How Trauma Affects Veterans and the Hope It Can Be Reversed

Unfortunately we have a great number of veterans who have come back from combat that are not physically injured but are emotionally injured. It is not as obvious as scars or a missing limb, but it is just as, if not more debilitating. When a soldier is in a constant combat situation, never knowing when something really bad is going to happen, he or she experiences a chronic, ongoing trauma. Now this chronic trauma may be sprinkled with acute, one time, traumas such the loss of fellow soldiers or seeing a child killed. So combat soldiers are in a sense, twice traumatized. Add to that any physical injury and you can see why soldiers coming back from war are having such a hard time and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress.

Most people do not realize what the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress are. There is a sense of hyper-vigilance where the veteran is always on the lookout for danger. This causes a rise in anxiety and stress. He or she is always afraid something disastrous will happen and he or she will not be ready for it. PTSD victims also carry a startle response in their bodies. That would mean if they hear a sudden loud noise or even a helicopter, they might jump suddenly and try to take cover. The symptoms get worse from here. A veteran might have sudden flashbacks where he thinks he is back in the traumatic event and might see people he knows today as the enemy or fellow soldiers. The fear that comes with these flashbacks is off the charts. They can be triggered by a sound, a smell, or anything that reminds the vet of the traumatic event. While in the flashback, the vets can become combative as if they are fighting for their lives. Then, one of the most disruptive symptoms is the nightmares. Dreams are our way of processing life. A bad dream ends up going in circles and does not accomplish that end. A nightmare is so full of terror that a person wakes up sweating and in deep fear before the mind can process the trauma. The result is sleep deprivation. There are other symptoms, but these are the major ones I most often see after a veteran has been in combat.

PTSD changes one’s behavior as well. Many veterans find themselves self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, trying to run away from their demons. Some end up as rage-aholics and get into fights with bosses, co-workers, spouses and children. They may be unable to connect with loved ones and friends, remaining emotionally distant. They may be plagued with deep depression and anxiety. This makes it difficult to hold down a job.

Talk therapy does not seem to help with PTSD. The traumas need to be processed through by the therapy, not just repeated. There are several fairly new therapies out there; TAT, EMDR, Brain Spotting, The Emotional Code and Gentle Reprocessing to name a few. I can speak for Gentle Reprocessing and know it works quickly, gently, yet deeply to help a veteran let go of his or her traumas and get his or her previous life back on course.


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Why Emotions Get Out of Control or Up in Smoke

Many children are not allowed to have their emotions when they are growing up. So each time they feel angry (go to your room if you are going to act like that) or sad (big boys don’t cry) or afraid (there is nothing to be afraid of you scaredy cat) or any other emotion an adult does not want to deal with, the child learns to force that emotion inside. In doing so, it is as though he throws an unspent match of emotion into a pile each time he does not get the luxury of expressing it and experiencing it appropriately as part of the growing up process. By the time he is an adult or maybe even a teenager, he has many piles of unspent matches one for each hidden emotion.

So one day he decides it is safe to be angry, because after all he’s his own boss now, so he lights this particular match of anger. But instead of just being one match worth of anger, it falls into the pile of unlit matches and a huge blaze of anger gets set off. Maybe he hits his child or wife harder than he had intended. Maybe he yells at his boss and gets fired. Or maybe he acts out in other ways. And this is just for the angry match. Remember, there are many other piles.

The sad match might start a bout of depression. The afraid match might keep him from using his talents to his advantage or cause him to be anxious. Each pile of matches brings a negative outcome if they are not attended to. And unfortunately, unlike a real fire, setting the piles on fire does not destroy the piles. They are still there next time he decides to light a match and throw it onto the pile.

Gentle Reprocessing can free clients from their emotional piles of matches by allowing the child part of a person to experience and release those emotions from the past in a safe environment without the resulting negative impact or sudden infernos in their lives, essentially dismantling the piles. Once the piles have been eliminated, then the client is free to have their emotions without worrying whether they will get out of control.

