It’s a word loaded with meanings both personal and political.
Indeed, the very notion of “trauma” itself may be understood as a cultural experience that first emerged from political upheaval. Some theorists trace the origins of our current conceptualization of trauma to the bloody uprisings of the French Revolution in 1789, an era rife with suspicion and public beheadings. In the centuries since, they argue, we have been living in “an age of trauma.”
It was readily understood, for example, even on the morning of September 11, 2001, that we Americans, if not much of the Western world, experienced a cultural trauma as we witnessed the Twin Towers collapse — and in the aftermath of cleanup, conspiracies and code-orange fears of anthrax in the mailbox that carried on for months afterward.
In the wars we waged later to avenge our losses, under the auspices of bringing order to an increasingly disorderly geopolitical landscape, our bombs and boycotts and suspensions of civil liberties have created cultural traumas of their own. Now, each video radical groups release of mass beheadings and each breaking news story of widespread governmental surveillance or tax-free transfers of vast wealth to overseas accounts throws more salt into the festering wounds of this age of trauma. That there is much healing to do is an understatement.
But trauma is also extremely personal and varied. It may be as dramatic as a suicide bomber on a bus or as quiet, discrete and subversive as a terrifying interpersonal threat made by a powerful other.
And it is pervasive, touching every strata of society. I recently spoke with a 12-year-old girl who said she wanted to have “real discussions” about the world today. When asked what subject she’d like most to talk about, to my astonishment, she replied: “Rape culture.”
The personal is political, as the saying goes. And I’ll argue that personal healing from trauma is vital, perhaps necessary, if we are ever to transcend our wounded histories and pursue the cultural healing of which humanity might ultimately be capable. But my work concerns the process of healing traumatized individuals, so this is what I’ll address for now.
Trauma recovery is a complex process, dynamic, fluid, a evolution of change and transcendence. It is also ultimately idiosyncratic. We each encounter traumatic events from different starting points: Our life experiences, our cultural backgrounds, our relative wealth and access to the basic necessities of life, our ability to find a safe haven, the quality of our health, our personal sense of resiliency and so on…. All of these affect how we respond to unexpected, frightening and violating experiences.
In fact, the journey to trauma recovery is the gift of healing itself: Once you learn what you must do, personally, to recover from shocking, painful losses or injuries of the mind, body and spirit, you will possess that knowledge for the rest of your life.
Consequently, I do not mean to imply, ever, that recovery from trauma is some simple Four-Step Process, and you’ve only got to master these elements to be healed. To the contrary, I ask you to honor where you are in your journey, each step along the way, as it is uniquely yours.
In fact, the journey to trauma recovery is the gift of healing itself: Once you learn what you must do, personally, to recover from shocking, painful losses or injuries of the mind, body and spirit, you will possess that knowledge for the rest of your life. Which is good, because chances are in this “age of trauma,” you may need to put this understanding of yourself to use again somewhere down the road. This is what I mean when I suggest people can become the stewards of their own mental health.
To that end, I’d like to frame trauma recovery in four basic principals. These are hardly new, but they represent what I personally and professionally have come to conceive as necessary for healing and long-term well-being:
1. Learn to Understand and Tame the Body
The effects of trauma differ drastically on the physical level: Some people go numb; some become more sensitive or reactive; others report no discernible physical effects. This is result of a numinous intersection where the nature of the trauma meets the temperament of the individual who experienced it.
Generally, trauma has the means to ignite the “primal” parts of our brain, lighting up the fight-or-flight response and keeping us on edge, poised for another attack. This alert system has given humans an evolutionary advantage for survival — without it, we might not learn what’s dangerous and how to avoid it — but trouble comes when this part of our brain doesn’t cool down when the danger has passed.
Among the more common effects then are increased energetic arousal (e.g., feeling restless or keyed up), heightened startle response, sleep disturbances, digestive troubles, muscle tension (including “gripping” around traumatized body parts) and full-blown panic attacks (racing heart, shortness of breath, feelings of dread, confusion, dizziness, etc).
