Life is difficult. I continue to be distressed at how often people desperately try to minimize life’s complexities. Last week I was involved in a conversation in which two people were questioning the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The amount of disinformation was alarming. One person said, “I mean, can’t people just move on?”
That disturbing conversation was followed by another in which good friends brought up their own experience with trauma. After the two conversations, I felt it was time to revisit the subject of trauma and talk about how it finds expression in the body.
There are three parts of the human brain – the reptilian brain, where our basic motor functions live, the limbic system, which controls our emotions and includes the hippocampus and amygdala, and the neocortex, the rational thinking part of the brain.
When trauma occurs, the amygdala, one half of the mid-brain or limbic system, decides how to respond. Should I fight, run, or freeze. The amygdala decides which of the three actions to take, based on its rapid assessment of the threat. It does so without consulting the hippocampus or neocortex.
The other half of the limbic system, the hippocampus, takes information into short-term memory, and turns it into long-term memories. The stress hormones released during a terrifying drama, cortisol and norepinephrine, put the hippocampus in super encoding mode, making the most powerful parts of the experience vivid and unforgettable. The rest of what was going on is not recorded at all.
If the amygdala tells you to fight or run, the hippocampus keeps working, encoding those vivid memories. If the amygdala chooses to freeze, the neocortex and hippocampus both shut down and you dissociate and disconnect from your body. Dissociation is the brain protecting itself from consciously participating in what the amygdala has decided is about to happen. When the amygdala chooses to freeze, you end up with no conscious memory of the event, because the hippocampus and neocortex have shut down and stopped recording. You do not remember the trauma in your consciousness. You do, however, remember it in your physical body.
When I moved to Colorado, I became a mountain biker. If you mountain bike in Lyons, Colorado, you are going to encounter rattlesnakes. It is amazing how quickly my body responds when I round a bend and see a rattlesnake on the trail. Before I have a conscious thought, I’ve stopped the bike on a dime, or swerved around the snake. The amygdala decides what action to take. After the episode, my whole body starts shaking. I get to a safe place, pull off the trail, and literally shake out my arms and legs, like an animal does instinctively after it has been traumatized. By taking the time to literally shake the trauma out of my body, my body releases the tension, and by the time I’m home neither my brain nor my body are traumatized. I have an interesting story to tell, but my heart does not start beating rapidly when I tell it. By literally shaking my arms and legs, my body has neutralized the trauma.
But imagine if your amygdala told you to freeze, and your hippocampus shut down, and the memory of that trauma went straight into your body, without any memory being encoded on your brain and without a chance to shake out the trauma afterwards. When that happens, you potentially have a long-term problem. You may never consciously remember the trauma you experienced, but your body does.
The good news is that there are ways for the body to be healed of the trauma – ways that do not require remembering the trauma at a conscious level. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one effective method for healing trauma held in the body. The eye movements, hand taps and buzzes of EMDR mimic REM sleep, when information moves from the limbic system into the cerebral cortex, where it is processed along with other memories. That is why we feel so much better after a good night’s sleep.
EMDR targets specific memories locked in the body and moves them to a part of the brain (the neocortex) where they can be processed. EMDR can be intense, and it is best done with a practiced therapist who can make sure the trauma is contained before you leave the therapy session. For those who find EMDR too intense, somatic therapy (a body-oriented approach to healing trauma) or trauma-informed yoga can be helpful. One of the best books about understanding how trauma is healed is Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.
As a pastoral counselor, I am not trained in the methods listed above, though my partner at RLT Pathways, Cathy Williams, is trained in EMDR and does specialize in working with adult survivors of sexual trauma.
My training is as a pastoral counselor. My Doctor of Ministry degree is in Pastor Care. Pastoral counselors have the same basic training as other counselors and psychotherapists, but also approach their therapy from a spiritual perspective. That does not mean invoking scripture, as many evangelical therapists do. It means recognizing that all of us are essentially spiritual creatures, engaged in a search for meaning. A pastoral counselor acknowledges that spiritual dimension, and the often unconscious part it plays in our lives.
My work is primarily person-centered, which means I do not assume I have answers to my client’s issues. The client has the answers to his or her own issues, and it is my responsibility to help the person remove the obstacles stopping them from discovering their own answers. My work is also primarily psychodynamic. Psychodynamic therapy looks at the maps we create early in life that need to be adapted and changed as we progress through life. Unfortunately, too often we become stuck with maps that served us as vulnerable children, but do not serve us as adults.
I do work with religious trauma, which is all too common in the United States, particularly among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Much damage has been done by conservative religion, and it can leave open wounds that take a long time to heal. In working with my clients, we work through the healing process, primarily through gaining new insights and creating new maps.
Because of my church work and speaking schedule, I keep my pastoral counseling practice small, though I do currently have openings for a few new clients. (You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org) My work with clients is usually longer term, as we explore the person’s past for insight into how they can move more wholeheartedly into the future.
Life is difficult, and we all need a little help along the way. In the past we were more connected to a network of relationships that could help us navigate through life. Nowadays, we need the specialists who can help us make the most of our lives. It is very satisfying to travel alongside my clients on the sacred journey to authentic, wholehearted living.