With trauma, abuse and PTSD the history is usually known, the problems are around how to deal with the consequences. This is one of the differences from dealing with anxiety and depression.
The other difference is the intensity of the fight, flight and freeze reactions that have become fixed. These can be around persistent adrenaline pumped flashbacks, over reactive anger, immobility, inability to concentrate, restlessness, stress, disturbed sleep, chronic tension, anxiety, depression and compulsions. Then there are all the ways with which we try and avoid the distress, these can go into substance misuse and lots of other forms of ‘acting out’ behaviour. I remember one man who used to walk for many hours each morning and then drink for rest of the day.
It is really important to understand that whatever we do to survive we are not wrong or bad. We just have not yet found how to process the huge forces rampaging around inside us. At core human beings are good, it is the struggle with the consequences of being overwhelmed that create our difficult and self-destructive behaviours.
The way we often survive trauma, especially as children, is to blame ourselves. It’s the only we can make sense of the experience and making whatever sense we can, is more important than the terror of ‘no-sense’, even if that means making ourselves ‘bad’.
This also explains our self-destructiveness, if we feel we are ‘bad’ we are not really worth caring about. Unsurprisingly we lack self-esteem. Being ‘bad’ we learned to be ashamed of ourselves and this made us vulnerable to our sense of inadequacy being compounded by all the ‘shoulds’ dumped on us by our parents, educators and society.
This can pre-figure our response patterns and influence how we response to traumatic events later in life. Society purveys such a strong (and hypocritical) ‘should’ about having to be competent masters of our own lives, and when we are not, we are faced with huge self-blame and inadequacy.
So, it is this combination of un-bearable distress with deep unacceptability which can make our situation so desperate. We can feel that life and indeed our own selves, are deeply against us.
So the first steps are to start to understand that we are not ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. Then there is the need to start to build up some self-support, and this comes from starting to see how we are made up of heart, head and body and how each part interacts and relates to the other.
Our thoughts influence our feeling, our feelings always influence our thoughts and both interact with our bodies. The relationship between our feelings and body is instantaneous, adrenaline is a good example, as is the instant tension we experience with anxiety.
As we build this detailed self-knowledge we can also start to connect with our body through focusing on sensing it. This is so important with trauma, we need to build a new ground where we are connected to our sensation before starting to address the difficult feelings more directly. So we need to give lots of attention to getting in touch with our tensions, noticing our breath and deepening contact with sensation through exercises of some sort.
Then, together with the support of our head, of its growing understanding that our experience is logical, understandable and resolvable, we can start to look at our feelings. In tiny amounts at first. We need to avoid re-experiencing the full impact of the trauma without sufficient self-support in place. But by touching the distress very obliquely at first and learning to process the reactions with the help of this new holistic perspective, we can gradually allow the shock and distress that’s been held under such pressure, to release and be faced.
As we understand more about the structure of ourselves, how we function, and start to see how recovery is possible, we can start to trust ourselves more. Our life is not condemned to be the battleground we’ve become so used to. We don’t have to remain a victim forever and it is possible to re-trust the process of ourselves.
Not aiming at change
If we aim for change too directly we miss the meaning of where we are. Even with the desperateness of trauma there is meaning for us to find. Sometimes this can only be seen after emerging from it, when we can see how much stronger and wiser we are than we could have been without having suffered so deeply.
We change through our participation and commitment to this process of integration and growth, not through directly trying to change. This is governed by the deep inherent wisdom of our subconscious working with our developing awareness and understanding.
The aim is to live ever close to the present moment. Again we have to work indirectly, by resolving all those defensive ‘emergency’ reactions that demand our attention. Our subconscious wisdom, which includes our ‘conscience’ (our ability to know what’s true and what’s not) wants and supports this process by always working to make the best meaning it can out of our situation.
This clearing of the past leaves us ever freer to live in the present, to live a more spontaneous, enjoyable, satisfying and meaningful life.