A better way to approach trauma recovery

In my travels, I tend to come across people in helping professions. I meet them at social gatherings, at conferences, even just standing in line waiting for coffee. I have a large number of friends who are in corrections, social services, or in the therapy field. Hearing them compare notes

In my travels, I have also encountered a fair amount of research written about trauma. My friends recommend it to me. I hear people discussing the books and the research. And I read them. Well, some of them, anyway.

But one thing really gets to me — the focus that people seem to have on the psychological aspects of trauma, as though that’s the only real problem that trauma brings with it. Every once in a while, I come across someone talking about the physiological results of being traumatized (as in, being helpless and thinking – seriously – I’m gonna die! and having your body flood with the biochemical lubricants that make the experience of being eaten by lions somewhat less awful than normal).

Another thing that really gets to me is how much focus is placed on sexual trauma. Incest. Rape. Molestation. Okay, I understand that this is a terrible, terrible aspect of life that is indeed traumatizing. I know too many people — both men and women — who have been raped and/or molested. It makes me physically ill to think what they’ve been through.

They’ve been traumatized. But they’re not the only ones. And the discussion of trauma and its aftermath and how you heal from it shouldn’t only revolve around sexual abuse.

An awful (and I mean awful) lot of people have experienced trauma. Motor vehicle accidents. Surgery. Catastrophes. Other accidents. Assaults. Drive-by shootings. You name it. This world seems tailor-made for trauma. But when we narrow the focus on the phenomenon of trauma survival and recovery to include primarily sexual experiences, not only do we shut out a lot of folks who need to be considered, but we make it all the harder for sensitive, caring, impressionable people (not unlike myself) to approach the topic of trauma as something that pertains to them.

Don’t get me wrong – I fully support sexual trauma survivors who need to tell their stories. I just think that those aren’t the only stories we should be hearing about. And the trauma recovery research and learning that’s out there should extend beyond the domain of base defilement.

Furthermore, can we please discuss it as a physiological phenomenon that has a tendency to hijack psychological and cognitive functioning? Please?

If we can figure out  a way to talk about trauma in more objective, less emotionally triggering terms, and we can view it in light of a whole-person (and whole-body) point of view, the field — I suspect — can jump ahead by leaps and bounds and help more of those who need the help.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

9 thoughts on “A better way to approach trauma recovery”

  1. Your comments here struck a chord and I want to make some comments that will hopefully tie together my feelings on the subject. I do hear the media speak post traumatic stress sydrome regarding people who have been through a trauma whether it be a natural disaster or the horrors of war. However, I do not know if a lot of people who are not in the helping professions understand the aftermath as one would hope. The military was not giving veterans of wars in the middle east the help they needed post war experience. Lack of critical follow up may have led to suicides when they return to civillian life. It is so hard to understand as they are back in safety if one does not know about trauma. I think people are able to understand consequences if there are phyical scars such a a malformed skull, missing limbs, or other physical scars. If you had halting speech or slurrred speech, people would pick up on your disabilities more. With your social skills, you were able to mask your rececptive language problems.
    More in a moment.

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  2. Before I shift gears, I wanted to add that the military has hopefully improved in post war follow-up since the report that I cited. I appreciate that you are willing to say what effects someone and not minimize the trauma regardless of the source. You do not come from the viewpoint of someone who has a “victim” mentallity. I think that being bitter is never better. I have had my times of being bitter and must allow others room if they have not learned a better perspective. I do believe that hearing a person and their story can help with the healing. I know of someone who told a therapist about abuse from her father through the years. The therapist was attentive for a time and seemed concerned. She said something that I don’t think was meant to brush aside the trauma but it did make it less free to have dialogue when she said that parents had done a lot worse. I am sure as a therapist she heard such terrible and horrible things. As a whole, she did seem to want to be a caring and helpful person and not wanting to be the type to minimize feelings. I also want to add that there are people who I know who are survivors of sexual abuse who are so willing to help people in recovery who have other abuse or trauma unrelated to sexual abuse. One young man experienced sexual abuse from a very young age until his teens and tries to show care so that others seek help. He is concerned about people whether they have ADD, have had physical abuse, or any unhealthy situation with parents. In my experience with these people who have gone through more than I think I could survive, they are the most compassionate to others’ suffering on all levels. In saying that, I do agree that it is good to make sure that we allow other voices to be heard regarding trauma who were not victims of sexual abuse. I also worry that too much emphasis on sexual abuse makes people think that the world is full of perverts and that healthy families are few and far between. My mom thought that sexual abuse between an adult and a child was a sick joke when she first heard about it. She was raised in the 50’s and 60’s and I do not think she learned about it until she was an adult. While I think it is important for victims not to be ashamed to come forward, I think we have shaped society in a sick way to dwell on it so much. My friends who were victims have made a lot of their lives and have received healing.

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  3. Thank you for bravely stating your opinion. I think it is a huge problem when any kind of trauma survivor – whether it be sexual abuse, brain injury, PTSD, car accident, whatever – allows the trauma to define them and identifies too strongly with the label. I think it is prohibitive to healing and keeps someone stuck in the victim role.

