components of trauma. And still, whenever I considered writing this last installation, I couldn't. I didn't feel right inside my body--like the creepy crawling feeling under my skin, or the impulse to drop my head and look away, or a series of self-deprecating thoughts. Why couldn't I just finish it?

Without realizing it, this state started to interrupt other components of my life. I couldn't do a MailChimp e-blast because I hadn't written the final blog. I couldn't start writing one of my other dozen ideas because I didn't want the blog to be out of order. I couldn't even effectively advertise for the therapeutic backpacking trips I lead, because I wouldn't send an e-blast without this final post attached. And then in August of 2017, I realized it had gone too far. I told one of the co-authors of an article we wrote, that the full version of the article could not be posted on my blog, because I had not written this post. In the back of my mind, I even thought, "I may never write TrumpTrauma Part 3." She stopped me and pointed out that the way in which I was stuck, or frozen, definitely started to take on the flavor of trauma. I had avoidance symptoms, as well as intrusive symptoms. My nervous system was acting outside of is characteristic patterns. My behavior was disrupted even to the point that it impacted other people. So I started writing...and then a partially written post sat in my "Drafts" for another 5 months. It's February 2018...and I'm finally finishing it.

So, let's review quickly: In TrumpTrauma Part 1, I explored some of the foundations of the experience in the USA today, also known as our pre-existing conditions (note: this phrase is ironic to me now because of its added connotation from the healthcare revisions).

In TrumpTrauma Part 2, I explained some Psychology 101 concepts, explored their application to our current social/political circumstances, and offered some strategies to remedy some of our disruptive patterns.

In TrumpTrauma Part 3 I intended an in-depth exploration of trauma and fear on our brains, our development, our perception of the world, and our relationships. This can include Dr. Daniel Siegel's explanation of the triune brain, or Dr. Stephen Porges' explanation of the polyvagal theory, the DSM V clinical description of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or descriptions of why EMDR therapy and equine therapies are celebrated as effective means for healing traumatic stress, including PTSD. However, that could quickly turn into a book or an academic article, so let's start with the acknowledgment that fear and trauma and survival, all work with similar components of the brain and the nervous system. This part of the brain is not engaged in rationality--nor should it be. And we will find ourselves in a lot of trouble when we fixate on why "we" (the non-traumatized) just don't understand how "they" (the traumatized) just can't behave more logically. 

When I teach on this, I often use the example of the sahara, or the mountain west. It is much more important for our brains to ignite, telling us to fight-flee-freeze-faint than it is to scratch our chin and ponder, "I wonder what velocity that bear/lion/etc. is approaching me at..." It is explicitly irrational to try to be rational when we perceive imminent threat.

 Let's consider two different definitions of trauma:

Trauma is the mind/body/spirit’s response to a real or perceived threat that does not sequence through the body.
— Sweigh Spilkin and Katie Asmus
Trauma is anything that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with their circumstances. 
— Unknown

The key here is perception. If someone perceives threat, their brain and body will do whatever it can to figure out survival--even if others around them do not perceive threat. At that point, empathy, resourcing, and re-establishing a sense of safety are critical.

To a certain degree, in current life, trauma is inevitable. We are, at some point, exposed to something difficult that we do not know how to cope with, and may even doubt our ability to recover. Trauma comes in the form of car crashes, sudden onset of terminal illness, and natural disasters, as well as in the form of school shootings, rape, domestic violence, etc. As many researchers and therapists have discussed, the existence of traumatic experiences is not the inherent issue. Instead, it is when we a)continue to live as if the past traumatic event is still currently happening, or b)deny, deflect, and dissociate from the reality of trauma, that we can find ourselves in the midst of immense suffering.

This post will focus on the second issue (b), more than the first (a).

Why is it important to consider the human impulse to avoid the reality of trauma? Because avoidance drastically reduces both our opportunities to recover from trauma, as well as our opportunities to reduce the ways in which it happens unnecessarily.

