Q:

 

Dear Doctor George...

I've had some past traumas in my life, which I don't feel comfortable revealing here (even though I can remain anonymous). I'm not writing to you to help with that, but I do have a question. My family doesn't believe in therapy and they've been telling me that the past is the past and that I should just get on with my life. I think that's easier said than done, but my family is making me believe that I'm being an overly dramatic wimp. Do you think they're right?

... Dramatically Traumatized

 

A:

 

Dear Dramatically Traumatized...

Thank you for writing.

Our society, and perhaps your family, has failed to fully appreciate that traumatic experiences can have bad effects on people that last for decades. The notion is that "time heals all wounds," and that you should "buck up," "get over it," and "snap out of it." These insensitive cliches ignore the reality that some traumatic experiences do not go away on their own.

It's important for us not to judge the way people handle their traumatic pain, nor to try to push them to "face up to it." Trauma victims need to deal with the trauma at their own pace and when they are ready to do so. It is also important to recognize that these people are not malingerers, but are genuinely suffering from a psychological disorder that they cannot control.

Doctor George has become a fan of Somatic Experiencing. It's a psychotherapeutic technique for helping the victims of traumas: natural or man-made disasters, accidents, wars, crimes (like muggings), or childhood abuse. Some traumas are the result of one-time events and others come from chronic situations.

When people encounter danger, their natural reaction is to go into a fight-flight-freeze response. Their heart rate and respiration increases; their blood clotting time decreases; adrenalin is pumped into their bloodstream; and, a high level of arousal and alertness readies the body for a response to the danger. All of this is automatically set into motion by the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. Once the danger has passed, the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system takes over returns us to our normal, calmer physical and emotional state. That's what happens in the best case scenario.

On the other hand, some traumatic events are too much for people to deal with at the time they occur. Those victims might go into shock, which is the body's way of trying to prevent psychological overload. In those cases, their physiological response literally gets lodged into the nervous system, and the imprint causes problematic behaviors and feelings until addressed. For instance, some people become perpetually angry. That's an embedded fight response to our normal fight-or-flight impulse. Others become anxious. That's the flight response. And, others attempt to make themselves invisible by living marginal lives and going unnoticed. That's the freeze response.

Traumatized people experience a dis-regulation of the nervous system. That means their normal ebb and flow of energy (gradually alternating waves of relaxation and excitement) is disrupted into a roller-coaster pattern that spikes into high activation and then to complete exhaustion. The sufferers are alternately tense and anxious or depleted and tired. They never fully rest and are always feeling on guard to some degree. Additionally, if their trauma involved a loss, they cannot consciously feel sadness nor grieve because they have disassociated their minds from the experience. All of this is a defense against the pain. There are a variety of specific symptoms, such as: anxieties, depression, eating and sleeping problems, hyper-vigilance, etc. This is also what happens in post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, it was the experience with returning Vietnam and Gulf wars veterans that led the medical and psychological establishments to the recognition of the disorder.

Since trauma lodges itself in the nervous system of the body, Somatic Experiencing therapy helps people become more aware of the physical sensations that they feel. Letting them talk about those sensations and underlying experiences can help the sufferers to re-regulate their nervous systems and release themselves from the fight-flight-freeze response and its symptoms. After that, they are able to grieve and heal. It's an extremely gentle therapeutic technique that allows people the time they need to progress at their own pace. This is why Doctor George has been integrating Somatic Experiencing techniques into this counseling practice and has been able to see how it is helpful to people.

Doctor George wants to acknowledge you for your willingness to deal with the pain from your past, despite the fact that you are not getting social support for it. Others, especially those who have no personal experience with trauma, are not always able to be empathetic with the need for therapy. Your fellow sufferers will tell you that you will know, in your heart, when the time has come to seek healing.

Sincerely,
   Doctor George

p.s. Somatic Experiencing is based on the work of Peter Levine and is explained in his books Waking the Tiger and Healing Trauma, as well as in Gina Ross's Beyond the Trauma Vortex Into the Healing Vortex: A Guide for You. In addition, Laurence Heller discusses the topic in his excellent book: Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide to Auto Accident Trauma and Recovery.