Individual Differences in Response to Trauma
Have you ever wondered how some people are able to survive wounds and overcome their grief to become authentic and fulfilled while others feel hopeless, stuck or depressed? Like the characters in my short stories, individuals respond to trauma in ways that are varied, deep and far-reaching. We don’t always know how early traumatic experiences will be processed or how deeply these experiences will affect our lives. We can only reflect upon what it is in a person’s nature or circumstances that enable that person to survive, even thrive, while another still struggles with her wounds.
When we look at peoples’ early lives, we can often see these different circumstances which played a part in the way that they respond to traumatic events. Bessel Van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, has said that people who live in deeply caring and accepting environments handle potentially traumatic events much better than those living in harsher environments.
Ned and Misty, characters in The Promise, are particular examples of this wisdom. Misty was fortunate. She experienced loving support from her mother and, ultimately, her father. Ned was not as fortunate. At too early an age, his emotionally distant father abandoned him and Ned became a caregiver for his mother, a “parental child.”
One hundred years ago, when it was a new thought, Freud said what we’ve come to know as true: the effects of early life experiences in our lives are far-reaching. These experiences become a part of who we are and sometimes even define us. Now we’ve added to our knowledge and learned about trauma. We’ve identified traumatic events as part of the early experiences that have far reaching effects. And we’ve learned how to help people heal.
Trauma comes in many forms, not always of a violent nature. Events as simple as being criticized by a parent, failing an exam or forgetting lines in a play can be traumatic for individuals. Examples of more extreme traumatic events are beatings by a parent or caretaker, witnessing the horrors of war and death, being the victim of violent assault or rape. This is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve all encountered trauma in one form or another.
In early trauma, the nervous system becomes overwhelmed. At that time, the individual is not available to explore the world, feeling compelled to constantly “look over his shoulder” for “the threat.” Survivors of trauma often experience ongoing symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as fatigue, illness and physical pain.
When you are traumatized your motion is paralyzed. Because part of the nervous system doesn’t distinguish between past and present trauma, if there is a perceived threat in present time, the body reacts as if it has to move but once again feels helpless and paralyzed, as it once did.
Our emotions are messengers. They give us important signals about what is going on underneath stress and anger. When something triggers an emotional response, we are receiving information. The information and our understanding of it can pave the way for treatment and healing.
Peter Levine, a prominent healer in the trauma field, discovered how people can “develop body awareness to renegotiate and heal traumas by ‘revisiting’ them rather than ‘reliving’ them.”
Through the work of Dr. Levine, Dr. van der Kolk and other experts, we’ve learned ways of “uncovering the physiological roots of our emotions.” The body is the source that can “return us to the natural state in which we are meant to live.”
Dr. Van der Kolk says that when we’ve been traumatized, our challenge is to learn to notice what’s happening in our bodies, how things can and will shift, rather than running away or turning to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate, as we are taught to do in western culture.
The main challenge for trauma survivors once they’ve learned to notice what’s going on inside their bodies is to learn how to tolerate feelings and sensations. We’ve learned that the psychological scars of trauma are reversible if we listen to the voices of our body. “The function of emotion is to engage in action.”
Yoga and Healing
After confrontation with physical helplessness resulting from trauma, it is essential to take effective action. Most of us don’t realize that trauma is not the story of something awful that only happened in the past, but the residue of imprints left behind in our bodies, in our sensory and hormonal systems. We are often terrified of these body sensations.
Most will need some form of body-oriented psychotherapy or bodywork to regain a sense of safety. Yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states. It allows the body to regain its natural movement and teaches the use of breath for self-regulation.
For those of us trapped in our memory sensations, yoga teaches us those feelings do come to an end. While doing certain poses, uncomfortable sensations may arise. But by knowing we can determine for ourselves how long we stay in that pose, we can begin to tolerate discomfort before we shift into a different posture.
The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations emerge and seeing how they come to an end is a positive imprinting process. Yoga helps befriend bodies that betrayed us when they failed to guarantee safety during past trauma.
An important aspect of Yoga is utilizing the breath. Nothing in western culture teaches us that we can learn to master our own physiology. In our society, solutions always come from outside, starting with relationships, and if those fail, alcohol or drugs. Yoga teaches us that there are things we can do to change our physical responses and quieten the brain.
Yoga teachers should be aware that memories and sensations will come up during class. They need to be prepared at all times to help people to calm their bodies. Teachers can help to create a safe space in the class and keep the focus on the breath and the flow of the poses. It’s best for teachers to refrain from excessive talking, explaining or preaching during the class-the teacher’s job is to help people to feel safe in every aspect of their self-experience.
Meditation and Healing
Many ask if meditation is okay for those with post traumatic stress (PTSD). The neurobiology of meditation-the brain can grow new cells and reshape itself-is becoming better known and finding its way into emotional health circles. If we meditate regularly, this can modulate the fear center and help us be more focused. However, if a person is traumatized, being in silence is often terrifying. Memory of trauma is stored; when you are still, demons may come out. It’s best for those with PTSD to first learn to regulate their physiology with breath, postures and relaxation and work toward meditation.
In my story, The Promise:
We can observe that Misty achieved healing while Ned was still locked in a daily struggle. Misty drew from a number of healing sources in her life. Dance was part of her therapy, the thing that made her feel alive. She gained intuitive understanding of her body as healer. Ned’s world stayed small. He became self-reliant, but at the expense of social isolation. And his interior life bordered on bankruptcy.
Misty gathered strength from her pillars of support, the tight knit group of dancers from the club. When she saw Jezzamine, out of the blue, her terror returned but we see evidence of her quick recovery when she tells Ned she has come to resolution. Her words,“You know I will (be okay)” reassure us that she’s able to restore calm in her world.
Ned fashioned his own moral code, one that directed him to find Jezzamine and “make her pay.” This path didn’t serve him well as he overstepped his bounds and found himself on a dangerous course. Some psychologists would describe Ned as a “co-dependent personality.” I would, instead, say that Ned became overly involved or “enmeshed” with Misty as he tried to protect her. As he signed a blood pact with Sabrina, vowing to protect her, he must protect Misty. This time he must “do it better.” He must not lose her, as he lost Sabrina. In some way, Misty has become Sabrina. Ned must heal from his wounds before he can see Misty as a separate woman in her own rite.