    I know only when I quit thinking of myself as a merely a brain injury survivor that I became more.

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  4. Absolutely Debbie – if we allow our injuries to define us, our lives become so much narrower than they could be. Every one of us, just because we’re alive, has been injured in some way. Even the birthing process can be profoundly traumatic. But there is so much more to life than trauma and injury and pain. Finding that out in our own ways, I think, is one of the great challenges and rewards of life.

    Onward!

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  5. BB

    I think that you may ‘hear’ more about sexual abuse trauma because of a number of cultural factors:

    1. Women were more willing to admit to being sexually traumatized once there was a sociological opening to ‘confess’ that such atrocities go on to regular folks. The tremendous relief of finally being able to admit something spread quickly and was popularized by the press.

    2. Sexually traumatized men were much slower to reveal their stories. This is a complex scenario involving manliness and in cases such as the church – long held beliefs.

    3. Trauma of other victims – fire, floods, accidents have spoken out – but because they were not necessarily ‘secretive’ to start with the revelation was less shocking and less media worthy.

    4. Military trauma has been one of the more difficult areas to address. The military mindset specifically encourages people to think of themselves as resilient. Admitting to trauma is counter to this.

    The victim mindset is often a result of trauma – that is it is a symptom and not a character flaw. Trauma represents an extreme loss of control over your environment. The end result is that you feel dis-empowered. All accidents are not necessarily traumatic and even ones we think should be don’t necessarily induce that same trauma response. This can be related to initial personality, frequency and repetition of the event (or similar events), degree of resistance or how much one was overpowered by others or by fear, the degree of loss and other issues such as life status, age, etc. This is why a trained race car driver can have a terrible accident and not feel traumatized and a businessman can have a terrible accident and feel traumatized.

    But those associated feelings – be they terror or victimization or whatever are part of the event. The feeling is actually a scar or damage to a person as a result of the trauma – induced by circuitry that has developed a physiological response of helplessness. It’s also worth noting that FREQUENTLY (but not absolutely) women express trauma through inward issues – making them more victims and men approach trauma through outward expressions – making them more prone to anger and disruptive behavior. Both reactions are a form of self-destruction that comes as a result of the trauma.

    We build support systems and medical systems that work to perpetuate this. Seligman who developed the approach of Positive Psychology takes this approach – that people who rate themselves happy do not in fact have any more or less necessarily than those who are unhappy – but that they simply do not feel like victims. The key element then to address psychological issues is to reframe things where you feel like you have a choice, where you can impact the outcome. Interestingly this same perspective also is the number one factor for people who say they are satisfied in their jobs – when they feel that they can impact the process and contribute (that is are empowered) this means more than money to them.

    In general we still have light years to go addressing these psycho-physiological issues. Our mental health approach has been mostly denial and more recently drug induced. Talk therapy has always been the background music but its been hit or miss and MANY therapists are people who were in fact traumatized themselves and go into the field because they feel a need to help others. Even if that is not the case it is difficult to help some one in this area – and most approaches require that a person do some degree of self-revelation combined with cognitive therapy to re-empower them. The sexual trauma stuff has been around longer than the very recent awareness of PTSD (which was disregarded in the past)- and even there it was kind of assumed that once a person acknowledged the event they could move beyond it. But it’s far more complex – you actually have to lay new circuitry down but you cannot undo the circuitry that is, so the new process must be made stronger than the traumatic event – and that takes time and a great deal of effort – often with minimal results.

    Hopefully in the future we will be able to respond to trauma, brain injury, depression, attention deficits, and a host of other issues as part of a cycle of a cognitive-physical-emotional circuit that we can modify and improve. Part of this – if I am going to think idealistically – would also include communities and workplaces where difference was accepted, where people supported each other’s efforts to make their lives better, and where systems were in place to empower and not ensnare people into helplessness.

    M

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  6. “ensnare people into helplessness” — the day job as a glue trap… I just had a very striking visual of that.

    I think you’re right on about the “cognitive-physical-emotional circuit” — makes sense to me. And yes, the new certainly does need to be stronger than the old.

    I’ll have to check out Seligman. Sounds quite useful.

    Thanks for the thoughts.
    BB

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  7. Here’s an interesting factoid – you can ‘encourage’ someone to fall in love with you if you do something physically dangerous or fearful (for both of you) together. That’s how powerful the fear reaction is.

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  8. Thanks for this courageous post. Given that our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits are all one entity–not separate like building blocks stacked one on the other–it’s impossible for trauma in one “part” to not affect all the rest. However, our usual tendency is to split ourselves or others into those parts because we don’t yet fully realize how interconnected they all are.

    I’ve been reading more lately about these connections and how important it is to deal with the entire person who has been traumatized. There is finally a lot of research being done on this, thank goodness.

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  9. Thanks Barbara, for turning your attention to this. I think it’s one of the missing pieces in dealing with TBI — the trauma doesn’t end with the injury alone. There are many more traumas — both large and ‘micro’ – that await many TBI survivors, and I really believe it’s important that we learn to address that aspect of the healing as well.

    We’re getting there. But we sure have a long ways to go…

    Keep on keepin’ on.

    BB

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