Saturday, January 15, 2005

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Hi folks,

This blog is about healing trauma. What I have to say will be of interest to the survivors of trauma, and to those who want to help them on their healing journey. Let's be clear from the outset that nobody cures anyone else's trauma; trauma survivors must heal themselves. But they can't do this entirely alone. They need the active support of caring people, and they must be in a safe environment. So if what I write strikes a resonant cord within you and triggers strange feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations in your waking life or dreams, talk to someone who is empathic about this. If you don't have such a friend handy, there are telephone help-lines in most communities that you can call 24 hours a day. You must take responsibility for healing yourself, and that includes seeking help from others when you feel overwhelmed by stress.

Unfortunately, commonly held beliefs about what is best for trauma survivors are often the opposite of what is needed to heal. For example, children who survive horrendous traumas may appear unaffected by what happened because they don't have a conscious memory of the traumatic event. Well-meaning adults see such lack of awareness as a blessing, and try to further protect the child from any reminders of the tragedy. In doing this they close the door to helping the child understand and heal post-traumatic stress and dissociation that if left untreated, can adversely affect the survivor for the rest of their life.

The symptoms of post traumatic stress and dissociation arising from untreated overwhelming trauma in childhood are the common denominator in most adult mental illnesses, drug and alcohol addictions, and criminal behaviour.

Social ignorance of PTSD and Dissociation is more of a problem when the victim is isolated and in the power of the perpetrator, as happens in cases of incest or other sexual, physical, emotional and mental abuse from socially trusted caregivers.

Trauma caused by war or natural disasters affecting entire communities tends to be less damaging to individuals because everyone acknowledges it as real, and there is widespread support for each other.

There is much talk about the incidence of PTSD and Dissociative Disorders amongst war veterans these days, particularly amongst Canada's UN peace-keeping soldiers who are forced to witness atrocities, and amongst US soldiers serving in Iraq (and before that in Vietnam). It is estimated that up to 30% of veterans who serve on the front-lines of conflict return with acute symptoms of PTSD. Therapies focus on alleviating the symptoms with drugs, and behaviour modification. The 30% of soldiers who develop PTSD are said to have a genetic predisposition to react this way, whereas the 70% who don't show text-book symptoms are viewed as normal. This ignores all those with symptoms that do not meet the full PTSD criteria. It also ignores the fact that over 90% of those who develop PTSD have experienced events of overwhelming trauma in childhood, events which were untreated and unrecognized at the time they entered the armed forces, and which remain unrecognized in conventional therapies.

To truly heal PTSD and associated Dissociative Disorders, the survivor must heal all the dissociated trauma going back to the original childhood experience. This is an insight that is absent in PTSD therapies driven by the insurance model of health care, which seeks to limit liability by paying only for help for PTSD that is specific to injuries the policy covers, such as a car crash, or work related injury. This is like dictating that hospitals only treat the part of a cancer that developed in the workplace, and ignore the cancer that grew while at home!

Fortunately we are created with the innate ability to heal ourselves. This is readily apparent when we heal our cuts and bruises, it is less so when we heal our damaged minds. First we need to know that PTSD and Dissociative Disorders are the way a child's brain is hard-wired to survive life-threatening events. Imagine a child walking in the primordial jungle with family. Suddenly a man-eating predator leaps upon the parents and savagely kills them. Rather than witness these events, the child's mind flips into PTSD/Dissociation mode. All incoming sensory data are automatically shunted away from conscious awareness and stored as raw data elsewhere in the brain. The child flees with the other survivors to a place of safety, but does not consciously know what happened.

Mom and dad are gone, and the child has only the stories others tell to fill in his personal history with, or so most people think. In fact, the raw sensory data - the record of what was seen, heard, felt, smelt, touched, and thought, is all actively stored in the child's mind. It is stirred everyday in many ways - in recurring nightmares, in fears, in strange thoughts and compulsions.

At this point an understanding community would recognize the child needs mental healing, as well as safety and love. Great importance would be attached to the dreams, art, stories, and feelings of the survivor; enabling the dissociated sensory inputs to emerge into consciousness and be understood as pieces of the survivor's mental jig-saw puzzle of the traumatic event. These pieces are brought forward by the mind's own innate healing ability, so that they can be consciously processed in safety, and understood for what they are. Unfortunately conventional psychiatry misdiagnoses PTSD symptoms as virtually every mental disorder in the psychiatric manual, and prescribes pills and other behaviour modification therapies which do nothing to heal the underlying condition, but I digress...

When enough dissociated pieces are understood to create the outline of the traumatic experience, the survivor consciously experiences the event, and it can then become a complete memory and fade with time. This is essentially the healing process I have witnessed in others and experienced in myself.

Children who have never experienced overwhelming trauma lose the ability to dissociate as they grow older, but for those carrying unhealed traumatic fragments, this childhood survival mechanism has persisted as their way of coping with traumatic events to the present. It requires much effort to assemble the different traumatic events from the raw sensory inputs as they emerge from the unconscious, it can be like working on different jigsaw puzzles with the pieces drawn from a common heap. It is so much easier to heal trauma in children, as soon as safe to do so after it happens, rather than decades and further dissociated traumas later as an adult.

In subsequent postings I will describe the approaches I use to enable trauma survivors to heal themselves. These include art and storytelling, (also, see ) as well as dreams and spiritual meditation.

Jim Poushinsky