What a complex and beautiful question asked of me recently. Upon hearing it, I was startled and silenced by the weight and importance of it. When I hear “cure” I associate this with something wrong that needs to be “removed” or “fixed,” neither of which can take place if the presenting issue is trauma. This is especially true since trauma is not something chosen by the person who experienced it; it is something that happened to them.
In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk states “nobody can ‘treat’ a war, or abuse, rape, molestation or any other horrendous event for that matter; what has happened cannot be undone.” When one experiences a traumatic event, there is a possibility that it becomes embedded in her system. This is the body’s way of protecting her. This awful memory might serve as a way to help her fight, flee or freeze in a similar, scary situation.
What is Trauma?
The body is smart. It has learned from experience(s) what was pleasurable or harmful and it remembers. Sometimes it remembers so well that it might be reminded of a frightening event when the present situation isn’t as scary as the original event or, it might even seem completely unrelated. But there is a reason for the body’s response to perceived danger, especially after having faced a disturbing event. And it is worthy of some attention.
Single or repeated exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence can contribute to someone experiencing trauma. This could include directly experiencing it, witnessing it, or hearing about it happening to a loved one or close friend. Nightmares or flashbacks related to the traumatic event and loss of control over one’s physical or psychological reactions to an event are just a few symptoms one might encounter when recovering from trauma. Additionally, persistent negative emotions and an inability to feel positive emotions along with decreased interest in what you used to enjoy and feelings of isolation are other possible signs. When the symptoms become extremely distressing, it may reach the qualifications for the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It can be a jarring and petrifying experience to feel as though you have lost control and perhaps not even recognize yourself as you react to a triggering event. But thanks to ongoing trauma research, there are many effective ways to address trauma and even lessen or eliminate its effects.
What Can I Do if I Experienced Trauma?
Depending on the severity of the trauma someone experiences, they might consider several options.
- Information and resources. Our minds can tend to become fearful when we lack information, particularly when we are scared. And it is scary to not know what is happening with our bodies when they are responding to something they sense is harmful. So the more you know about what trauma is, how it can show up and and how it affects you, the better able you can understand it, work to address it and ultimately help yourself. Below are some recommended books and resources to consider while searching for a method that works for you.
- Therapy. Therapy has been found to be an effective way to treat trauma, but there are specific approaches you may want to research when looking for a therapist to address trauma specifically. These include:
- Movement and art. Van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of incorporating movement and art into your healing . More specifically yoga, theater, art, music, and dance are some options to explore in order to access your creative self, get in tune with your body, and find alternate outlets for pain.
- Medication. There are several forms of medication that have been found to effectively treat PTSD. If this is of interest to you, speaking with your Primary Care Physician and even meeting with a Psychiatrist could be helpful in exploring this path.
I think of trauma as a part of an individual (or community). Our experiences shape us into who we are but do not define us entirely. And they cannot be removed. They make up the beautiful whole in which we are. So yes, one can recover from trauma and the symptoms of it can be lessened, if not resolved. This is very much the goal: having a sense of control over what one felt they didn’t have before. But one’s trauma, or their experience, is not something to be fixed. It is something to be acknowledged and processed in a way that honors their strength and resilience.
What Happened to you by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey
The Body Keeps the Score By Bessel van der Kolk
It Didn’t Start with You by Mark Wolynn
Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving by Pete Walker
- Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2014. The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma.
- Perry, B. and Winfrey, O., (2021). What happened to you?. New York, NY: Flatiron Books.