Have you or someone you love recently gone through a very upsetting or traumatic event? Are you perhaps experiencing changes in sleep patterns, nightmares, strong fear reactions, or the onset of intense and limiting fears? Do you perhaps feel a sense of “numbing out” or even a sense of depersonalizing events, as though you have vacated your own body? Maybe you are aware of some or all of these symptoms but you are not aware of any triggering events. In this case the moments in question may have occurred in the distant past and something beyond your awareness has triggered painful memories of a frightening past occurrence.
If some, or many of these symptoms seem to be present for you or a loved one, a post-traumatic stress response may be at play. Many people, quite understandably, recoil from the notion of reaching out for help to deal with some trauma response.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a horrific event. This can include but is not limited to such things as experiencing a natural disaster, being victimized physically or emotionally, a rape, a mugging, surviving a terrible automobile accident, losing a loved one before your eyes, witnessing your home burn to the ground, or surviving an act terror. Trauma may occur in childhood and be beyond the reaches of accessible memory, or it may have occurred days ago. Initially our systems go into shock, we tend to deny the whole thing. Overtime the reactions may manifest as nausea, headaches, nightmares, startle response, flashbacks, intense and unstable emotional responses to certain events.
Fear of the Murky Mess
It is hard to imagine that confiding past traumatic events to another person will do anything other then stir all of the soot that has settled at the bottom of the pond into a worse murky mess. In this case talking about the trauma may be seen as a way of only making things worse.
Even if we can accept the notion that talking about painful events that have stirred an inner upheaval will help us, the idea of finding a way to trust another human being with our bruised and wounded inner worlds may seem daunting. Fortunately, processing and transcending trauma has been at the forefront of the evolving field of therapy for the last 70 years, and many proven, effective techniques have been established.
The human body and mind are absolutely amazing. The human body has a set of elaborate, inbuilt compensatory mechanisms to keep us up and going through almost anything. Contrast us with a very elaborate machine such as an automobile—if you take the most expensive, or even the most sturdy vehicle you can think of the bend its frame, the vehicle will be considered destroyed or “totaled”. On the other hand, twist an ankle, break your dominant hand, and you will see our natural ability to have other parts of our body take over. In a more extreme example, people born without arms can teach their legs, feet and toes to operate as arms, wrists and hands.
This same compensatory facility operates and functions in the human psyche as well. In fact, our psyche may even be more adaptable then our physical bodies. When trauma occurs, the fear response shut us down from re-experiencing this overwhelming set of events and feelings. The psychic shut-down then requires that our systems take over and begin a process of compensating or having other parts of take over so we can manage our way through whatever challenges life presents.
In this psychic take-over we are often too frightened, disorganized, and upset to do much of anything. We may feel extremely private about the events we suffered because of shame, embarrassment, disbelief, a sense of being overwhelmed, or out of sorts. We may feel the need to get on with life without letting others know what is or has happened because we sense and experience danger. An out-of-body experience can be one way we can manage to just keep going, and not be there all at the same time.
After the traumatic event is over another set of phenomenon occurs in which our systems attempt to somehow try to understand, integrate, come to terms with what happened to us so we can process the events and somehow move through our experience of them more. This is where experiences like nightmares, or semi-hallucinations that are like reliving the events occur. Like any highly emotionally charged events in our lives, good or bad, our minds tend to go back through our memories of those events so we can better understand how to re-create or avoid these feeling states.
A major hidden component of the trauma response is the feelings of shame that emerge. We often feel shame that we somehow “allowed” this to happen to us, or we could have done something different to have avoided the events, made them stop and so on. A sense of intense self-criticism adds to the already unbearable experiences of trauma.
This can be thought of as related in part to the false or erroneous sense of our selves or our beings as somehow at the center of the universe. Human beings are naturally wired to think, feel, believe that we somehow can control our lives. A more honest assessment of this phenomenon is that we human beings do not control any of the most important things in our lives – like which families we are born into, who our family members are, or which loved ones around us live or die.
All of this said, feelings are not rational, and the feelings of shame cannot be simply wiped away even when we can understand the rationale that might absolve of us “fault”. Nonetheless, offering these frames may be useful and meaningful in so far as they speak to the universal nature of the shame response in trauma and its understandable fallacies. Getting real relief from these feelings is a deeper and more extensive process that has proven attainable.
A Brief History of Trauma Counseling
This brings us to brief history of how and why therapy has come to be at the forefront of helping people work through the limiting feelings and experiences associated with living with trauma. Trauma first came into more full awareness in the field of psychology as a result of three things that occurred in World War II in America. The first was the advent of psychological tools or instruments that were adopted, enlisted, created, and refined as part of the selection process for mass numbers of soldiers entering into the US Military in the early 1940’s.
Literally hundreds of thousands of men and women came to the service of the US Military to help stem the tide of evil in WWII. As a result of war and a somewhat raised awareness of trauma effecting soldiers, medics and civilians that saw and experienced first hand horrific events a set of syndromes were noted. All wars throughout history produced the “shell-shocked” reaction; in WWII the responses and reactions of the syndrome were noted and documented.
The third piece of the puzzle occurred after WWII when many soldiers would spontaneously come together in informal settings and share with each other their traumatic experiences. It was these spontaneous gatherings that created relationships, conversations, gatherings, brother and sisterhoods, that over time allowed for the traumatized to learn to live with their nightmare scenarios differently. This was one of the origins of shifting the age old group of “friends” into the modern art and science of group therapy.
In more recent wars the US Military has shifted out of its archaic, antiquated more macho stances on the effects of combat trauma on soldiers and has progressed to recognize the deleterious and harmful effects of horrific events on our mental or psychological life. First responders to the horrors of 9/11 did even more to help bring into our collective awareness the realities of how living with trauma is irrefutable set of responses, reactions and symptoms that requires special and intensive treatment.
Please do not let my mention above of the group process deter you or loved one away from considering treatment for better living with trauma response if group is not for you. Trauma responses, reactions and symptoms can be treated very effectively in a one on one relationship in a total sense. Some people do not ever want to enter a group therapy setting, and that is fine. Others prefer that modality and that can be effective too.
If you or a loved one has been witness to or a direct subject of a frightening, destructive, traumatic event please know that you can reach out to me. I can help you find a better way.