All of these responses in their acute stages may benefit to some degree from medication. However, medication can sometimes hinder our ability to feel and process what needs to be felt — for example, grief over something lost in the trauma — so for long-term recovery, it’s important to learn how to manage these physical responses through the power of mindfulness- and body-based practices.
There are many somatic, or body-based, approaches to trauma care, from the ancient traditions of yoga to the modern practices of mindfulness suggested by many mind-body therapies, like the Somatic Experiencing work that Peter Levine describes in “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.”
These boil down to developing skills to regulate the body’s nervous system through mindful breathing, visualization, movement and relaxation practices, and associated body work, including massage, energy healing approaches and yoga therapy. When we learn to self-soothe effectively, and when we are willing to be touched by other people, the body’s post-traumatic agitation settles down, and we can relax again.
2. Unearth the Trauma Narrative and Change It for the Better
Trauma happens in response to an external force imposing undesirable effects upon a person or a society. It can come as a lightning bolt in the form of accidents, interpersonal violence, natural or man-made disasters, or other sudden and shocking events. It can also be acquired gradually, for example, as an accumulation of wounds from emotional and verbal abuse or by repeated exposure to injury and death as seen by soldiers and first responders.
Beyond the physical and energetic effects noted above, the main power that transforms such events from upsetting experiences into trauma can be found within the stories we tell. Trauma tends to undermine preciously held belief systems, be they naive (e.g., “Bad things only happen to bad people”) or more complex (e.g., “I am capable of defending myself”).
When a belief system collapses in the face of disturbing and powerful contradictory evidence, narratives of shock, injury, loss and despair often emerge first from the powerful emotional and psychological fallout. These stories are real and meaningful. Alas, when they dwell primarily in the wounding and do not evolve, they tend to embed trauma more deeply and reframe our worldview with afflictive perspectives that serve as a barrier to healing.
Recovery involves a widening of the narrative lens, an exploration of alternative ways to look at what happened. It’s not about spinning a yarn of fantasy; new fictions are undermined just as easily, if not more so, than the original belief. Rather, it becomes about exploring the trauma fallout for even bigger and more powerful themes that often emerge from traumatic events: of personal or community resiliency, shared humanity, the grace of survival, transcendence, transformation.
3. Find Compassion and Forgiveness
This is perhaps one of the more difficult subjects to raise at times in the therapy process. To the injured, ideas of compassion and forgiveness often sound like exoneration of the perpetrator that could allow traumatizing behaviors to continue unfettered. To the contrary, when it comes to trauma recovery, compassion and forgiveness are tremendous sources of healing that transcend traditional notions of assessing fault and of the guilty making their contritions.
One hard truth about trauma is that many who suffer it never get to confront the sources of it. We may wish to seek revenge only to find there is no one to hold accountable: The suicide bomber takes himself out of the equation; the abusive parent dies without a word of apology; the hills that suddenly give way in a landslide are impervious to our sorrow and rage; the drunken driver who kills our loved one dies in the wreck as well. Then what do we do?
In the end, we must learn to release ourselves from the grips of our own anger and outrage. For this, there is a tried-and-true cure: compassion and forgiveness.
Compassion is often defined as a deeply empathic response to the suffering of others. Indeed, it can be helpful to seek understanding of those who caused the trauma we experienced. A broken leg suffered in a car accident may take on a different meaning when the accident is caused by a driver rushing a loved one to the hospital as opposed to one who was texting on their cell phone.
Often in trauma recovery, the greatest compassion we need is for ourselves. For example, rather than blaming ourselves mercilessly for choices we made that put us on a collision course with trauma, we may need to remember our innocence and stop judging ourselves with the power of hindsight. In a similar vein, we may need to show ourselves kindness and compassion in recovery from hurt and injury, releasing expectations we may have about being who we “used to be.”
And forgiveness? Well, it is most important to differentiate that forgiveness is not the same as condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning or promoting the undesired behaviors or events that transpired. Rather, it is about releasing deeply held afflictive feelings about them, such as wishing them harm or the desire to seek revenge.
