I often find that people, especially those that have experienced trauma have an internal battle.  There is a fight between what they know and how they feel.  And often how we feel overrides what we know.  The trouble is that this often happens so quickly we don’t realize that we are acting on information that is not fact but feeling.  We do this because our brains and bodies are built to keep us safe.  The trouble is, they don’t always do a good job of slowing down and evaluating information as it comes in and hell breaks loose in our nervous systems. 

The longer we push on and refuse to evaluate what we believe we know, the harder it becomes to challenge those feelings masquerading as facts. 

“Imagination is central to recovery; without an inner imagination of an alternative future there is no place to go.” 

Bessel Van der Kolk

Van Der Kolk isn’t suggesting that buying a coloring book or starting a craft project will undo or erase your trauma.  What he is suggesting is the act of bravery required to see yourself in a new way.  

The interesting thing about these beliefs that we have been carrying around not bothering to challenge or confront is what when asked, we can provide “proof” that these are true.  

The way this works, is if you decide something is true (and this could be about yourself or the world around you)- you will find evidence to support this belief.  So, if I think/feel/believe I’m dumb, I will have plenty of examples of times I made mistakes.  Alternatively, if I believe I’m smart, I’ll have totally different data points to support that.  

For many survivors of trauma, it is almost impossible to imagine that you are not what you have come to believe.  So it is an act of bravery to even question the painful things you say to yourself:

  • “I am weak”
  • “I am an angry person”
  • “I can’t have relationships”

I won’t even challenge you to believe the opposite about yourself but it will not feel true at all.  I would challenge you to pick some that feels half way.  If you believe you are weak, could you instead believe that you are human and it is ok to have needs?  You could work your way up to “I’m not weak” later if you can dare to imagine that there is alternative future for yourself.

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

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.

Trauma

"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!

Do you have physical complaints and keep going to the doctor, who tells you there’s nothing wrong with you?  If this keeps happening to you, you probably have somatic symptoms that often are related to trauma. Keep reading then.  

What Are Somatic Symptoms and How Common Are They?

Somatization is basically any physical symptom that doesn’t have a physical cause, and it is a very common experience.  It can be especially common for people in certain cultural groups, and is often related to anxiety, depression, and trauma.  The Cleveland Clinic says it affects between 5 and 7 percent of the population, but I see it fairly often in my practice with clients who have trauma issues.  

How Somatic Symptoms Show Up

It happens when you have some physical disturbance, pain somewhere or a strange physical sensation you can’t otherwise account for.  You go to the doctor and they run tests that show nothing, nada, no trace of a problem where you were convinced something was a problem. You’re left scratching your head and the pain or sensation keeps coming up despite the doctor’s reassurance that nothing was wrong. It is especially the case if you experience distress about having the pain or sensation.  Some people might notice this, but not get upset about it. In your case, it can be very upsetting. That’s how it gets diagnosed.  

How Are Somatic Symptoms Treated?

Trauma therapy is one way somatic symptom disorder is treated.  If there is an underlying anxiety, trauma, or depressive disorder, then treating that is the most effective way to get rid of it.  The main thing to know is that you have a strong mind-body connection with this problem, and that is a good thing!  The reason why is that your body is trying to tell you to pay attention to what’s going on and that there’s something wrong.  It’s just that the problem isn’t where you thought it was. It’s somewhere else. If you’ve ever heard the saying ‘It’s all in your head,’ then you’ve got the idea.

You’re Not to Blame for Somatic Symptoms

The temptation is to blame yourself if someone tells you ‘It’s all in your head,’ but that only makes things worse.  You give yourself a guilt trip for having these, but very often the culprit is some traumatic experience earlier in life.  Often this happens in childhood, in which case you are definitely not to blame for it! The main thing to keep in mind is that the body registers these traumatic experiences and stores them somehow so that they’ll come up when you need to work on them with therapy help. 

What to Do and What Not to Do for Somatic Symptom Disorder

  1. Don’t seek more reassurance there’s nothing wrong with you:  If you’ve already gotten 15 tests on the same issue that have come up negative, you’ve probably gotten enough information the origin of your problem is not physical.
  2. Do seek out therapy help.  You could look for therapists who specialize in somatic symptom disorder, but you could also look for someone who specializes in anxiety and/or trauma disorders.  All of them will probably be able to help you.  
  3. Don’t focus on the pain or sensation that’s bothering you.  The more you focus on it, the worse it will get. 
  4. Do try doing some kind of relaxation exercise like deep breathing, or just get some exercise instead of hyperfocus on the problem.  
  5. Don’t isolate.  Try to be out among other people as much as possible.  Isolating will lead you to hyperfocus on the somatic complaint.  Try doing some people-watching to help take the focus off yourself for a change.

What I Can Do for Somatic Symptoms

I’ve been working with clients who struggle with somatic symptoms virtually my entire career, and can assure you they are treatable.  They practically always go away with a combination of relaxation techniques and by using some form of trauma therapy. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is one such therapy, and has an excellent track record for helping people alleviate underlying depression, anxiety, and trauma that is often related to somatic symptoms.  I urge you to give a licensed EMDR practitioner like me or Nicole a call if you are ready to get the help you need to get past somatic symptoms and what may be contributing to them. It may be the best money you’ve ever spent, and probably better than continuing to go to endless doctor’s appointments to hear the same thing you’ve been hearing all along.  

About the author:  Scott Kampschaefer, LCSW is a private practice therapist in Austin, Texas.  He has an extensive background in working with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder at a clinic for older adults with these disorders in Austin.  He now works with adults and adolescents 14 and up in private practice. His e-book is entitled Life’s Lessons from the Young and the Old and is available for purchase on Amazon.
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