“To say that trauma induced behaviours like addiction are to do with mental illness or brain disease is simply wrong. The ACE study has proved beyond doubt that there is a direct correlation not just between addiction and trauma but between all illnesses and criminal behaviours and early childhood trauma. These things are not in our genes, either – they arise from our childhood experiences. And what do they do? Their diagnosis explains NOTHING. They do not ask about their patient’s lives. They are not curious. They diagnose and treat with drugs as if the individual is the problem.”
In other words, trauma lies at the root of almost all criminal behaviour, addictions, obesity and immune system vulnerability. As long as we live in a trauma – ignorant society, we will continue to fail in solving these very solvable problems.
How can such a simple model be true in the complicated world in which we live? Well, let us look at what the word ‘trauma’ actually means:
Trauma actually comes from the greek word for “wounding” and this is exactly what happens with trauma. It is like damage or wounding to our soft tissue – only it is our emotional soft tissue that we need to talk about, now.
Just like in a physical wounding, the emotional pain of trauma hurts so much that we must form defensive scar tissue around it. It performs the same function in that it creates a barrier and yet at the same time, it also binds the trauma to us.
The other thing that happens with scar tissue is that it becomes inflexible and rigid, even. The emotional buffers or scar tissue that we formed to originally protect us from the complete rupture and break down of our psyche, become the very rigid and defensive behaviours that make it hard for us to function in life.
With scar tissue, there are very few nerves – this means we no longer feel. This means that not only do we become disconnected from feeling what is happening in ourselves, we become disconnected from feeling empathy for those around us. We become alienated from ourselves and from the world. This is actually normal.
What is not normal is to be labelled as ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill’ or be told that our brains are diseased.
So what do we do with trauma? How can we help it to heal?
Well, in the past it was hoped that simply through talking about it and sharing it with a ‘safe other’ we could make a difference. However the counselling and psychotherapy professions have discovered that this can often result in a re-traumatisation of the individual. In fact it was discovered that sometimes this can actually make our clients worse.
This is like an over-enthusiastic physiotherapist working on the scar tissue so vigorously that it breaks apart and the wound starts to bleed and gets infected again.
This is because the part of the brain responsible for holding on to this trauma cannot tell the difference between “then” and “now”. The cathartic breakdowns of traumatised individuals as they ‘retold’ their stories over and over again did little to help their problems go away, no matter how frequently it happened.
Just as we have found that gentle (and occasional) massaging of scar tissue allows it to soften and break down in its own time, we have found that as long as we limit the amount of trauma being discharged to a small and manageable level that means our clients can stay thinking and processing, then we can slowly “lance the boil” of their trauma.
Yet still we have a problem…
Whilst the client may say they feel safe, their nervous system is often behaving in a way that shows the body does not believe it is safe. It is ‘held’ or it is ‘vigilant’ or it is pale and ‘without tone’. In other words the pre-frontal cortex is largely delusional when it comes to safety and to the safe discharge of past traumas. This is because, without the nervous system KNOWING that it is safe, any revisiting of trauma is in fact simply re-traumatisation.
This discrepancy is largely because in evolutionary terms, the prefrontal cortex where most of our processing is derived is a relative newcomer to the nervous system and it only has a minority vote when it comes to our functioning and to our sense of safety.
Most of the nervous system that we currently inhabit took millions of years of development and we know that the part of the brain where trauma is stored and where it must be processed lies deep within the mammalian brain – the limbic system. Yet this primal and ancient part of the brain is precisely the part of the brain that is not susceptible to traditional “talking therapy”.
Just how can we convince this part of the brain that it really is safe and that it can release and discharge those long held traumas without damage to the self?
Unsurprisingly, in order to communicate effectively with the whole nervous system, we need to become experts in “speaking nervous system”. This non verbal language is not unknown – it has just been the preserve of a very different branch of healing – it is a language that has been used by shamans, healers and bodyworkers for millennia.
With the neuroscience now telling us exactly where trauma is stored in the brain and what the role of that part of the brain is, I believe that it is imperative for counsellors and psychotherapists to now “cross over” into this world and gather up the knowledge that has been held in these ‘nervous system’ traditions so we can use them to help our clients discharge the traumas of their own lives and the toxic accumulation of unresolved and un-dealt with traumas from previous generations of their families and their societies.