Why Trauma Affects Some People Differently Than Others

Vision (1919) by Otto Lange (1879-1944) for trauma blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Three of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Two.

Large swaths of populations, including Americans, are experiencing the devasting effects of trauma. To honor this epidemic, to offer new insights into its mechanisms, and to inspire hope for the reduction of human suffering, I extended my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience.

Dale Kushner: Can someone suffer the effects of a traumatic memory, but be unaware of the event that caused it? If someone had trauma, but doesn’t remember it, what’s going on?

Daniela Schiller: A lot of what is happening in the brain is unconscious. We have learnings that we are unaware of. We can have events that impact our behavior such that when there is a trigger, we’ll respond in a certain way, but we won’t remember the association that formed it. A simple example is phobia. People are afraid of flying, but it wasn’t always because of a traumatizing event. The same is true with phobias about snakes or blood. The heart of these could be some event that they’re unaware of. There are events that shape our behavior, that make our behavior habitual or strongly associated with something without our awareness.

DK: But if your research is about eliminating or muting the negative feelings and someone doesn’t know the original trauma, how could they be helped?

DS: There are several lines of research, like the research on reconsolidation, the idea that you have to reactivate a memory in order to modify it. Also, the research that we’ve been discussing, that traumatic memory is an experience of the brain as if it’s happening in the present[1] These point to the fact that a memory, in order to be modified, has to be active and engaged with. At the same time, there are other ways to approach behaviors when their source is unknown — by analyzing the behavior. Even if we think we know the source, we don’t always necessarily know, because sometimes we can have a memory that is very disturbing for us, or a focal event, which very well can be not accurate or was revised or reconstructed over time.

Dr. Daniela Schiller for trauma blog postThe interesting thing is that now there’s growing research on the effect of psychedelics in treatment for PTSD and other conditions like depression. What people are reporting is that while they are on this psychedelic trip, many memories come up, memories that they didn’t know they had, memories they never linked. So there’s an event and suddenly there are additional peripheral events like, oh, and then you make new connections, and that suddenly makes the memory either more understandable or frames it differently. That type of flexibility seems to be occurring in research on psychedelics. When you don’t have that, that could be part of the rigid response or not necessarily accurate response that you have to a particular event that you think you remember.

DK: What determines the severity of the effect of trauma? We know that some people who have experienced severe trauma don’t seem to be affected while others who have had less severe trauma, or maybe just bad experiences, seem to be very altered by them.

DS:  Yes, that’s interesting because the definition of the trauma is not in the event itself. You don’t compare events, you compare the responses to the events. That’s why there’s no competition between someone who was at 9/11, for example, close to the building versus far from it but with a different interaction. There’s no measure like that. It’s all in the response. The definition is: to what extent does a trauma affect your daily life and functioning? If it impairs functioning — this is the measure of the severity. If you can’t get out of bed, if you don’t interact, you can’t work, you don’t need — these are the degrees of severity, how it affects you at that personal level.

DK: Are some people more vulnerable? Who is more likely to be affected? Can we predict who will be affected?

DS: Yes, some people are more naturally resilient than others. Many factors come into play. One is the past, like childhood trauma. The other could be genetics. Some processes make your brain more sensitive. The way the brain reacts could lead to some processes versus others, like epigenetics, which is the experience of your parents. We see this in studies of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, and also in animals. If the parents were stressed, then the pups, the offspring are also more reactive or more sensitive to negative experiences. This is because of the way the genes are being monitored, what is being inherited. In this sense, experience is being inherited. It’s also about the context. In what conditions do you have social support? Many parameters will influence resilience.

DK: Which is more important: the intensity or the duration of the trauma?

DS:  These all come into play. The intensity, the duration, and also the age of the memory. In the present moment, each of these can have a serious effect on trauma. There are traumas that are one-time events, and there are traumas that are very much chronic or prolonged. These are complicated types of trauma. They are different from a one-time trauma. So now you get into the different forms that trauma can take, and each one comes with its own characteristics and complexities.

DK: Can someone who has inherited the epigenetics of a traumatized parent change their epigenetics, if intervention is early enough?

DS:  Yes, I would expect so. It is not my research, but in principle what epigenetics means is that you have the DNA, but peripheral factors affect which gene is being expressed. They’re like the monitors, the modulators of the genes that you already have, and some of them will be expressed more or less depending on your experience. What is shaping the next generation is the environment in the fetus when the fetus is evolving. This is where epigenetic factors come into play, what is formed in the growing fetus of the next generation. Whatever is in that environment at the time of the pregnancy will have an effect. If you did have a negative experience, but then it was mitigated, this will have an influence because epigenetics is about the environmental and experiential context of your development.

DK:  One last question. Where are you headed now with your research? What are you excited about?

DS:  I’m excited about diving into complexity, diving into experiments that touch on personal experience. They’re difficult to study in the lab, which has to be very controlled. With new methods of analysis and also with artificial intelligence, machine learning gives us approaches to study more complex processes. I hope science will become more personal in the sense that it could characterize and be able to focus on the individual. Science is usually about statistics in large groups, and you need large samples to see effects, but I am hoping we can explore it more at the individual level.

For artists and scientists, their goal is to understand experiences in life. Their goals are exactly the same, and even as specific. If your character in the novel you’re writing is struggling with a certain memory, it’s a very specific sliver of reality you are trying to capture. I think science is trying to do the same.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories,” Part One of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, “Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember,” Part Two of three conversations with Daniela Schiller, and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” an interview with Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone.

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Memory and Trauma: We Are More than What We Remember

The Last Survivors of a Family (c. 1870s) by Félicie Schneider (1831–1888) for Memory blog post

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part Two of a three-part interview. Read Parts One and Three.

Thank you for joining me for Part Two of my interview with Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. Today we discuss how current research in neuroscience is confirming many of the working hypotheses of psychotherapy and also the role of narrative in creating memories.

Dale Kushner: There’s been a lot of research about how our brains are wired for narrative.[1] Your research[2] has to do with contextualizing a memory, that when a memory is contextualized that somehow mitigates the traumatic effects. How would you explain that?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. I think it’s important to emphasize that many of the insights I’m talking about are widely known and used in psychotherapy and psychological research. We’ve known for many decades that memories are not accurate, that there can be false memories, that they can be affected. And also that you need to create a narrative. Many therapy forms are about creating a narrative around memories because traumatic memories are fragmented.

