March 12, 2020

Where Does Trauma Live?

I don’t know when it happened…. Maybe it started stoic western European settlers that came to what would become the US via very difficult journeys then had to do awful things to Native Americans and at times to each other while making new lives but somehow our culture has separated the body and the mind.  It’s as though we somehow believe they inhabit different spaces.  Well, they don’t.  

mind-body connection?

I think that the concept that our minds and our bodies are completely separate entities is what yields things like; “psychologically addicted, not physically,” a cultural obsession with numbing out, the idea that feelings are not data, etc.  The truth is that our minds live in our bodies and if you believe nothing else, surely you believe that they impact one another.  If you break a bone, doesn’t the pain distract you from other tasks?  When you are anxious or afraid does your body temperature shift and heart rate change?  When you find someone attractive, do your pupils dilatate?  

Having accepted (hopefully you have if you’re still reading) that your brain takes in information, then processes that data and some of that data includes feelings, then it has a reaction.  For some, a sticking point is decision making.  In a war between your prefrontal cortex and other higher reasoning processes and your lizard brain, the cultural narrative is that the higher reasoning wins.  The truth is that depends a lot on history of trauma and if you have resources to deal with the information that your brain is processing.  

For example, if you are a gambling addict and you have a near win.  Your brain processes that information the same way it does a win.  Even though you lost, your brain no longer processes data the same way a non-gambling addict brain does.    A non-gabling addict’s brain sees a near win as it truly is, a loss.  That doesn’t mean that a gambling addict is doomed to gamble forever but the addict must learn coping skills to win the war with the lizard brain and stop.


"All traumatized people seem to have the evolution of their lives halted: they are attached to an insurmountable obstacle"

Pierre Janet (1919)

In the past we have talked a little bit about what is called ‘big T trauma’ versus ‘little t trauma.’  (Just in case you don’t remember/know…. Big T trauma refers to a large event, like being at ground 0 for 9/11 or witnessing a horrible accident.  Little t trauma is more insidious and often down played or over looked.  If someone called you a loser once in an argument, it would likely bother you but you would be able to get over it.  However, if someone called you a loser every day for a year, you would likely be highly impacted by that.  That is what little t trauma is like; death by a thousand cuts.)

The different kinds of trauma are important.  Some new-ish research is also emerging about the difference between childhood traumas and adult traumas. We are learning that childhood trauma and neglect alters the way the brain (yes, both the lizard brain and the higher reasoning sections) grows and develops and leaves it permanently altered.  This does not mean that adult survivors of childhood trauma cannot be highly intelligent and go on to live happy, healthy lives.  It means that the structures of their brains are different and their trauma is more treatment resistant than that of a person whose trauma onset was in adulthood.  

Yup, there is it. Adult onset trauma is three times more likely to be 'cured' than childhood and it doesn't generally take as long to successfully treat. We believe that the reason is because of the difference in the brain structures dating back to development. But it's difficult to be sure because most people will not let you direct their brains until they die.

What can you do?

I think part of what Pierre Janet is saying the quote above is that trauma influences, often even defines us after it happens. That doesn't have to be a bad thing. If the trauma makes you see the world in a new way or means that you take time for yourself to heal. Sadly, more often than not, we allow our traumas to define us (i.e. my caregivers didn't love me and therefore I have no value or I must prove my value to deserve love). That is where treatment comes into play.

I'll talk more in the next blog about treatment but I want to leave you with something else I found:

Working with trauma is as much about remembering how we survived as it is about what is broken

Bessel Van Der Kolk - The Body Keeps the Score

You survived. No matter what happened to you and no matter how you did it... You did survived. It is entirely up to you how to plan to live going forward.

As always, I’m here.  If you are ready to work on having the life you want, call me and let’s get started!

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