Understanding and Healing Unresolved Trauma
When we are living with unresolved trauma, it is very hard to be comfortable in our own skin. Facing the awful feelings that keep surfacing – the very thing that needs to happen in order to heal – is the very thing we fear the most! That is why trauma victims spend a great deal of their time literally standing beside themselves.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” (Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score)
Where Trauma Lives
Trauma memories live in our right brain, buried in a small section called the ‘amygdala’. In fact, they are trapped there. That’s why they keep knocking on the door of our consciousness, wanting to be processed and released. Trauma also lives in the cells of our body. Our body remembers everything, especially highly emotionally charged traumas.
When we approach trauma with traditional talk therapy, we are trying to access it through the left hemisphere of our brain. This approach tends to be unsuccessful, because it doesn’t reach the trapped memories stored in the amygdala – part of our limbic system or the emotional centre of our brain, connected primarily with the right hemisphere.
“Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behaviour. However, neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signalling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.” (Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score)
The Downward Spiral of Unhealed Trauma
The reason we continue to suffer with post traumatic stress and anxiety is that we are continuously forced to escape from our body, or dissociate. The original experience was too much to bear, therefore we dissociated just to survive, which prevented the experience from being processed. Although dissociation is a powerful and necessary survival mechanism, each time a sensory experience reminds us of the original trauma, the trapped memories get triggered into consciousness, and our bodies go into the same physical and chemical stress response as if the original trauma is happening all over again. This means we may be spending more time out of our body than it it. Being so ungrounded causes anxiety — we are literally disconnected from our source of life – the earth!
Over time, our nervous system learns to stay in ‘high gear’ because it’s regularly being called into action by triggers. We become what is called ‘hyper-vigilant’, meaning we are always on guard, easily startled, and uptight. We become irritable, jumpy and eventually start isolating ourselves just to avoid the stress of being around other people, and the possibility of being triggered. Although living in this state is completely exhausting, when it comes time to sleep, our bodies won’t shut off. Panic attacks become more and more common, even waking us from precious moments of sleep.
These are all scary and disturbing symptoms. They make life intolerable, and traumatized people often get to the point of wondering if there is any point in living any more.
Besides making us incredibly uncomfortable in our bodies, trauma can also leave us with an unbearable “soul pain”. Dr. Jane Simington speaks eloquently of the “soul pain” and brokenness that is often the result of the shock of traumatic events. She describes how dissociating is a very effective way of surviving the experience of trauma, but it has a price. Disconnecting with one’s body often means losing soul parts, or to use modern clinical terms, personality fragmentation. We lose aspects of ourself – soul aspects – like trust, peace, hope, confidence, joy, belonging and creativity.
“For 10 long years I wandered dispiritedly, searching in the shadows for a way out, searching in the darkness for what had been lost. Yes, I was searching for my lost son, but, more accurately, I was searching for my lost self, for the parts of me that had gone away, and for the characteristics that had gone with those parts. I knew I could not lift the shroud-cloud until I found the objects of my search.” (Simington, J. (2013). Through Soul’s Eyes. Reinventing a Life of Joy and Promise)
Healing Is Possible
Before beginning any trauma work, it is vital to learn ways of keeping oneself grounded, or centred in the body. Learning grounding techniques, and ways to keep the nervous system calm is the first step.
Creating a safe container for exploring traumatic memories in digestible chunks is key to gaining freedom from them.
“Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.”
Successful trauma therapy involves accessing the trapped memories through right brain activities. These include therapeutic art, visualization, movement, music, body work or imagery. Following these right brain activities with talking or journaling (left brain activities) helps to process the retrieved memories, allowing them to become more ‘complete’ memories – placed in time and space, and filled out with logic and language. Although one will never forget the traumatic experiences, when healed, they will take their rightful place as factual memories that are part of a much larger life history instead of saturating our consciousness and pushing out all awareness of other, more positive experiences.
The courageous act of unearthing and processing traumatic experiences in a safe environment eventually leads to healing. As the layers of hurt and protective mechanisms get pealed away, and the lost or forgotten aspects of ourselves return, we become whole again.
Clinical Psychologist James Finley speaks of the spiritual aspect of healing trauma. In having the courage to heal, there is the possibility of spiritual transformation that lies hidden at the end of the difficult journey.
“In the act of admitting what we are so afraid to admit—especially if admitting means admitting it in our body, where we feel it in painful waves—in that scary moment of feeling and sharing what we thought would destroy us, we unexpectedly come upon within ourselves this invincible love that sustains us unexplainably in the midst of the painful situation we are in.” (James Finley, Ph.D)