In a way, neuroscience research is catching up or even occurring in parallel. When you interpret the neurobiological or neuroscientific findings, you see that, oh, it comes to the same conclusion as the therapists. Neuroscience brings a mechanism, whereas, for psychologists and psychiatrists, the therapy has been developed through trial and error or through hypothesis. It brings structure and constraints. But if there’s a mechanism, together they can kind of constrain each other. Now there’s a mechanism, now we know exactly what to target in a more well-defined treatment. The neuroscience resonates with many observations in psychology. It’s exciting.

DK: Now that you and your team and other researchers understand these mechanisms, what impact will this have on pharmaceuticals? Or in treatment? We hear of people recreating their nightmares in imagery rehearsal therapy.[3] How could this be used?

Dr. Daniela Schiller for memory blog postDS: Let me answer in two steps. In terms of narrative, memories are part of a narrative almost by definition. A memory is something that is embedded in time and space in a certain context, at least episodic memory. And if it’s not, then it’s a fragment of a present moment. To make something into a memory, it has to be part of a narrative because memory is a narrative. The brain is prone to that. The reason is that narrative is something that gives you cause and effect. It allows you to understand and predict, which is precisely what the brain wants to do.

So the connection with narrative is very tight. At the same time, there’s room for flexibility in that narrative because we know that memories are not accurate. We keep changing them, we reconstruct them. So when we do hold onto a narrative, it’s like a hypothesis. It’s a plausible explanation of the event. And that is what is liberating because if you’re stuck in a very harmful, negative narrative, there’s room to think that maybe it’s not the reality. There’s room to modify it and turn it into something more accurate and more conducive.

In terms of pharmaceuticals, it’s an interesting interplay because it depends on the impairment. In some cases, it could be at the neurobiological level, so you need something to, let’s say, enhance the brain’s plasticity or help neurons recover or return to balanced action. For this, you would need some type of invasive, like a drug or brain stimulation.

But at the same time, once the brain is functioning, you need to overlay behavior on it. It’s like having a car that works, but not driving it or driving a car that doesn’t work. If the car works and you don’t learn how to drive, there’s no point, right? It doesn’t really help you that the car works. So, if you can stimulate the brain to put it on a functional level, you then must practice behavior. The combination is very important. For different people, it depends on the situation. Sometimes the neurological is fine and you just need to practice behavior. Behavior itself is like a drug in the sense that it shapes the memory. It can stimulate, can train the memory. Behavior is a product of the brain, but it’s also a trainer, a manipulator of the brain. Behavior is very powerful. There is a lot of room for pure behavioral interference or adjustments that people can make in their daily lives when they understand how the brain works.

DK: That’s fantastically hopeful. What else should we know about what you have learned in your research?

DS: All these insights that come from neuroscience and psychology about memory are changing the way we think about memory. This is potentially important for how people engage with their memories. Because in everyday life we assume that our memories are accurate and they define who we are. This is what meditation is giving you. It’s a way to observe and interact with your thoughts and with your memories such that they don’t define you. You have a relationship with them, and that gives you a great deal of flexibility. On the one hand, it can be disturbing to think that I am not being correct in what I think about myself. But it changes your perspective in the sense that you don’t need to look in the past to understand who you are.

You need to look at the present because whatever you retrieve now reflects who you are now. For example, if you’re in a negative mood, you will retrieve negative memories. This is what will come to mind. It doesn’t mean that this is your entire life. It just means that now this is what you’re experiencing. So, you kind of think about memories differently. It’s not about telling you who you are or not, they give you actual information about the present in a way that helps you predict the future. Each one of us is becoming like an artist in the sense that we feel the memories and interact with them and have more of an intuitive sense of the process. I think it frees us, it gives us much more flexibility in moving forward in our experience of ourselves.

DK: Great. And that aligns with a sort of spiritual perspective. That our capacity, our perceptions, are narrowed by memory and many other things. But our capacity is so much more expansive.

DS: I think the affective world, the world of affect, which is everything from emotion, feelings, and mood, is best understood from the perspective of being an organism. You’re an organism in the world. You interact with the world and your reactions to the world. What we call emotions are concerns that we have for our survival. If we interact with something in the environment, that’s important to our survival or the way we interact with it. It indicates the importance or the relevancy of that object. That could be a mental object or a physical object, but the way we interact with it signifies what it means for us in terms of our survival.

[1] Westover, Jonathan, “The Power of Storytelling: How Our Brains are Wired for Narratives,” Human Capital Innovations, January 11, 2024

[2] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[3] . M. Albanese, M. Liotti, L. Cornacchia, F. Manzini, “Nightmare Rescripting: Using Imagery Techniques to Treat Sleep Disturbances in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2022: 13: 866144

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories” (Part One of my interview with Daniela Schiller),  “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



How the Brain Stores Traumatic Memories

Sagittal MRI slice of a brain with highlighting indicating location of the posterior cingulate cortex. The study cited found traumatic memories engaged this area, usually associated with narrative comprehension and autobiographical processing, like introspection and daydreaming.

A Conversation with Neuroscientist Daniela Schiller

Part One of a three-part interview. Read Parts Two and Three.

Does the brain encode traumatic memories differently than it does other memories? This question prompted a recent series of experiments by a group of researchers at Yale University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The publication of their breakthrough findings in Nature Neuroscience[1] in November generated news media headlines.[2] To learn more about these findings, I interviewed one of the authors of the study, Daniela Schiller, Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai and Director of the Schiller Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience. In 2014, The New Yorker did an extensive profile[3] of Dr. Schiller’s achievements in memory research.

Dale Kushner: Is it accurate to say your goal is to untangle a traumatic memory from the strong emotion it evokes so that a person might be able to remember something traumatic but not feel its negative effect?

Daniela Schiller: Yes. That’s the ultimate goal. The way to go about it is to ask questions about how to understand the mechanism: how the brain forms emotional memories, how it maintains these memories. Are these memories malleable? Do they change over time? Under what conditions do you retrieve them, in what way? To prevent the malfunctioning of it or the negative impact of it in certain cases you try to understand the entire mechanism of it. How does it work in the brain before it goes awry? And then what might change that it has such a negative impact?

DK: Could you briefly describe what you’re looking at now and how that unfolds for you in the lab?

DS: Sure. Here you have two main approaches. One will be the very, very controlled way that you create some experience in the laboratory and then you test it. For fear or for emotional memory, we can use this basic process that is called classical or Pavlovian conditioning, where you take one stimulus and associate it with something negative. That stimulus that used to be neutral is now negative. This you can do in the lab. You just present something on the computer, and they can get a mild electric shock, or they can lose money, something negative. They then develop this emotional response to the stimulus because they know that something negative is going to happen. When you look at that in the FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, you can see specific responses in the brain to that stimulus before and after learning, or in comparison to other such stimuli, or such cues.

