Yes, Trauma is Real

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 paula@rltpathways.com) 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.

7 thoughts on “Yes, Trauma is Real

  1. Yes, trauma is REAL! And, for me, therapy has to involve Christianity, my faith, or lack thereof, because it is integral to the trauma! My faith came via my mother and my dysfunction did, too, so they are integrally connected. 😥 Thank you for spelling all that out!!

    ____________________ Holly S Hoxeng 5981 Chivalry Dr Colorado Springs CO 80923 303-877-5373 (c) 719-574-0176 (h)

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this. I wish I could afford you or a therapist like you. I wish I could afford ANY therapist, to be honest. I know I need to get back into therapy, and writing my book is making that very apparent. The somatic symptoms are very hard to manage, even with my medication. The problem with therapy for me arises when a diagnosis starts to be talked about. Many therapists are afraid of malpractice when it comes to DID, which is the extreme end of the PTSD scale. Thanks Dr. Wilbur.

    This is the case for many thousands of us in the US. Mostly, we avoid official diagnosis, don’t mention the weird way our brains seem to be constructed in response to trauma, and settle for a C-PTSD diagnosis. The treatments are similar, so they often help us. In a Facebook group of over 40,000 DID sufferers from across the globe, fewer than half are in therapy, and most of those are undiagnosed. The members from the UK and other socialized medicine countries are usually the ones in care. They share with us the types of therapy that work with them, and many of us self-treat. It isn’t a good solution, by any means, but it is better than having no idea what is going on with our brains.

    The stigma of mental illness in the US is tough. It adds a layer of struggle to our lives. In that group of 40,000 only a handful of us have chosen to be “out” regardless of where we live. You and our church is what gave me the guts to do it. I did not want to try to operate in that close a community with the secret. If I was going to be “out” at church, I needed to be “out” everywhere. It was one of the best decisions of my life. Most of my friends have been amazingly positive. The words of my own child filled my heart. Everyone in my life knew I struggled with “something.” Now they know what, and my life is much easier. Most of the time.

    There have been a few who in anger, used the knowledge to trigger a negative response. Those people have to leave my life. They are too dangerous for me. I have had to insist my roommate move out this past weekend for that very reason. There were boundaries they refused to honor. They felt I had no right to set those boundaries in my home, but I absolutely do. This isn’t stuff like washing your dishes, that annoy, but are ways of behaving to me that are far too triggering. Standing in front of me for hours yelling at me over something beyond my control, or over a fair decision I made that they want to change to one that is totally unfair and watching me switch and laughing about it, or screaming, “I am not threatening you!” when I say they make me feel unsafe in the only safe space I have ever known, which is my home, are just unacceptable. I have accepted behavior like that my whole life, and I finally get to say “Nope.” They don’t have to like it, but they do have to accept it.

    All this is to say that you, your sermons, and your writings have been a huge help to me. I don’t think you really know how much you and your words bless so many of us.

    Thank you for that, Paula, and thank God for your presence in my life.

    Dee

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