Trauma: A Broken Alarm System

Trauma is often misunderstood.

If you or someone you know has experienced trauma, it’s important to understand that it’s not just something that “happened.”   People who are traumatized can’t just “get over it” because it’s not only a story of their past but has been wired into their brain.  Danger can be felt where it doesn’t exist leaving the person stuck in a repetitive state of overreaction. Feelings are hijacked or numbed out.  Traumatized people often unintentionally hurt the people they care about and themselves.   Because of this, shame is a byproduct of trauma.

Bessel van der Kolk, MD is an internationally recognized leader in the field of psychological trauma. I recently attended a workshop where he spoke specifically on “Trauma, Attachment and Neuroscience.”  Trauma crosses the doorstep of my office as a therapist and has also touched my personal life so the topic is important to me. Because so many of us either have had traumatic experiences or know others who have, I believe it should be on everyone’s radar.  It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who experiences harrowing events develops trauma.  But for those who do, it leaves a lasting imprint.

Consider the following informational nuggets from Dr. Van der Kolk’s workshop:

The Issues of Trauma

  • Trauma is like being stuck with a broken alarm system.
  • With trauma, the body keeps the score.  Even if there is no cognitive narrative (no memory) around what happened, it’s imprinted on the body, down to the cellular level.
  • Trauma is a pervasive organic issue. The organism no longer feels safe.
  • A study demonstrated that the memory cells of the immune systems of women with incest histories were set to defend against unseen enemies.
  • There are two distinct forms of trauma; single incident and ongoing (particularly problematic is ongoing childhood trauma).
  • People with PTSD as a result of ongoing adverse childhood circumstances are the most challenging to treat and make up the bulk of therapy practices.
  • Child abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, neglect) is probably our largest public health issue, more expensive than cancer and heart disease.
  • PTSD is a state of terror and hypoarousal that can be minimized if you can find a place to be cared for.
  • A study showed that 5% of people in New York City who experienced 9/11 – vs 35% of people in New Orleans who experienced Hurricane Katrina – suffered PTSD because of the difference in how they were responded to by the government.
  • The problem with trauma lies in the reptilian (primal) part of the brain, that can get flooded with anger, fear or hopelessness.
  • Overcoming trauma is about creating new realities.
  • Early childhood experiences of being a “good person” fosters resilience. You are better able to bounce back from difficult experiences later. Someone who believes they are a “bad person” is more vulnerable to difficult experiences that might only serve to confirm how “bad” they are.
  • An important part of trauma therapy is helping the client be able to separate the adult from the wounded child part. This traumatized part often denied and isolated internally. The work involves feeling what is was like for that child and developing self-compassion.

The Issues of Attachment

  • Separation from the primary caregiver is the single most insult to the growing brain (in children up to six years old).
  • An out of tune parent can have disastrous consequences on brain development.
  • Our nature is to be interpersonally attuned. This system breaks down with neglect and abandonment.
  • A traumatized parent will struggle to care for their children in that being stuck in a fight or flight makes it hard to nurture of care for others (just like a traumatized spouse will struggle with their partner, etc).

Thoughts on Working with Trauma

  • A traumatized brain is out of sync with itself. Here are some of the ways that have been shown to help:
    • A natural way for the brain to feel safe is experiencing being in sync with another (therapist, friend…).
    • Neurofeedback:  A safe, painless and noninvasive method for teaching the brain how to better regulate itself.  See more in Science Daily article.
    • Yoga:  A Harvard, Brigham Young study demonstrated that yoga eases veterans PTSD symptoms.
    • EMDR:  A therapy treatment to relieve distress associated with traumatic memories.  See more in Scientific American article.

The message I hope you’re receiving is that trauma needs to be taken seriously.  The sufferer can experience a great deal of psychological, physical, relational and spiritual pain.  It can also be a struggle for those who cares for him/her.  There is a continuum of impact ranging from severe (flashbacks, substance abuse to cope, hopelessness, suicidal thinking, etc) to mild (irritability, occasional sleep disturbances, fatigue, etc).  In any case, rather than the person getting “over it,” they ideally find a way that fits to address the traumatized brain and nervous system for resolution and peace of mind.

Trauma does not need to be a life legacy.

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Learn about Bessel van der Kolk, MD’s work at The Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, providing services to children, adults and families – as well as training and educational programming to post-graduate mental health professionals.  His latest book is The Body Keeps the Score:  Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.