Trauma not transformed is trauma transferred.

the design of survival

As I acknowledged above, humans are wired in a way that first prioritizes our survival, and secondarily prioritizes our ability to understand the traumatic stress (in order to try to prevent the danger again in the future). If we cannot learn from the issue (and therefore identify ways to reduce risk) we may try many strategies to escape, rationalize, and/or suppress trauma rather than dealing with it. This also means that we end up being more reactive, or "emotional" to related triggers in the future. (For more information, see How Fear Works)

Example: As someone who is aware of how trauma affects the human brain and nervous system, as well as having many self-care and coping strategies, I typically think of myself as having a high stress tolerance. I perform well under pressure. I learn from difficult situations. Due to this mindset, after the 2016 election, I found myself offering intensive support for clients in crisis, as well as being called upon to support community gatherings. I was inundated with news of increased violence against marginalized groups (see the first two posts in this series). I could feel my stress level rising with the collective overwhelm in my communities. Until one night, as I was falling asleep, I heard a loud noise outside my window. I was immediately convinced that my house was being broken into, and that I was being targeted for an imminent violent crime. I was in a fight/flight state. My heart, and my mind, were racing. And then...
Nothing happened.
I had a moment to pause. I was holding my breath in order to listen more closely, mostly certain the threat would break through my door or window at any moment. 
And then I heard it again. This time it registered in my brain as something familiar...
The strained mew of a feral cat.
I exhaled.
Even though my hippocampus engaged, identifying the sensory input as benign, my amygdala and hypothalamus were still very active. It took me at least 20 minutes to calm down. (refer to the "low road" in the How Fear Works article)

While I remember this as something funny now, it is a reference point for my continued ups and downs. Today, when I saw that Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education will not acknowledge or respond to Civil Rights complaints issued by transgender students, I immediately burst into tears and had an intense sensation of fear. I could feel the underlying message in my bones: "We will not acknowledge your pain. We will not protect you from violence."
This time, I kept breathing while I noticed my impulse to search for information, my impulse to seek out indicators of safety. Although my body wanted to lock in on the information in my phone, I instead looked around the room, noted that I was alone, and spotted my dog sleeping soundly on the couch. (refer to the "high road" in the How Fear Works article.)

[image: photo of two potatoes in a red pot. The potatoes have faces, both with big eyes, raised eyebrows, and open mouths--apparently expressing panic, shock, and/or fear.]

[image: photo of two potatoes in a red pot. The potatoes have faces, both with big eyes, raised eyebrows, and open mouths--apparently expressing panic, shock, and/or fear.]

My brain did exactly what it was designed to do: first ensure survival, then reduce harm, then move on. As my brain and body took notes of my immediate environment, I slowed down. I recognized that I was still safe. And, I eventually remembered that I still had not written the rest of this article.

I hadn't finished the article because I, too, wanted to escape. I didn't want to think about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, or about the annihilation of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, or about the ways that immigration officials are targeting 7/11 gas stations. I didn't want to think about the explicit ways in which our administration perpetuates both real and perceived threats towards people. And the more I tried to buffer myself from these truths, the more reactive I could feel myself become.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky describes in the first chapter of her book "Trauma Stewardship" that it is often when we try hardest to protect ourselves from the reality of our (or others) traumatic experiences, that we are most negatively impacted by the trauma exposure. So if this is trauma in action, what do we do about it?

Laura goes on to state, "We must first and foremost develop the capacity to be present with all that arises, stay centered throughout, and be skilled at maintaining an integrated self."

[image description: photo of three people on a bench, facing away from the camera, and facing towards to large photos on a wall, as if at a gallery. The two photos on the wall are of individual people, head dropped, hands covering their faces.]

[image description: photo of three people on a bench, facing away from the camera, and facing towards to large photos on a wall, as if at a gallery. The two photos on the wall are of individual people, head dropped, hands covering their faces.]

We must be present...

To the best of our capacity, we must bear witness. We must bear witness until it increases our capacity.

It will be impossible for us as individuals, or as a society, to address the patterns of trauma in our lives and in our communities, unless we start bearing witness to the pain. We must increase our capacity to experience the truth of what is happening, in its full range of beauty and horror, in order learn from it. It is imperative that instead of dismissing or forgetting, we forgo the impulse to hide from the reality of the trauma surrounding us internationally, nationally, in our own states, and most importantly in our own communities and homes.

So the next time you find yourself by escaping from the pain by stating:
"It's just locker room talk..." or
"But not all white people are racist..." or
"I wonder what they did to deserve _________...." or
"Well suffering is just a fact of life..."
Pause. Take a breath. And see if you can come back to the pain that was presented to you. Get curious. Lean in. Can you feel it? Can you let it in, for just a moment longer?