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The Traumatized Child Self or Let’s Go to the Movies

When you go to a megaplex movie theater, you can walk in and see a variety of kinds of movies. Each brings out different emotions in its audience. A love story might make you feel  happy or nostalgic. A thriller could make you feel tense and scared. A science fiction or fantasy movie might bring you into a new world you had never imagined. It might make you feel hopeful or hopeless depending on how the story goes. As soon as someone enters the theater, they start to feel the appropriate feelings. But whether anyone attends the show or not, it costs the theater in energy to run the movie and keep the room comfortable.

When a traumatic event happens to a child,(or even a part older than a child), that child stores the memory of the events, the emotions and body sensations that are felt during that event and, the most damaging of all, the negative beliefs the child has about himself because of the event. Example – A child is beaten. He might feel afraid in his lungs, angry in his fists and sad in his heart. He might believe he is a bad person, he deserved it and he will never amount to anything. All of this becomes a movie the child self from that moment , that age, plays over and over, whether his older self is watching it or not. In fact, the child tries to keep it from his older self, so that the older part can continue to grow up and move on. There are many such ‘movies’ playing for each time the child faces a traumatic event. The more movies, the more energy is needed to keep them all playing but, hidden from the older self. Then one day one of these movies get triggered, now grown, perhaps he finds himself hitting his own child, and the ‘movie’ the child self has been guarding becomes present for the older self complete with the event, emotions, body sensations, and negative beliefs. It feels as if it just happened in living color. This is called a flashback.

When good psychotherapy is done, these trauma ‘movies’ are processed and shut down one by one, freeing up energy to be used in the present moment. This work also frees the child self to finish growing up and join the older self. The adult self may find he stops acting out in childish ways when he gets upset. This work can be very empowering for the client and help him feel like a confident grownup.



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Trauma Saps People’s Energy or How to Get Energy Back

Most people have seen a version of the movie depicting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In the story, Scrooge’s long dead partner, Marley, appears dragging many chains behind him  representing the weight of his past and makes the statement that Scrooge has forged many more than Marley has. I believe this is a good description of how trauma builds up during a lifetime feels to a client.

At first people do not even notice that they are dragging the past with them. In fact, the trauma may not effect them as a trauma at all. The first time someone speaks harshly to them,  they may react by being confused, but then just let it go. If people continue to berate them and maybe even get physical about it, that behavior on the part of other people becomes a chronic trauma for them. Their brain can no longer process it (see post on how the brain processes trauma). So they begin to forge more chains, adding to this trauma every time a similar behavior comes their way, even if that behavior is very mild, like a disapproving look. Their brain can no longer process this negative behavior toward them, so it acts like a trigger that sets off the past traumas that resonate with this recent one.

A simple perceived disapproving look from a stranger may result in them feeling bad about themselves. It might even trigger a bout of depression. Most people do not even notice that they have connected to one of their trauma chains. They just know they feel bad.

I have described only one possible chain of trauma. People have multiple trauma chains and after years of living, these chains start to be drag them down. The chains sap their strength –  emotionally and physically. It takes more of their allotted daily energy to live in the past, carrying the chains around. People have less energy available to use in the present. It effects their physical health (more on that in an upcoming post). One may develop symptoms of mental health diagnoses and feel tired all the time. Unless people start to let go of these chains by reprocessing their trauma, they will continue to have less energy to live their lives in the present moment.

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Do You Have Trauma in Your Past or Who Would Have Known That’s a Trauma

When most people think about trauma, they have a very limited view of what a trauma or Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is. Usually they will think of veterans coming back from a bloody war or a woman being brutally raped. But there are many more subtle traumas that happen to people, sometimes on a daily basis, that eventually cause the symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety and depression, as well as others, whether or not the client, themselves, would readily identify these as traumatic events when asked.

There are two main types of trauma: acute and chronic. An acute trauma is a one-time event such as a car accident or a home burning down. A chronic trauma is an ongoing trauma experienced consistently over time such as living with an alcoholic parent or in a bad foster care situation.

