Did you know that traumatising events are stored as implicit emotional and physical states and not in the form of a chronological narrative? A survival-oriented adaptive response takes place to the traumatising events or environment and this response allows for a split between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This allows you to reject the realisation that you have been traumatised and continue to function as if nothing had happened. Adjustment then requires a split of self and identity, which can turn your inner world into a battlefield. Inner fragmentation occurs.
In my book: Wisdom of Trauma, I describe this using the example of the man (Prot) who claimed to be from K- Pax. K-Pax is a 2001 German/American drama film by director Ian Softley. The film is based on the book of the same name by Gene Brewer, who also co-produced the film. The film was released in the Netherlands in April 2002. One day, New York police find a man on the street who says his name is Prot and claims to be from the planet K-PAX. He is referred to the psychiatric hospital and comes under treatment by Mark Powell. The latter becomes quite intrigued by the new patient.
However, Mark Powell begins to get the idea that Prot has been the victim of a very traumatic experience in the past. By putting Prot under hypnosis, he tries to hear him out about his past. Although Prot maintains his role well even under hypnosis, Powell manages to find out a few things. It turns out Prot used to have a friend on Earth, who lost his father at a young age. From that event onwards, Prot would always visit whenever that friend was struggling, to support him. Although Prot refuses to tell the name of this friend, Mark, by tracing the scant clues Prot does give, finds out the sad story of one Robert Porter, who, after murdering his wife and newborn child, seemingly drowned himself in the river running past his house. However, his corpse was never found.
To distance yourself from overwhelming events and maintain your sense of a ‘good-I’, we sometimes reject the personality states we are ashamed of, which intimidate us or make us feel anxious and unsafe. The ability to store two parallel sets of experiences in one brain and body was already studied in the 1970s and 1980s. It was called the split brain research. (Gazzaniga 1985) Neurological research with brain scans between 1990 and now support this hypothesis.
I myself never had a chronological record of what had happened to me and I did have a lifetime of vulnerability to an unsolicited activation of trauma-related feelings and body memories. I had a range of symptoms and reactions without a context to identify them as memories. Yet I also functioned on and attended college, worked, was in a relationship and had children.
Anxiety, depression, shame, low self-esteem, loneliness, alienation, problems with anger and impulsivity, a chronic expectation of danger, excessive vigilance, self-hatred, hopelessness, separation anxiety, numbness and disconnection from one’s emotions or a struggle with addiction, eating disorders, death wishes or even a decision to die is always the living legacy of one’s past.
The most widely accepted practice within psychotherapy regarding trauma has been talk therapy since Freud until today (Rothschild 2017). It was thought that lack of understanding of traumatising events spawns emotional reactivity. However, this does not lead to processing your traumatic past, but rather, in therapy, causes you to be overwhelmed by overwhelming and implicit memories and traumatic responses. (van der Kolk 2014)
I now know from my own experience that healing trauma should be about the effects of our traumatic past. Not at all about the specific events. If you have memories of terrible incidents, the ability to endure those memories is a less important goal than experiencing a sense of security in the here and now. The ability to reassure myself that if I have a pounding heart and sweaty hands at a party where I don’t know anyone well and to be able to say to myself that this is a triggered response and not a signal that I am really in danger right now and to be able to see it as an emotional memory from my past of a part of me that was once too young to protect myself in a group is one such example.
Trauma-related disorders are not disorders of events but disorders of the body, brain and our nervous system and intrinsically adaptive and because of this we now know that the traumatic responses are an attempt at adaptation on what someone has adapted physically or mentally to a ‘dangerous’ environment, caregiver, parent, situation. Every symptom was once an ingenious solution by the body to provide a semblance of safety for the threatened developing child or adult.
Because the body still remembers it, it will persist with the survival strategies until the body is freed from the trauma by giving the trauma a place in a safe environment, in small steps.
Survival strategies can be very different. It may be that you have started to feel your body less, that you have started to live mostly in your head and approach life mainly in an analytical and rationalising way, it may be that you don’t feel your emotions as much or that you easily depart from reality. These are often unconscious processes.
Physically, it can manifest itself in too much tension in your muscles, or just a feeling of little muscle strength, shallow breathing, little grounding, little flow of energy in the body, fatigue….
Or specifically in developing syndromes, such as migraines (in the nervous system), irritable bowel syndrome (in the organs), fibromyalgia (in the muscles), allergies (in the skin).
The following body-centred interventions are used during the workshops:
– bringing attention to the body
– touch and massage
– body work
– breath and movement
– Rituals & Dance
– Compassionate Inquiry