Please, tell me your despair, so that I may learn to be more present, more vulnerable... more of a trauma steward.

Will you join me in this journey?

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver, "Wild Geese"

Transcript for Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) video

This video provides a bio-evolutionary background about how trauma and stress are experienced and processed by our bodies. Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), other trauma therapies (i.e. EMDR therapy, Brainspotting, Somatic Experiencing), and other therapeutic interventions (i.e. Dance/Movement Therapy, Nature-Based therapy, Equine therapy), can help you recover from symptoms of stress or trauma. 

Here is a transcript of the video:

Meet caveman Bob. When he encountered a dinosaur in the old days, his heart would beat faster, his blood pressure would rise, his muscles would tense, his eyes would dilate, and cortisol and adrenaline would be released into his body. All to prepare his body to run away or fight for his life.  Whether he ran away from the dinosaur and got away, or whether he attacked and conquered the dinosaur, the stress chemicals in his body would be discharged and he could go about his day as normal.

Meet Berta the buck. When she encounters a lion, her body goes into fight or flight mode, with all the same physical and chemical changes in her body that cavemen Bob experienced. But sometimes, neither fight nor flight is an option for Berta. Sometimes running away and drawing attention to herself would be more dangerous; or trying to attack would be even more dangerous. She doesn’t have very sharp teeth. In these cases, her body’s nervous system goes into freeze mode to keep her safe. Because she doesn’t use the chemical to run or fight, they stay in her body. But being a wild animal, she has a natural ability to release these chemicals. When the predator leaves, her body starts tremoring, shaking, and trembling. This releases all of the pent up chemicals and muscle tension and she can go about her day as normal.

But meet Sheldon. He is confronted by modern day stresses such as unmanageable deadlines, difficult coworkers, and worries about his marriage and kids. He has psychological concerns about loss of love, status, prestige, and belonging. These are Sheldon’s dinosaurs. His body responds in the same way as if there were physical threats. His heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tense, eyes dilate, and stress hormones are released into his body. Sheldon’s dinosaurs are difficult to run away from and difficult to fight. If he has an argument with his boss, and runs away, he’ll be shown the door. And if he attacks his boss, he’ll be shown a prison cell. So, like Berta, Sheldon’s body goes into freeze mode. He becomes immobilized. His heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature decreases, and his clarity of thought decreases as part of a numbing process to avoid pain and overwhelming emotions. The same thing happened to Sheldon when he was mugged a month ago. Because fight or flight would have been too dangerous, his optimal survival response was the freeze response. The body did a good thing by going into freeze, but because Sheldon did not fight or run away, stress chemicals will not be released from his body as happened for caveman Bob. Sheldon’s body started to shake a little when he was angry with his boss and it shook a lot just after the mugging. But he told himself to “get it together” and to “calm down” and he stopped the shaking. Because he has been socially conditioned to stop his body shaking, the stress chemicals will not be released as happened for Berta; so they stay locked in his nervous system. This means that Sheldon will experience physical symptoms like tension in his muscles, headaches, and an upset stomach. He will also experience psychological symptoms like anxiety, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, depression, anger, or fear. Living in this kind of biological survival state makes him vulnerable to many diseases and psychological disorders. But if Sheldon could use the body’s natural tendency to tremor and shake after a stressful or traumatic event, he would discharge these chemicals. Sheldon’s physical symptoms would improve, his primitive brain would realize the he survived and is safe, and his cognitive brain would allow him to feel more empowered and better able to handle things in the future. Ta-da! And this is where TRE comes in.

TRE, developed by a very clever man, Dr. David Berceli, is a series of seven exercises that work on a very special muscle called the psoas muscle. These exercises evoke the body’s natural tremor response and allow the stress chemicals to be discharged. Sheldon learned that these exercises could be learned by oneself or in groups. And in four to six sessions he would be equipped to exercise them all by himself. He felt so much better after his TRE sessions that he started to tell everyone about TRE, because he wanted them to know that TRE could help them, as well. His 16-year-old daughter who was stressed from exams, his 7-year-old nephew who was being bullied at school, his colleague who had struggled with a soccer injury for many years, and his aunt who had had an operation two months earlier.
The body responds to physical and psychological stress and trauma with its innate survival response, so Sheldon knew that TRE could help all of these people in his life! In fact, he was so excited about how TRE had helped him that he just could not stop spreading the news.