We need to feel the stories of our lives in order to heal them. But trauma is all about not feeling. Even asking the question, “Can you tell me about your trauma?” can be befuddling if not disturbing for the client who has learned to put their head down, turn off their sensitivities and mush on.
When we reduce therapy to only words, when for example we ask first responders to tell us about the horror of watching groups of people lock arms on the top of a building and leap to their death, or recollect the screams of those buried in rubble waiting to be rescued, we ask too much, it is too painful, freakish and shocking to put into words. And then over the next several months within the lives of these first responders, divorce rates rise, alcohol and drug addiction shoot up, and cases of spousal abuse become commonplace; because the terror and pain are locked in the part of the brain/body that words do not reach.
Similarly, when we ask a client to tell us all about their experiences of being sexually or physically abused, neglected or frightened by frequent scenes of drunkenness or rage, we are asking them to move past their own primitive defensive barriers, to feel feelings that they long ago shut down or rewrote. Debriefing and describing these experiences in words is neither efficient nor effective because, in spite of their profound and disturbing impact, many caught in these experiences have sometimes barely let themselves believe they actually happened. Had the repair that might have allowed them to reestablish their equilibrium occurred shortly after the painful event or rupture, they may have returned to balance and perhaps even learned and grown from the experience. If it didn’t occur, it becomes the task of therapy and recovery networks to somehow draw the information from the darker recesses of the mind/body in order to feel and heal these emotional and psychological wounds.
When we’re facing danger, whether that danger is a charging elephant or a drunk, raging parent, the thinking mind shuts down but our feeling of fear signals the limbic system to rev up. We’re supercharged with the extra adrenaline and blood flow to enable us to flee for safety or stand and fight. When we can do neither, we freeze. We stand there in body but disappear in mind. We feign death.
Then years or even decades later, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate remnants of personal experience and drag them from their hidden world into comprehensible, well-ordered sentences, we feel anxious and put on the spot. What are we supposed to say? It was so long ago, and it feels so very far away. Being met by a barrage of well-meaning questions can leave us staring blankly, unable to bring the “forgotten” parts of self into consciousness long enough to describe them. And when asked how we felt at the time, we may draw an emotional blank. Perhaps we dissociated or shut down our authentic personal reactions at the time, and cannot really connect to the question or the person asking it. Maybe our stomach gets queasy, we tense up and want to leave the room but we have no idea why, we think therapy is stupid or too intense, we suspect the therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing. But those lost moments hold critical pieces of our aliveness that have shaped the way we live in our own bodies and experience our selves and our relationships.
These “frozen moments” live within us, vibrating with life but without a context, disconnected from the whole. They haven’t been converted into language, contemplated and placed into the overall framework of our working consciousness, they are disenfranchised, they hang somewhere in inner space. We catch glimpses of them, but their real and visceral content can be locked away and out of reach. And our personal narrative has big, blank spots in it. It’s as if parts of us were strewn all over a room but that room is too dark for us to see what’s there. Entering that room, gathering up those pieces of our personal experience and stringing them into a meaningful and understandable whole, allowing the shards of self to float back and nestle themselves into the framework of our life script or narrative, is the work of therapy. To accomplish this, we need forms of therapy that allow us to feel, sense and grope our way along the associative mind-body pathways that will lead us toward these forgotten fragments. I use roleplay because it stimulates and simulates the relational diad or family cluster that needs to be made conscious. Talking to rather than about even if it’s simply an empty chair representing someone else or a part of the self-invites a spontaneous connection to emerge naturally. We reach out and get to know our depressed self, we make a connection with the inner child who’s creativity we may have shut down, we befriend the lonely adolescent or encourage our inner adult. Or we invite the carefree self we’ve lost touch with to come back to us. And all of this direct and targeted interaction is self-referential. It emerges spontaneously from a simple role play that can trigger a flood of words because we’re free to fulfill that inner hunger to reconnect, to express ourselves, to be seen and heard and to find our own voice within a relational context. And then in psychodrama, we reverse roles so that we can get a felt sense of what it is like to see ourselves from the position of the other. Or we talk from the role of our child self back to our adult self. Or we stand in the shoes of those to whom we have given so much power and experience their humanity as well as our own. In this way the client spontaneously warms up to their own story, it is theirs, told in their voice and the voices of those they care about, with all of the emotion, action, and nuance that is particular to this person, to this relationship, this context, this scene.
Why Traumatizing Experiences Remain Non-Conscious
When the thinking mind or prefrontal cortex is not doing its job of elevating “experience” to a conscious level, converting it into language, and making sense of it, then frightening or traumatic experiences do not get processed and recorded in the same way as ordinary experiences. This inability to tell a clear trauma story, in my opinion, can also look like memory loss around traumatic events. Herein lies a danger in trauma resolution. That danger being that a client may either create a story that seems to fit the profile expected of them or may accept another person’s interpretation of events because they cannot come up with a satisfactory one of their own. Another danger may be that a client may jump at the opportunity to get out of their moment of reliving, which is so uncomfortable and has so long been defended against, by answering questions that are not really helping them to stay in the moment and with themselves. Because the real healing is in tolerating the reliving, the discomfort, confusion, fear and anxiety that we may not have been able to process at the time.
Triggers and Transference
The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to the encoding of the context of an experience and more specifically as it relates to trauma, the context associated with an aversive or painful experience. Thus the feelings of fear and anxiety get wired together with the unconscious memories; then encountering any of the “reminders” of the situation—such as a smell, a sight, a sound, a song, a texture, a location, or even a taste—triggers memories with which they’re linked. And when the person gets triggered, their entire mind and body can become overwhelmed with the full context of the painful experience and they can begin to relive their trauma and feel as if its happening all over again. And this is largely unconscious. They may transfer their uncomfortable feelings onto the person or situation who triggered them rather than recognizing their overreaction as being in part fueled by unprocessed pain. For the Vietnam veteran, this can mean that going out for Chinese food is a triggering experience because the smells cooking in the kitchen trigger frightening associations. For the child who was berated in the living room, or sexually abused in the bedroom; home can become scary. For the baby who could not get their parent to engage with them and help them to feel safe, a deep connection can feel foreign or uncomfortable.
Approaches to therapy that allow the body as well as the mind to stumble their way down an associative path that leads to their own truth, tell a more complete, compassionate and full version of the trauma narrative.
To learn more about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and to gain guidance on how you or your community can begin to heal log onto nacoa.org
Written by: Tian Dayton, PhD. https://www.tiandayton.com/