When we set down bitter and acrimonious feelings, we spare ourselves. We cease to deplete precious resources of energy otherwise used to maintain these feelings. Forgiveness is the process not by which we let the perpetrator off the hook; it’s the means by which we liberate ourselves from the lingering effects of their deeds.
To see a complicated, robust and good example of forgiveness in action, I like to recommend a viewing of “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” a moving and stimulating documentary about a survivor of the horrifying and notorious “Mengele twin” medical experiments in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. It’s a powerful reminder that even survivors of the worst of atrocities can benefit from forgiveness.
4. Re-negotiate Trust
Injuries to the body can change the way we interact with the world, but perhaps one of the greatest injuries that occurs in trauma — and certainly one of its most common afflictions — is the loss of trust. Shattered belief systems tend to devastate a person’s sense of trust, leaving a void into which too often rush profound cynicism and crippling fear.
These feelings and ideas may take an external focus (e.g., “Other people can’t be trusted”) or an internal self-negating one (e.g., “Put a group of men in the room for me to date, and I will pick the sickest one”). Some forms of trauma narrow our fears down to a pinpoint: cars, dogs, guns. Others bring the trouble of wide-spread affliction, the sort to which Stephen Levine in “Unattended Sorrow” refers to as a “loss of trust in life.” We simply start expecting the worst, and it is easy to find evidence for such views in this age of trauma, when blood has recently yet again bathed the streets of Paris.
Whatever form the affliction takes, healing and recovery calls for a return to trust, something admittedly easier to say than to do. One important marker of healing is to be able to experience openness, or vulnerability, within the context of intimate relationships. For starters, this often involves a re-negotiation of what the term “trust” means. For many, trust is a construct of safety, a sense of assuredness about something. An expectation, for example, that a friend will keep a delicate secret, or that the US government would respond swiftly to a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina.
If trauma is the experience of having one’s worldview intimately undermined or damaged in some way, it’s generally impossible to return to the old way of seeing things. We discover the world is not as we assumed, and the heart aches in acknowledging it. Where we once may have trusted someone to be kind, only to learn they can be wickedly cruel, we may avoid placing similar trust in others. We could regard this as naive, foolish, even dangerous. And yet, to proceed through life without some sense of trust is painful, isolating, and yes, even dangerous. We often make worse decisions when they are based in fear.
So how do we regain a sense of trust? Start within: Learn to trust yourself again; recognize the ways in which you already trust yourself; develop a sense of how much risk you are willing to take and gently work to expand where you feel too constricted.
This is a self-reflective process in which we put less emphasis on whether someone else is “trust-worthy” and more on our own sense of risk-tolerance. We look then at our own resiliency, our ability to survive when something goes wrong. Instead of asking, “If I loan this money to So-and-So, can I trust them to pay me back?” the question becomes, “If I loan this money, and So-and-So does not pay me back, how capable am I of surviving that?” If the answer is that an un-repaid loan would be the source of financial disaster, we may hold back on making it.
Over time, the process of trusting ourselves to make good choices and the process of surviving the poor choices we all make on occasion is a path to re-gaining lost trust. We may be a more cautious person than we were before all the trauma occurred, but caution is not the same as the loss of trust. When the chasm is too wide for us to leap and survive, we start to look for another way to the other side.
So these constitute four key components to healing from trauma. By no means easy, they are all nevertheless essential milestones on the journey to recovery. In learning to work with our bodies and regulate our nervous system, we gain a sense of mastery over ourselves. In revising painful narratives, accepting our experiences and finding compassion and forgiveness, we ease the tremendous burden trauma can place on our minds and hearts. To live with some sense of trust in life is to understand our place in the vast experience of humanity and to agree to go on living.
We diminish the power of trauma when we embrace a recovery process that ultimately helps us recognize we are the beautiful, resilient beings we have been all along. Trauma often obscures this reality, but it does not ever permanently remove it.
Healing is always possible.
Photography by Marlene Andrejco.