Another approach is to investigate memories that the participants themselves bring. This is what we did in the research that was just published. The participants had been diagnosed with PTSD and they had their own real life traumatic memories and also sad memories. We reminded them of these memories while they were in the FMRI scanner, and we then looked at the brain. So, we found a way to analyze that very naturalistic experience and real-life memory. And of course, this is personal. In classical conditioning, everybody undergoes the same stimulus. All the participants look at a blue square paired with a shock. Then we’ll see in the entire group on average how the brain is reacting. With the PTSD group we see each and every individual brain reacting to the personal memory, but we still find commonalities. And these commonalities tell us what is different between traumatic memories and sad memories.

DK: That’s very interesting. So, the participants in the first group who have not had PTSD, you’ve induced some kind of shock so that you have a parameter of what an untraumatized person might experience when they are initially getting traumatized in the laboratory. Then you compare that to someone who comes to you with a history of trauma and look for the same things. Then you compare the responses and figure out how the brain is working in both cases. Is that accurate?

DS: Yes. What you’re describing is a challenge to the field because we really cannot induce trauma in the lab. What you have in the laboratory is a model, something that mimics aspects of trauma. With animals, you would do an animal model, an animal will undergo something negative, and then they will be afraid. In humans, you can do the same, but what you do in this case is you’re asking questions about basic learning and memory processes in the brain. And by understanding these processes, which are in the neurotypical, in the healthy realm, by understanding these, you assume that when these systems are impaired or you can envision or try to manipulate the impairments, then you can hypothesize what is happening in the traumatic state. In this case, it’s more like an extrapolation or an assumption that it would apply to trauma.

That’s why our last experiment was exactly to address that issue or those assumptions. Is it true that very simple emotional processes by way of exaggeration become traumatic, or is it a whole alternative process?  It can either be an extension or really a dissociation. It’s a challenge to study trauma in the lab.

DK: Yes. I bet. So, what are your findings on that question so far?

DS: My understanding now is that it’s really both. It depends on what you’re asking. You can see these basic processes in relation to emotional stimuli that are not a traumatic event. You could still see impairment in the aftermath of trauma because for example, people with PTSD would be more sensitive to negative information or some negative surprise or the way they compute and interact with emotional stimuli. You do see changes at the basic level. So that approach is very informative. In addition, when we look at the specific individual personal traumatic memory, we did see a difference between the traumatic memory and a sad memory. It wasn’t just more of an exaggeration of it, which in the brain you would see as more activation, more impact. It really looked like an alternative path of representation. This stayed virgin between the two memories. So, I think both are occurring at the same time. I hope that makes sense.

DK: Yes, it does. And it gives me a sense of what clinicians are dealing with and going to have to deal with. This research is going to be applicable and so crucial for coming generations.

Part two of this interview will follow in January.

[1] O. Perl, O. Duek, K. Kulkarni, C. Gordon, J. H. Krystal, I. Levy, I. Harpax-Rotem, D. Schiller, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,Nature Neuroscience, 26, 2226-2236 (2023); Published November 30, 2023.

[2] Barry, Ellen, “Brain Study Suggests Traumatic Memories Are Processed as Present Experience,” The New York Times, November 30, 2023.

[3] Specter, Michael, “Partial Recall,” The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma,” “The Things We Carry: How Our Ancestors’ Traumas May Influence Who We Are,” and “Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About ‘What’s Wrong With You?’”

 Keep up with everything Dale is doing by subscribing to her newsletter, Exploring the Unknown in Mind and Heart.



Seven Principles for Recovering from Trauma

A lone Desert Marigold for recovering trauma blog post

A conversation with Jungian therapist and rabbi Tirzah Firestone about epigenetics and recovering from trauma

Today I’m delighted to welcome Rabbi Dr. Tirzah Firestone for another information-packed conversation together. (See “Inherited Wounds: Tirzah Firestone on Ancestral Healing” and “Recognizing and Healing Inherited Trauma” for our earlier conversations).

Dr. Firestone is a Jungian analyst, rabbi, and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, whose research is on recovery from trauma, including the mechanisms of inherited trauma. In the revised edition of her deeply wise book, Wounds into Wisdom, Dr. Firestone draws on the latest neuroscientific and psychological findings, interweaving them with compelling stories of trauma and healing, to offer readers hope, understanding, healing, and the means to discover how suffering can be transformative.

Dr. Tirzah Firestone for recovering from trauma blog postDale Kushner: There is a lot of new biology out there that is changing how we think about health, lifespan, trauma, and our genetic inheritance. Your recent book explains this in a way that I found very accessible to non-scientists. Can you give us an overview here?

Tirzah Firestone: There is a lot of fascinating research going on. The last ten years have given us much more insight into the growing field of epigenetics, which studies the impact of life’s stresses on our genes’ activities.

We used to think that our genes were the major determinant of our health, our lifespan, the diseases we would get, etc. Now we know that our genes are incredibly responsive. They answer to the environment in which we live. Depending on our stresses, there are a host of epigenetic mechanisms that turn our genes on or off. Scientists call this gene expression.

So, for example, if you are living through a war, or have lost your home, or a parent dies, or some other traumatic life event is occurring, your genes will adjust to these environmental stresses by means of epigenetic mechanisms that act on (epi means upon or above) the chromosomes. They tell the genes what to do.

Epigenetics draws on clinical studies with mice and rats, demonstrating that stress and struggle can imprint not only on us but upon future generations. For example, early nurturing patterns by the mother, for example, have been shown to pass to grand-pups and great-grand-pups, even when they had never interacted.

In a study from Emory University,[1] mice were exposed to a sweet smell, acetophenone, and then received an electric shock to their feet. Associating the two, whenever the mice smelled the smell, they became fearful and froze. Amazingly, their offspring—even the grandpups who had never met their grandparents or been exposed to the smell or shock—showed panic in the presence of the smell.

These offer evidence for what many of us have been intuiting for a long time, that stresses and traumas experienced by our ancestors influence us, say in our resilience or lack thereof, several generations later.

But epigenetics also speaks to the impact of socio-economic stresses on entire ethnic groups. Moshe Szyf, a very prolific epigeneticist, shows how gene expression differs among those who grow up well-off vs. those who grow up disadvantaged, making the latter group more vulnerable to a host of diseases and shortened life spans.[2]

“Children of War” (2022) Graffiti in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Photo by Rasal Hague for Recovering from Trauma blog post

DK: Your own research is on recovery from trauma. Can you tell us about your study and findings?

