Hello Trauma : A She Burns Podcast spotlight with Diane Spindler

There’s no denying that the pandemic has hit hard, but the toll isn’t limited to the thousands of deaths, sick people, and emergency room chaos – it’s also about what’s going on in our heads.  After months of isolation, confusion, and fear, the negative thoughts and feelings we all experience have become a plague of…


 

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A Day at the Beach

Let’s look at an example of what this would look like in real life. What causes your brain to assign a trauma to one event and not to another may become clearer.

One summer day you go to the beach with some friends, have a good, but uneventful day and really don’t think about that day again. In fact, ten years later you might not even be able to remember what beach you went to, exactly who you went with and even if it was a good beach day.

But what if you had gone to the beach with friends and you had almost drowned? Your memory might have a different outcome. Let’s say the lifeguard had pulled you out of the water after a rogue wave had pulled you away from your friends and sucked you under. You were told when the lifeguard brought you up on the beach, you were not breathing. He resuscitated you, you coughed up seawater and you came back to life, staring at all the people around you. That day at the beach you remember vividly. You remember whom you went with and which beach it was. You remember what you had for lunch and what the temperature was. You remember how your body felt as you thought you were going to die and how it felt when you came to. In addition to remembering the day clearly when something reminds you of that memory, a trigger, all the emotions you felt that day come pouring back. You might be reminded if you choke on a glass of water and the sudden terror of not being able to catch your breath might bring you back to the scene when you were underwater and couldn’t breath. Then all the other emotions and body sensations, as well as the whole event come flooding back. And the belief that you are not safe at that moment is there too. All the components of a trauma appear and you are back to that memorable day you almost died.

Now you can see why one event was so forgettable and you can’t forget the other one. Both were very similar to each other. Yet your reaction to the second description was very different. As was mentioned earlier, the traumatic event was sent to the reptilian brain at the base of the head. The reptilian brain only lives in the presence with no past or future. When this event gets triggered, that whole terrible event comes rushing back in the form of a flashback and you relive it as if it is happening now. The memory waits on the back burner for the brain to learn how to process it. Over time people have such a backlog of these unresolved traumas that one day all these trauma events become so overwhelming you can no longer use your coping skills to keep them on the back burner. Various trauma symptoms start to spill out and you seek professional help to guide you through your strong negative feelings.

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Gentle Reprocessing, a book by Diane Spindler

Please read an excerpt from my soon to be published book on Gentle Reprocessing. Visit the site regularly for additional publication updates and workshop schedules.

How Trauma Seeps Into Your Body

Though no one knows for sure, it appears 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 or amygdala in the back of our heads, via the hypothalamus basal ganglia.  Or more simply put if our brain 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 when we get triggered by something similar to the event, 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 reliving the traumatic past.

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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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