When I teach about trauma, I ask the clinicians to name possible traumatic events. I say possible, because it only becomes a trauma for someone when their brain is incapable of processing the event (see previous post). Here are some of the examples they have come up with: poverty, bullying, incarceration, adoption, emotional abuse, religion, natural disaster, physical abuse, infertility, childbirth, divorce, death of a significant person or pet, illness (self or others), school (especially if there is an undetected learning disability), national disaster, sexual abuse, war, severe weather,  job loss, neglect, ritual abuse, betrayal, humiliation, discrimination, and shaming. This, unfortunately, is not an exhaustive list.

Broadening the way people identify trauma, will help clinicians to help their clients identify and heal from the underlying cause of some of their mental health symptoms.


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How Does Trauma Effect a Brain or Go to the Back Burner

Fortunately with all the brain scans that are available today, there are some strong theories out there about how trauma changes the way the brain works.

Though no one knows for sure, it seems apparent that trauma changes the wiring in the brain. According to Earl Grey, PhD, normally when we take in information through our five senses, it reports to the center (the hippocampus) of our brain for processing. Then it is sent to the thalamus to decide where it needs to be stored. At that point our brain says, “this is familiar and I know where to send it and the information is sent to the front of our brain (the prefrontal cortex), our brain’s filing cabinet. The prefrontal cortex acknowledges a past, present, and future time line. Events can be filed in chronological order. But when something overwhelmingly upsetting happens to us, such as in the case of a trauma, the hippocampus becomes unable to handle it. The unprocessed information about the situation is still sent to the thalamus, but this time it is rejected and sent to the primitive brain or reptilian brain, via the hypothalamus basal ganglia, in the back of our heads. If we can’t handle it, it is placed on the back burner. Here there is no acknowledgment of a past or future. Everything is happening in the present. The event, the emotions, body sensations and negative beliefs feel as if they are happening now. So we react with a flight, fight or freeze reaction to the upsetting situation.  We want to run away, we stand and fight or we cannot move.

The situation does not get processed properly and we are stuck reliving it over and over. The upsetting event, the emotions and body sensations connected to that event and the negative cognitions that come out of this event all replay involuntarily in the primitive part of the brain. This can look like flashbacks, nightmares or other trauma symptoms that keep us stuck in the traumatic past.

The good news is that this circuit can be rerouted. We know that releasing the emotional connection to the event allows a new neural pathway to be created, from the back of the brain (primitive brain) to the front of the front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), where the information (data/memory) can be stored in its proper chronological place in the past as is desired. Once this is done, the event is no longer emotionally connected in our brain. We remember it, but the memory will not create and recreate the intense emotional response in us. In other words, through reprocessing the trauma, we can rewire the brain to accept and store the story of the trauma, without the emotions and body sensations.

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What Constitutes Trauma

Trauma is stored in four different ways in a personʼs system; the actual event, the emotions around that event, the body sensations where these emotions are stored and a set of negative beliefs attached to the event.

So if the event was a car accident, there may be terror all over his body, anger at the other driver in his fists, and anxiety in his stomach around the blood. On top of all that he may begin to think “that this was my fault, I am unsafe and can die at any moment, the world is unsafe.” From that point on, the client starts to see the world from this perspective – an unsafe place where a mistake by him can end his and possibly others lives. He starts to act accordingly to try to control his environment and keep himself safe. And along with that comes all the emotions and body sensations that accompanied the car accident, that he now needs to keep from coming up to the surface (more on that in a later post).

So three things are happening in the client he may not be aware of – his emotions are being hidden from him, these emotions are stored physically in his body and his view of the world has been altered. He may not pay attention to the queasy feeling in his stomach (anxiety) whenever the weather is similar to the day of the accident. Therefore, the client begins to carry a low grade memory of the accident in his body in the form of increased stomach problems that will continue until the trauma is addressed. His view of his world has changed – he no longer feels as safe as he did before the accident.  But, when the client is reminded of (triggered by) the event, the anxiety and where he stored it in his body grow stronger.  This supports the thoughts that his world is not safe.

Trauma takes place when these four components – the traumatic event, emotions and body sensations around the event and the beliefs about the event are not processed properly in our brains. A look at what that means next time.

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Could Trauma Be a Major Cause of Mental Health Symptoms?