TF: My study was on Jewish people from around the world who had gone through extreme traumas such as war, racial and religious discrimination, the loss of a child to terrorism, and such. My focus was on those who were able to go through the many stages of healing and integration and come out transformed by their traumas.

I discovered among all of them strong common denominators. But there is no one formula for trauma healing! Every one of us has a unique trajectory for our healing. My thirty years of experience in the healing field tells me that human beings are intrinsically primed for healing. We get directives from the inside that tell us what we need to do to work through our traumas and come back into full life.

DK:  Can you share with us today the seven principles that emerged from your research? 

TF: Yes, I’d be happy to. These are common denominators that I found in my research subjects who thrived again after their tragedies, having transformed their lives.

  1. Facing the loss
    More than anything else, directly facing our losses initiates the process of healing. This first principle means resisting our friends’ well-intentioned urges to get back to work or “get on with life.” We must give ourselves the gift of time and ride the waves of our pain.
  1. Harnessing our pain
    Once we face our losses, we may encounter intense pain. Because trauma disconnects us from our bodies, there’s a tendency to numb out. The alternative is to re-inhabit our physical selves. Physical exercise and self-care are paramount here. Pain made conscious can turn into fuel.
  1. Finding new community
    We may find ourselves changed by our trauma, feeling that there is no going back to how we used to be. Now we have to find people who understand us. Because traumatic experiences often leave us with a sense of shame or isolation, finding authentic connections with people who can hear and hold us compassionately is essential. The people I worked with felt a need to build a new social network, to find other like-minded people.
  1. Resisting the call to fear, blame, and dehumanize
    Unprocessed trauma can leave us permanently defensive. The human tendency to “other” people around us is the obvious next step. But that leaves us isolated, self-righteous, and lonely. Those who do the hard work of healing their traumas succeed in melting the walls of separation and resisting hatred for those who hurt them.
  1. Disidentifying from victimhood
    One of the main keys to trauma recovery is agency, the inner sense that we are in charge of our own lives, and we can shape their outcome.
  1. Redefining specialness
    One of the legacies of trauma can be the feeling that we are different, alone, and separate. But these feelings can flip into their opposites: feeling special, chosen, superior, for what we have gone through. One of the most important takeaways from trauma healing is that human beings are interdependent, that our healing depends on one another.
  1. Taking action
    Trauma recovery means facing what has happened directly and deeply mourning our losses. Then—and for each person there is their own internal timing—some kind of work or meaningful action in the world emerges.

DK: Our interview will be appearing around the holidays and just before the new year.  Do you have any special advice for readers at this time of year?

TF: Yes, holidays can be a particularly challenging time of year, especially for those of us who are raw from losses and traumatic upheaval. We are often bombarded by family or lack of family, outward cheer that doesn’t match our inner felt sense, and so many distractions that pull us out of our own inner experience. Take alone time to feel your feelings, journal, take walks, move your energy to let off steam, and avoid excesses like sugar, alcohol, or recreational drugs that unground you. Main point: This is the time for doubling down on our self-care. Stay in touch with yourself and lead with self-compassion!

References

[1] Dias, B. G. and Ressler, K. J. (March, 2014). “Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations.” Nature Neuroscience 17:89-96

[2] Nada Borghol, Moshe Szyf, et al., “Associations with Early-Life Socio-Economic Position in Adult DNA Methylation,” International Journal of Epidemiology 41, no. 1 (February 2012): 62-74

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: Changing the Ways We Adapt

Ripples and bubbles on water for treating Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part Two of Two

In Part One of my interview with trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute, we discussed how Brad and his colleagues distinguish between PTSD and complex PTSD. In Part Two, we explore how NARM’s NeuroAffective Relational Model addresses the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma. Brad and Dr. Laurence Heller outline the therapeutic framework of NARM in their new book, The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma.

(Note: This is the second of a two-part  interview)

You are currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute. What does NARM stand for? What is your working definition of trauma?

NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, which is a model designed by my long-time mentor Dr. Laurence Heller, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience.  But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas.

NARM’s five core needs and their associated core capacities for treating complex PTSD blog postWe use a developmental framework that describes five Adaptive Survival Styles which are ways we learned to adapt to attachment and environmental failures early in life. These styles form the blueprint for our adult personalities.  We focus on five specific developmental stages early in childhood when the Self is just being shaped, and the ways that attachment and other environmental failures impact healthy development in each of these stages (which we are learning so much about through the Adverse Childhood Experiences research).  The way that our brain and bodies adapt to these early traumas – specifically through shame – leads to various levels of often profound Self-disorganization and creates various symptoms, disorders, and syndromes.

In Part One of our interview, you identified the important differences between Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD. How might the treatment for each differ?

I am biased as to how I’m going to answer this question since I have been a somatic psychotherapist and trainer now for over two decades. I believe that any form of trauma healing must involve the body. Many of my colleagues have been pushing back against the more prominent “evidence-based approaches” that are usually derivatives of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and which demonstrate questionable long-term efficacy. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, continues to be a best-seller ten years after it was first published. Many people intuitively, and experientially, know that talking and thinking about our issues only take us so far. To make true and lasting change, they have to shift deeper internal patterns.  This is where somatic approaches come in.

I have practiced Somatic Experiencing for over twenty years now and I find it to be the most effective model out there for PTSD.  As I continued to seek models that worked more specifically with attachment, emotional, and relational trauma, I found NARM, which I believe is the most effective model out there for treating C-PTSD.

Please tell us what you mean by a person having “agency.” Why is it a game-changer?

The simplest way to define how we use the concept of Self-Agency is to highlight the various ways that individuals organize and relate to life experiences.  Agency is a by-product of secure child development where a child progressively experiences themselves more as actors in their life than simply passive conduits for life experience.  Other models may refer to related concepts such as Self-Activation, Self-Actualization, or Self-Realization.

When a child has experienced developmental trauma, they experience everything as just happening to them. They feel helpless to change not only their external conditions but also how they feel internally. Children may grow up feeling out-of-control (i.e., lack of impulse control), reactive (i.e., affect dysregulation), fragmented (i.e., dissociative self-states), and fragile (i.e., decreased sense of resiliency).  Their lives are significantly impaired by their inner sense that they cannot self-activate, let alone change the way they feel or how they relate to the world.

NARM is grounded in an inquiry process that explores Self-Organization – how clients are organizing their internal worlds, and then relating to both their inner and outer experiences, in ways that either support connection and health or lead to disconnection and disease.

Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences for treating complex PTSD blog postFor example, your client shares a story about their experience at work last week where they were walking in the hallway and said “hello” to a colleague they were passing, and the colleague didn’t say hello back. Immediately, your client started feeling worthless, unliked, and lonely, and then started telling themselves that “I’m stupid and no one will ever like me.” They use this experience to justify why they withdraw from social interactions and experience social anxiety and depression.  However, they later found out that their colleague had just received a text from a family member of a sudden loss in their family, had been in a state of shock, and not even heard your client say hello. Your client describes shaming themselves for having such a strong reaction, saying that “I’m stupid for telling myself that I’m stupid based on this situation.”  This cycle of shaming oneself for shaming oneself can go on and on.

As we help clients begin to gain greater awareness of the unconscious and often automatic ways they are organizing their inner reality and relating to themselves and the world through self-shame, self-rejection, and self-hatred, they begin to experience more possibilities for organizing and relating to themselves differently. This is not just a cognitive process. It entails working psychobiologically to shift long-standing personality patterns that keep shame-based identifications intact.

Collective and intergenerational trauma are vast and necessary subjects worthy of discussion. Individuals can’t change their ancestry, and in many cases, individuals cannot change their marginalized status or persecution within a society. Can the NARM program help people traumatized by an unchanging trauma-inducing culture?

I know from my own personal experience, as well as years of clinical experience, that NARM does impact unresolved cultural and intergenerational trauma. We focus on how clients are relating to the “unchanging trauma-inducing culture” that they are born into and are still part of.  For many people, the concept of “post” in post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t truly exist.  Many people are still living within and adapting to environmental failures, including sustained oppression, violence, and dislocation.  And yet despite these traumatic realities, we see individuals and communities cultivating health and well-being within.  It is inspiring to watch as people stop defining themselves by how others define them and embody their own authentic humanity.

I see our modern times, at least in the U.S., as defined by a widespread failure of empathy.  We care less and less about our impact on others.  This leads to relationships based on objectification and systems reinforcing dehumanization. The social fabric is rapidly dissolving, leaving an epidemic of loneliness and disconnection in its wake.  To counter this reaction, NARM supports the development of authentic empathy.  As we help people develop an increasing capacity to relate to themselves and others through acceptance and compassion, they begin to shift their own internal objectification and experience themselves as more fully human. This increased sense of humanity allows people to begin to shift the way they are relating to their family, community, and cultural systems.  So while it will likely take time, I do believe NARM can impact larger changes within society.

(Read Part One: Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”)

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and Complex PTSD: It’s Not About “What’s Wrong With You?”

Azalea flower with stones Photo: Solange Cabe / CC0 Public Domain for Complex PTSD blog post

An Interview with Trauma Therapist Brad Kammer – Part One of Two

I can’t remember the first time I heard the word trauma. Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? When did “trauma” enter popular parlance? Was it after 9/11? I recently learned that there are now 6,000 podcasts with “trauma” in the title. Are we somehow in the midst of a trauma epidemic? Or does this reflect our growing understanding?

Trauma refers to a wound to the psyche or the body or both. We now know that not only experiencing trauma oneself but witnessing trauma or being told about a traumatic event can be traumatizing.

Brad Kammer for Complex PTSD blog postTo help us understand one of the emerging approaches to diagnosing and treating trauma, I’m delighted to introduce my guest, trauma expert Brad Kammer, LMFT, currently on the faculty of the NARM Training Institute.  NARM stands for the NeuroAffective Relational Model, a treatment model developed by Dr. Laurence Heller, Brad’s long-time mentor, to address the impact of adverse childhood experiences and complex trauma.  “In NARM, we recognize that in most cases we cannot change the traumas we experience. But, we can change the ways we have adapted in order to survive these traumas,” he explains.

Brad brings to his work a holistic approach that includes body-oriented therapies as well as a deep knowledge of attachment theory and survival styles. He and Dr. Heller recently co-authored The Practical Guide for Healing Developmental Trauma: Using the NeuroAffective Relational Model to Address Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resolve Complex Trauma. In a world reeling from destabilization, violence, hatred, and suffering, Brad Kammer and his colleagues at NARM present an opportunity for healing and hope.

This will be a two-part interview.

When many of us hear the word trauma, we think of soldiers, people caught in war zones or natural disasters, but you make a clear and valuable distinction between what you call shock trauma and relational or developmental trauma. Can you explain the difference?

It is difficult to differentiate because as humans we experience both shock and relational traumas, often at the same time.  For example, a parent who physically hurts a child will create a shock trauma reaction in response to the physical violence in the context of the relational failure of the parent not protecting or keeping their child safe from harm.

This is an extremely simplistic way to differentiate it – but in my teaching, I often use this as short-hand to distinguish between PTSD and C-PTSD: PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of fear, and C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) is about the psychobiological process of shame.  While there is certainly much overlap, research suggests there are different neural circuits responsible for fear than for shame.

The example I often use is you’re walking in the woods and a bear jumps out at you.  In that very moment, you’re not worrying about your relationship with the bear, you just want to survive.  So your brain will bypass the emotional, relational and cognitive centers and go straight to activating the hyperarousal centers of the brain in order to optimize your chances for physiological survival.  Mortal threats activate the fight/flight response.  This is experienced through fear.

Now imagine that the threat isn’t a bear jumping out of the words; it’s your parents, and each day of your life you feel that your sense of security in the world, and within yourself, is not welcomed or supported, but may be dismissed, undermined or attacked.  This puts you into a bind – as young children, we cannot run or fight against the people we are 100% dependent on for our survival.  While these threats may not be immediately life-threatening like the bear, we still have to find ways to survive the ongoing, persistent failures of in our development.

Humans are designed to be connected to themselves and others.  When connection to self and others becomes fraught with pain and danger, we use various strategies to disconnect from ourselves and the pain that we experience internally.  One such process involves the way we relate to ourselves through shame and self-rejection.  We internalize the failures of our early environment and personalize them as our inherent failures.  These shame-based identifications form the foundation of our personality development.

For so many people, they don’t even consider this “trauma.” I have had so many people – not just clients, but mental health and other healthcare professionals – push back that we are broadening the term trauma too much.  “This is just life” they say, or “This is just how childhood is.”  But minimizing and dismissing the effects of these failures is itself a sign of unresolved trauma.

My mentor used to say, “In a world of bent-over people, the one standing upright looks strange.”  So I push back on the notion that we use trauma too broadly. I argue that we don’t have a broad enough understanding of the impact of unresolved complex trauma.

What are some other ways in which PTSD is different from Complex PTSD?

