Trauma Resolved is a Great Gift
Trauma Resolved is a Great Gift
"Held with in the symptoms of trauma are the very energies, potentials, and resources necessary for their constructive transformation." - Peter Levine
"Ma'am,” I felt my body being moved, by way of shoulder jostling.
Prying my eyes open, I am assaulted with fluorescent lights, and the pain in my belly grows sharper. I know I am in the hospital, and am aware that I have just undergone a routine surgical appendectomy. Running my tongue over the inside of my cheeks, swallowing, I try unsuccessfully to wet my mouth. I close my eyes again, and the pain in my stomach softens.
My shoulder again, ugh. I open my eyes. "Take a deep breath, calm down." I try to focus my eyes on the nurse. I can sense both her worry and how kind she is. "Stop shaking." I will my body to stop trembling.
Years later, I learned that my body was restoring itself to a place of balance. Shaking is a regulating mechanic the body uses after a stressful experience.
Let me explain:
Imagine a heard of impalas grazing. One senses danger and lifts it head, scanning the horizon, smelling the dry air. As a tiger springs from its hiding spot, the herd turns and flees as a unit. Each impala mobilized tremendous internal resources to run from the tiger, their nervous systems heightened, their heart rates escalated, blood pumping to their leg muscles so that they can run.
The tiger catches one, teeth sinking into her hide, tiger and impala becoming one, fur blurring together as they roll across the dusty floor.
The impala "plays possum", her body goes limp, collapsing, and appears dead. Psychologists would classify this as the freeze or immobility response in human beings.
Nature has intelligently developed the "freeze" response. It serves as a last ditch effort; perhaps the tiger will take a break dragging her back to his den and she can escape. And certainly the impala is not consciously feeling pain in her altered state as the tiger uses fangs and claws to drag her.
Now suppose this impala does get away as the tiger pauses to stretch it's jaw, sore with the weight of the impala in tow......this is where the shaking comes in.
Outside the impala is motionless—imagine the brake pedal of the car.
Inside the imapala is supercharged—imagine the gas pedal of the car.
You can imagine what would happen to the engine of a car with both the gas and brake pedal floored. The system is overwhelmed and dis-regulated.
Shaking is one of nature's brilliant regulation mechanisms. It is how the impala, and I after surgery, discharged all of the energy mobilized to navigate the threat.
What would happen if the energy was not discharged...
In our society after an intense experience, we are taught to "get on with our life", "pull ourselves up by our boot straps", "grin and bear it.” We are considered heroes when we are able to carry on regardless of the severity of our experience or the symptoms. There is an overarching societal intolerance for emotional vulnerability, and as such, often there is not space for the energy to be discharged or the intense experience processed.
According to Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Bessel van derKolk, and several other trauma researchers, if the energy is not discharged eventually the impala will experience trauma symptoms.
Remember that inside her nervous system is still revved to 70 miles per hour to escape the tiger. Eventually any car that has the gas and the brake pedal floored will start to experience engine mal-function. If it is a well maintained car it could take years for the symptoms to arise.
This is where it gets a little bit more interesting: trauma symptoms can remain hidden for years after the triggering incident. The impala could return to her life eating grass, seemingly unscathed. Yet we now know that if the energy mobilized to escape is not discharged, eventually the impala will experience symptoms— if the gas pedal is not released the engine will malfunction.
Trauma symptoms are diverse, and as trauma is a fledgling field, symptoms often go undiagnosed. Trauma symptoms are how the organism contains the un-discharged energy. Common trauma symptoms include:
-Isolating behavior, withdrawal
-Mood swings, irrationality
-Difficulty concentrating or retaining information
-Body numbness, inability to feel parts of the body
-A general sense of discomfort in one’s own body
"Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the triggering event itself. Frozen residue or energy that has not been resolved and discharged, remains trapped in nervous system…and will create an array of symptoms.” - Dr. Peter Levine
In other words, the traumatic incident—the tiger catching the impala—will not cause trauma symptoms. Incomplete physiological responses, or "undischarged energy", will cause trauma symptoms. Trauma specialists are now treating trauma through the symptoms, not through the context of the traumatic or triggering event.
This is important for many reasons:
First, seemingly benign life events, that we never offer a second thought, can cause trauma symptoms much later in life. Experiences like routine surgical procedures, death of a loved one, difficult birth, or serious illness or injury, can overwhelm our system. Just because we do not know we are traumatized, does not mean our systems are not impacted.
Trauma symptoms are so common place we don't recognize them or realize it's possible to transform them. In fact according to the American psychiatric press as many as 75% of people who go to doctors have complaints that are labeled psycho somatic because there is no physical explanation can be found, and 10 to 15% of all adults suffer from panic attacks, or unexplained anxiety.
We do not need to know why we are experiencing symptoms to heal them.
Second, re-telling of a traumatic experience, even in the safety of a therapist’s office, can be re-traumatizing. There is research demonstrating that when a trauma survivor re-tells their story, or a painful memory is dredged up, this can be damaging to the person.
We possess the innate potential to heal even the most debilitating traumatic injuries or experiences. It is neither possible or necessary to change past events. Trauma symptoms are examples of bound up energy.
The same immense energies that create the symptoms of trauma, when properly engaged and mobilized, can transform the trauma and propel us into new heights of healing, mastery and even wisdom.
Trauma resolved is a great gift returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow.
Next month I will pick up this thread with an article that explores several body-based methods of healing trauma.