Last fall I attended a conference on trauma and I was surprised by what I found to be the common perspective on trauma.  It differed completely from what I have experienced in my work with clients.  The main idea that I came away with was that most psychotherapists do not see trauma as a core issue in helping their clients heal from their mental health issues. In fact, most therapists don’t even ask their clients about past traumas. I was stunned.

Most therapists, it seems, only look at trauma as a single event or issue – say a client were in a bad car accident and now was afraid to drive or a client saw combat in the war and now was having flashbacks and nightmares. In general, clinicians are not looking at their clients’ past histories and seeing how those histories in which various other, even subtler traumas, may have occurred and contributed to their clients’ reaction to the most recent trauma. They are only looking at present symptoms and trying to alleviate them through changing how clients think or behave toward the most recent event or through pharmacology.  What about the past?

If clinicians are not aware of past trauma, that can have a profound effect on their treatment of their clients.  It is no wonder that therapy is so slow and difficult for clients.

I am coming from the perspective that trauma (and I will look more closely at what I think trauma is in a later blog) is the source of many psycho-therapeutic diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorders, OCD  and many more. I believe that if you can resolve the trauma – present and especially past traumas should they exist, then the symptoms for these and some other diagnoses dissipate. And I do just this in my practice, as do other trauma specialists.

Now I want to make clear, I am not saying that therapists who do not look at trauma are bad therapists, I just feel they are overlooking a significant piece of the puzzle that makes up their clients’ mental health issues. I would like to see the intake process consistently include asking questions about past traumas instead of it being s a rare occurrence. In my opinion, this would be a start in getting clients better, faster.


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Coping Skills – A Red Flag or Where Did I Put My Therapist

     When people start to lose their power and feel helpless or hopeless, they start to develop coping skills. These skills can look like anxiety, depression, OCD  (obsessive compulsive disorder) or other mental health diagnoses. They can look like addictions such as to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, or shopping. These coping skills may be predisposed through in inheritance or learned from one parent or the other.  For instance, one is more apt to use anxiety as a coping skill if one’s parent was particularly anxious. Or if your father was an alcoholic,  you may be more predisposed to use drinking to cope with life’s challenges.

When someone experiences relief from Gentle Reprocessing or some other form of psychotherapy, a client feels he or she has regained his or her power and no longer need to use a coping skill for the time being. If clients feel they need to use a coping skill again, it is not necessarily because the therapy did not work, but because another stressor has come up to bring out this go to behavior. the new stressor may trigger the echo of the old stressor.

If a clients find themselves using their coping skills around a challenging incident for longer than a couple months, they are now stuck in an unproductive coping loop. This is a strong sign it is time to seek help to release the feelings around the challenging event. As the old saying goes, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Clients who seek professional help when something first starts to bother them, will let go of the problem quicker and more easily that the client who waits longer. So if one finds they are using coping skills to get through life, that is a red flag that they need help releasing the emotions around the challenges that are keeping them stuck and taking away their power.

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What Does Psychotherapy Do For People or The Powerful Baby

Psychotherapy at its best helps people get their power back. What do I mean by power?  Well when a baby is born, they appear to have no power. They can not roll over or even move their heads. All they can do is cry. And like any good parent can tell you, that cry is enough to make that child the most powerful person in the house. The baby knows how to get its needs met.

Even up until two or three, many times when a child of this age enters a room of adults, they do it with great self confidence as if to say, here I am you lucky people. Unfortunately, as a child ages, he or she starts to come up against issues they cannot control. It could be an abusive parent, a bully or not being able to do well in school. These traumas start to add up and a child starts to lose his or her power or self confidence. The amount of power lost depends on how devastating the trauma and what kind of support the child is given to help them cope with the trauma.

By the time a person reaches adulthood, he or she has established coping mechanisms to deal with the lost power. These come in the form of addictions of various types, defense mechanisms, strong emotions such as anger and sadness, and acting out behaviors to name a few. When these coping mechanisms no longer work, many times people end up in psychotherapy. And I postulate that good psychotherapy helps give people their lost power back so they can return to the self confidence they had as a baby.

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