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Pyramid shows how adverse childhood experiences are related to risk factors for disease, health, and social well-being. For Complex PTSD blog postAs the trauma field continues to evolve, we have begun to more clearly differentiate between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).  PTSD, which is sometimes called “shock trauma,” is generally caused by one-time events like accidents, assaults and natural disasters, and leads to hyper- and hypo-arousal in the nervous system that creates symptoms like intrusive images, flashbacks, hypervigilance, avoidance and dissociation.

C-PTSD is generally caused by relational and social failures, and leads to disorganization and insecurity in one’s sense of Self, as defined by the three symptom categories that include affect dysregulation, negative self-concept, and interpersonal disturbances.  Developmental trauma, a subset of C-PTSD, is generally caused by adverse childhood experiences that impact a child’s development.  NARM was created specifically to address C-PTSD, focusing on attachment and developmental trauma, but also working with larger social failures such as cultural and intergenerational trauma.

A word cloud of vocabulary related to PTSD, in the outline of a human brain.  Q / CC0 Public DomainThe trauma-informed field has been rapidly growing over the past 40 years since the first introduction of PTSD into the DSM in 1980.  While this field has made tremendous strides, our understanding of complex trauma has lagged behind.  Trauma pioneer Dr. Judith Herman suggested that PTSD doesn’t go far enough, and presented “a new diagnosis” in her 1992 book Trauma and Recovery, which she called C-PTSD.  And yet here we are in 2022 and we still don’t have an official complex (C-PTSD) or developmental trauma disorder (DTD) diagnosis in the United States.  This means that so many people are being misdiagnosed, or at the very least, are being treated for secondary issues.  What if many of the symptoms and disorders we see in our clients are driven by unresolved early trauma?  This changes the way we look at diagnostic categories and even challenges how we currently view psychopathology.

As we describe in our work, maybe it’s not about “what’s wrong with you,” but about “how have you adapted to what happened to you?”  For many of us in the trauma field, we see many “symptoms” and “disorders” as understandable reactions and adaptations to abnormal conditions and environments.  This is particularly true for children and how they have learned to adapt to persistent failures in their early lives.  These are not one-time traumas that can easily be resolved.  This is the territory of complex trauma, and it truly is very complex to understand.  It is also challenging to treat.  This is why we need comprehensive therapeutic models that understand how to identify, navigate and address this complex territory.

Part Two of our interview will be posted next month.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words That Heal

The Scream by Gerald Scarfe for Recovering from Trauma blog post

 

Several weeks ago, I received an interesting chain letter. Instead of being asked to send money to the designated recipient, I was to send a poem and forward the chain letter on to 20 people. If everyone followed through, I would receive 400 poems in the mail in short order.

I usually trash these invites, but something about this one caught my fancy, and I complied. In return, I received a variety of texts, including a Bob Dylan song, a verse from children’s book author Shel Silverstein, a poem by someone’s mother-in-law as well as poems by the illustriously immortal. The range and scope of the responses heightened my awareness of how we often turn to others—poets, rock stars—to speak to our souls, forgetting that all of us have the capacity to bear witness to our experience and unearth words that reflect back our deepest understanding of ourselves.

Dante Drinking from the River of Light by William Blake for Recovering from Trauma blog postIn his latest book, Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression poet, spiritual teacher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo credits self-expression as the rope he climbed to emerge from his struggle with cancer and return fully to life:

“I’ve come to believe that the heart of awakening is the quietly courageous act of feeling and facing what is ours to face. And I’ve discovered along the way that writing—expressing—is one of the best ways to stay awake. It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ our expressions are but that they keep us in relationship to the larger Universe we are a part of.”

You may be thinking what this has to do with you if you are not a writer or poet. Please consider this excerpt from James Baldwin’s magnificent story “Sonny’s Blues.” The character speaking is Sonny, a heroin addict and jazz pianist.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside…that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”

That storm inside. Can’t talk about it. And sex won’t help. And nobody wants to listen. Sound familiar? By the end of the story, Sonny concludes that the remedy to his despair is that he has to listen to himself.

The poet Gregory Orr speaks passionately about his discovery of poetry and how it helped him survive his unbearable despair after he accidentally killed his brother. In a 2006 interview for NPR, Orr compellingly talks about how language helped him heal. “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. When I was 12 years old, I was responsible for the death of my younger brother in a hunting accident. I held the rifle that killed him. In a single moment, my world changed forever. I felt grief, terror, shame, and despair more deeply than I could ever have imagined. In the aftermath, no one in my shattered family could speak to me about my brother’s death, and their silence left me alone with all my agonizing emotions. And under those emotions, something even more terrible: a knowledge that all the easy meanings I had lived by until then had been suddenly and utterly abolished.”

Orr’s portrayal of his situation aligns with psychoanalyst and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein’s description in The Trauma of Everyday Life of what happens during trauma: “the reassuring absolutisms (albeit mythical ones) of daily life—that children do not die, that worlds do not move, and that parents always survive—are replaced by other, more pernicious convictions: the ‘enduring, crushing meanings’ (of one’s aloneness, one’s badness, one’s taintedness, or the world’s meaninglessness).” Trauma, he writes, “forces one into an experience of the impersonal, random, and contingent nature of reality, but it forces one violently and against one’s will.” It also exposes us to our powerlessness, our helplessness. “The old absolutisms no longer reassure, and the newly revealed reality feels crushing.”

How do we cope when life as we know it breaks down and what we have counted on seem broken? How can we discover our strength and courage in facing challenging obstacles?

Here is the last stanza of the poem Gregory Orr wrote years after his brother’s accident in which he resolves his once unutterable grief and shame.

Gathering the Bones Together

By Gregory Orr

for Peter Orr

I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.

Language summons a whole world into being, says Orr. His poem contains a trauma, but also stands outside and apart from the trauma. The bridge he mentions is the bridge language makes between our inner and outer worlds. As humans, we are continually seeking self-understanding, ways to know ourselves and make sense of who we are. Unlike other species that have language, humans are the only species that have metacognition, the ability to reflect on our own minds. This self-reflective capacity—Why did I do X? How did that make me feel?— is essential to making meaning of our lives.

Photo from The Miracle Worker for Recovering from Trauma blog postLanguage’s magical power is to make sense of the senseless. At the age of nineteen months, Helen Keller became blind and deaf. In her autobiography, she describes the dramatic moment when her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan helps her, at six years old, connect a physical sensation with its word.

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

The writer Isak Dinesen famously said, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But writing from the heart isn’t just about the transformation of difficult emotions; to write from the heart is to engage with life at its fullest, in all its terror and splendor. In writing from the heart, we break our self-silencing and flex our muscles of courage to uncover our deepest truths.

Writing stories, poems, or journal entries may actually be the second necessary action required in finding our voices and uncovering our inner resources, the essence of who we are. The first action is deep listening. Hear Mark Nepo on listening:

“In many ways, writing is listening and simply taking notes. . . . Being still and listening allows us to behold what is before us. The deepest form of bearing witness is to behold another in all their innocence. This is the key to love. To listen until the noise of the world subsides. To listen until the noise of the mind subsides. To listen until the noise of our wounds subsides. To listen until we only hear the life before us.”

Miriam Greenspan in her powerfully helpful book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, offers three skills and seven steps in alchemizing difficult emotions. Our culture, she claims, is emotion-phobic, and encourages an invincible heroic ideal while often shaming those who do not live up to societal expectations.

Greenspan offers ways to regain balance and exuberance in the face of even the darkest emotions. The author uses the acronym ABS for the three skills she believes basic to healing: A for Attending, B for Befriending, and S for Surrendering. “When we can mindfully attend to, tolerate, and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows,” Greenspan writes, “we open the heart’s doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy.” But, after describing these skills and steps in detail, she adds a caution. “The three basic skills and seven steps of the alchemy of the dark emotions are condensed distillations of a process that is ultimately mysterious. This process cannot easily be reduced to a set of skills, ideas, or biochemical events. The systemization of any emotional process gives it an aura of scientific credibility. But emotional alchemy is an art, not a science.”

What the authors mentioned have in common is a deep faith in our capacity to handle and thrive beyond even the most troubling aspects of our lives and a conviction we are inherently courageous and loving beings capable of transformation.

When we practice deep listening—and try to find the words for what we hear—we may be surprised at what we find.  What we haven’t noticed about ourselves, what lies hidden within, may come as wonderment at the ignored riches and creative forces offering their help.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?

Multiple Personality by Kamil for Trauma blog post

Have you ever been at a family gathering and someone shares a memory and, as you hear it told, you say to yourself: That’s not the way it happened! The truth is that our memory is an unreliable narrator, a literary term that describes a person telling a story who is not telling it straight. In fiction, an unreliable narrator can be a clever deceiver, as in many crime novels, an innocent lacking self-awareness, or a charming raconteur simply happy to spin entertaining tales.

The unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulously gruesome horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is mentally unstable and can’t be relied upon to give accurate information. Wuthering Heights has dual narrators, both of whom have biases about Heathcliff and company. Some unreliable narrators seem to have all their marbles, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but when he kidnaps the precocious Lolita, we conclude he is what he says, a psychopath. In reading a book, there’s real delight in figuring out who’s lying, who’s manipulating, who’s speaking the truth—but what happens when our own psyches present us with multiple narrators, each with a different set of perceptions and interpretations of reality?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Virgil Finlay for Trauma blog postHow we see and react to the world is prompted by different parts of the brain. Sometimes, we act on “a gut feeling,” sometimes, we critically think through pros and cons. Both aspects of consciousness, and the spectrum of subtle and complex hues in between, are necessary for decision-making, and thus, ultimately, necessary for survival. Recent research indicates that in people who have experienced trauma and for whom survival, past or present, is an issue, the split between conflicting prompts can manifest in a split sense of self. An abused child, for instance, may exhibit paradoxical behavior, simultaneously clinging to and withdrawing from her abuser.

In her newest book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, Dr. Janina Fisher helpfully presents a neurobiological map of early trauma’s negative effects on the communication between the right and left brain hemispheres and shows how this can lead to a lack of integration between the functions of each. This functional “splitting” can make us feel as if we have two brains, one under the direction of a traumatized part that originated in a painful experience, the other part guiding us toward normal responses to the day-to-day world.

Dr. Fisher has observed that many of her trauma clients speak of being “hijacked” by responses triggered by memories or perceived threats in the present moment. She writes:

“Characteristically, while the going on with normal life part tries to carry on (function at a job, raising the children, organizing home life even taking up meaningful personal and professional goals), other parts serving the animal defense functions of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and “cling” or attach for survival continue to be activated by trauma-related stimuli, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopelessness about the future.”

Marci Gittleman, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin who works with trauma in her clinical practice, asserts: “Trauma often raises parts of ourselves, pushes other parts down, and separates parts of ourselves from each other. Recovery from trauma helps to welcome all of the different parts of ourselves into consciousness—even if we like some parts better than others!”

The traumatized “part” might be considered an unreliable narrator, pumping us with stress hormones that distort our awareness of reality. Trauma corrupts the telling consciousness that has been damaged by tragedy.

In a mindful approach to healing inner fragmentation and compartmentalization, we might acknowledge our multiple parts and discern who is telling the story (some research indicates that we are all multi-conscious rather than uni-conscious); acknowledge the source (traumatized child, veteran, shooter survivor); and ask if the information being given is valid.

Looking at fiction can help us understand how who tells the story shapes the narrative, and therefore shapes how we feel about what has happened. As we read, we might ask ourselves, who owns this story? How is reality being filtered through this consciousness (narrator)? Using one of the foundational stories of Western culture as an example of how meaning and interpretation vary with differing points of view, let’s look at different versions of the story in Genesis of the first human couple.

The Expulsion from Eden by Schnorr von Carolsfeld for Trauma blog postAdam’s version of the expulsion from Eden might include a description of the satanic snake, despair and betrayal over a temptress mate, his remorse and anger at being duped. Imagine Eve’s version as a woman pissed at taking the blame.

The same sequence of events narrated by the snake might emphasize Adam and Eve’s naiveté and the snake’s desire to wise-them-up by offering up a bite of fruit. Now imagine the story from a third teller, the archangel Jophiel, who led the couple out of paradise. His tale might be packed with the difficulties of being God’s messenger, his questioning of divine authority, his sympathy for the banished pair. Each version of the story would be accurate according to the experience of the teller, their truths part of a larger truth.

So, too, all aspects of the self, including the shameful and wounded parts, are worthy of having a voice; each deserves respect. Injury and self-harm occur when emotional pain is shunted into the borderlands of consciousness. To speak and to be heard, to be witnessed and bear witness is to shed the mantle of victimhood and embrace agency, dignity, and self-empowerment. These abstract words take on life and meaning when dramatized through characters in a story.

As an experiment in relating mindfully to the storm of conflicting impulses within us— with the goal of externalizing troublesome inner voices—try this:

  1. Grab a pen and notebook, or sit at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe. Center yourself in your body. Open your eyes and begin.
  2. With curiosity and playful creation as your guides, choose a specific troubling event in your life (you needn’t choose the most painful or difficult episode) and tell the story from your own point of view.
  3. To objectify the narrative, consider using your name in place of “I.”
  4. Now tell the same story from another person’s perspective, someone engaged in the situation, or a bystander, or even from an observing inanimate object like a tree. Use as much sensory data as possible: what is seen, smelled, touched, heard?
  5. Compare the stories. What differences do you notice? What has been emphasized or left out in each? Can you name the prevailing emotion in each story? What feelings come up as you read them? What have you learned?
  6. Take 15 minutes to write your responses beneath the stories.

Walt Whitman portrait for Trauma blog postThe influential and ground-breaking American poet and essayist Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Elsewhere, Whitman wrote,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall
possess the origin of
all poems . . .

You shall listen to all sides and filter them
from your self.

In healing from trauma, we might take our cues from this great poet by gathering our inner tribe, including the exiles, and validating their worth.

Psychologist Gittleman offers hope:

“I think of trauma like a perfect storm—it’s random, surprising, time stops, and life becomes different after the trauma from what it was before it happened. Trauma rocks the heart, body and soul—sometimes more, sometimes less, and different for you than for me. It can be hard to feel safe, and the impact reverberates into the present and future in ways that are both known and unknown—even if we decide we are not going to let it! Our best shot as survivors, however big or small the traumas, is to own our stories, and all of the different parts, over time, when we are motivated and ready, by ourselves and with others whom we have come to trust.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



Trauma’s Lingering Effects and the Creative Self

Social alienation for Trauma blogpost

 

Trauma. The word is everywhere these days. And something has happened to it. Something like what happened to the word awesome, once used to describe a profound and reverential experience, one filled with terror, dread or awe. Awesome has become a colloquialism that pops up as both a descriptor, as in, “I just bought an awesome lipstick,” or simply as an exclamation—Awesome! Trauma has also taken a step down from its original connotation. This is not a blog about language, but it’s worth noting that trauma and awe denote significantly profound human experiences and are linked in meaning. The Greek origin of trauma means damage or wound. The Greek origin of awe is áchos, or “pain.”

I’ve written about personal trauma before (see “My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know”) and revisiting that experience led me to want to investigate the wider dimensions of trauma and how its impact can extend across generations (see “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us”). Studies on trauma have increased in recent years and researchers in a variety of disciplines are uncovering new evidence of the widespread presence of trauma in at-risk populations. Global events such as war, famine, migration, immigration, fire, flood, widespread disease and terrorism ambush some of us every day. An expanded view of trauma that respects the influence of cultural and historical circumstances on individual lives helps to clarify how vulnerable we are to these larger forces.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung, in his exploration the past’s influence on an individual wrote: “Just as psychological knowledge furthers our understanding of historical material, so, conversely, historical material can throw new light on individual psychological problems.” (The Collected Works, Vol. 5)

Odin or Wotan for trauma blogpostAs early as the beginning of the last century, Jung encouraged psychotherapists not only to study a patient’s personal biography but also to learn about the traditions and cultural influences, past and present, of the patient’s environment. Today we understand that trauma can be “inherited,” passed down through the generations, as if frozen in our psyches and/or bodies, repressed for centuries. Jung believed that repressed trauma or what he called “complexes” affect not only the individual but also the collective culture. He wrote: “…they exist (the archetypes) and function and are born anew with each generation.”

In his somewhat controversial essay, “Wotan,” written in 1936, Jung attempted to understand what was happening in Germany with the rise of Hitler, and the embrace by the populace of a militaristic, jingoistic, fascist leader. As Jung saw it, the god Wotan, or Odin, was an unconscious archetype that had been a latent potential in the German people and arose as a dominant force between the world wars. In Jung’s telling, Wotan-like energy, heroic and victorious, was embraced by the defeated Germans after the First World War – in slogans similar to “Make America Great Again.” Jung wrote: “He (Wotan) is the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle; moreover he is a superlative magician and an artist in illusion who is versed in all secrets of an occult nature.”

Jung was discerning a culture possessed by a demon or god, the inherited and repressed inhabitant of the psyche. Repressed archetypes or psychic complexes are consciously forgotten but linger and influence our unconscious behavior. That is, while we may not be aware of certain tendencies within us, they nonetheless may direct our lives.

Trauma is often repressed. Patricia Michan, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Mexico City and founder of the C. G. Jung Mexican Center, has written and lectured on the inherited trauma she has discovered in some of her contemporary patients. In her essay, “Reiterative Disintegration” in Confronting Cultural Trauma: Jungian Approaches to Understanding and Healing, she writes,“…my focus here is the cultural trauma resulting from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire by the forces of Hernán Cortés in 1521, through which the indigenous people were abused, subjugated, and plundered. The Spanish conquest left imprinted a deep cultural trauma.” Quoting the Jungian Luigi Zoja, she concludes with him that “the lacerating wounds have remained ‘petrified for centuries.’”

John Hill, a training analyst in Zurich, in his essay “Dreams Don’t Let You Forget” in the aforementioned book, advises “that we consider the devastation that can happen with trauma,” and become aware of “the vigilance that prevents the survivor from experiencing the world as a safe place, and the difficulty the traumatized person has in connecting with his or her true self.”

In working with our own psyches, we might consider the cultural, historic, as well as the personal aspects that contribute to trauma. By stepping back and evaluating whether the core wound has its origins in childhood or reaches further into the past and comes down as a legacy, we can widen our understanding of the suffering and increase the potential for reconciliation. A significant avenue of hope in healing the wounded part is in engaging our creative selves in the process of restoration and reintegration. Having a voice, speaking the unspoken, refusing to carry on the silence of generations moves us out of the place of victimhood and hungry ghosts.

Interviewed about Things We Lost in the Fire, her short story collection which is filled with both gorgeous prose and horrific horror, the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez has said: “I think my fiction is very Argentinian. And in Argentina there’s something about bodies that is distinct. I spent my childhood in the dictatorship, and what they did with the bodies was to disappear them. This absence of the body is where my ghost stories come from…As much as I wanted to run away from that horror story, it’s in my DNA.”

In our current chaotic and frighteningly turbulent world where new traumas appear to lurk around every corner, might it not be wise to embrace preventive medicine: before trauma can lodge and incubate in our psyches, why not speak the unspoken now? Before repression chases the pain into a hiding place, let’s name what exists—paint it, dance it, sing it, write it, make a poem. There are limits to what can be accomplished through such acts, but the origins of change are mysterious.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”