What is trauma and what can we do about it?
Karl Dawson, founder of Matrix Reimprinting, emphasizes that trauma occurs when four things happen – a person experiences an event that is unexpected/shocking, a person’s life or identity is threatened, they feel isolated, and they feel helpless/powerless. This tends to cause a freeze response and this freeze response is what “encapsulates” a trauma in time; causing a memory that is distressing, and defense mechanisms designed to protect one from experiencing the trauma again. This is not a new definition. Trauma experts have been saying this for years. The challenge is not that we don’t have a lot of valuable information about trauma and what we can do about it. The challenge is that it is not necessarily common knowledge, and many people feel incredible amounts of shame about the traumas that they have experienced. They suffer in silence when there are so many amazing tools to help them address these big and small traumas that have so deeply affected their lives and their concept of themselves and the world around them.
When trauma is discharged, we are able to let it go. When we experience fight or flight, we have “done something” and therefore are not powerless. We may be able to resolve the trauma more readily, or at least make sense of it and not carry it around with us for years. Karl often shows a video of a polar bear to explain trauma discharge as it naturally occurs in animals. The video shows a polar bear who is waking from the experience of having been chased and tranquilized. When it wakes from the anesthesia, it shakes almost like it is having a seizure, acts out the last moments before the “trauma” by moving its feet like it is running, and completes the “trauma discharge” through its body with a heaving breath. This trauma discharge is a mechanism that allows it to complete the action in procedural memory so that it can be released, and the polar bear can go about its life without “holding on” or “reexperiencing” the trauma.
We, on the other hand, with our higher brain functioning, do not have a mechanism for completing that surprisingly simple discharge. In fact, as Karl states in one of his video presentations, that we actually do a lot to stop that process, like giving people sedatives and telling them to “calm down” rather than allowing or encouraging the natural discharge to happen. In Indigenous communities, trauma can be discharged through ceremony and ritual. There seems to be space for emotional expression and physical discharge of traumatic experiences. Our modern culture appears to discourages emotional discharge, and emotional expression in general, which may be affecting our experiences of trauma, especially reinforcement of unresolved trauma. An important aspect of Matrix Reimprinting, Clinical Hypnosis and Drama Therapy is the importance of releasinig the trauma from the body. That is the key to healing physically and mentally from the traumatic experience.
Another element of the trauma response, that is so important to address, is the beliefs that are created within that trauma capsule i.e. the conclusions that we came to about ourselves or the world because of that moment in time. These beliefs become Core Beliefs and drive much of our behavior, thoughts and attitudes. In Matrix Reimprinting, Hypnosis and Drama Therapy, we are able to come back into that trauma capsule and help the version of ourselves that is “stuck” in time to discharge the trauma physically and energetically. It also provides us with the opportunity to challenge and reframe the belief that continues to plague us today because of that experience. When the combination of the two happens, we are able to integrate the trauma and move on with our lives with what can often feel like miraculous changes in behavior and relationship and a healthy detachment from the emotional intensity of the original event.
Trauma is a word that can be misunderstood. Sometimes trauma can be minimalized as the listener determines that what the other has experiences is not a “real” trauma. What I, and others who work in the trauma field know, is that no one can define what is traumatic for another. What is shocking and causes a freeze response for me, may be perfectly acceptable to you. What caused her to freeze may have caused me to fight. When he ran away, he avoided the freeze response, but when his friend was unable to run away or perceived that there was no exit, he went into freeze response and was unable to complete the trauma discharge and therefore, he and his friend had very different experiences of a similar event. Karl’s definition helps us understand the range of experiences one could potentially call traumatic. It is not just the Big T traumas like rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, torture, war etc. that cause trauma responses. It is also a woman alone in the street who suddenly sees that a man is following her, who is alone and is feeling trapped and threatened. It is a child who witnesses a parent raging and feels unseen, alone and powerless to do anything to escape the situation. It is a man who acted out in anger that had been stuffed down for a long time and felt powerless to stop the impact of his rage on his child and is feeling isolated because to admit that he lost control would be perceived as weak or shameful.
Big T traumas are actually fairly easy to transform through methods like Clinical Hypnosis, EFT/Matrix Reimprinting and the embodied processes of Drama Therapy. Complex trauma is, well…complex. The good news is that when we can get to the “activating event” we can often collapse years of trauma and beliefs associated with the repeated trauma. It takes some time, and there may be many versions of our younger selves that might need to be engaged with, but it absolutely is possible.
One of the final pieces to transforming trauma is the aspect of being witnessed. In individual therapy the witness is often the therapist. Sometimes family members can be invited in to witness a person’s story as is common in TF-CBT. In groups there is a natural aspect of being witnessed that increases the experience of healing and catharsis. In indigenous communities being witnessed is an integral aspect of healing in all areas, and most especially through ceremony and storytelling. Each of the aforementioned modalities allows for the aspect of witnessing that is so powerful in healing.
On a more global scale, part of our collective healing from trauma must be education about what trauma is, and helping people really understand that no one can define what is traumatic for another. When we really understand this, and become curious about a person’s experience, we may be able to have more direct and open conversations about things like the #me too# movement. When we begin to address the isolation that others feel about their experiences, when we begin to encourage the emotional and physical discharge of the trauma response rather than trying to shut it down, when we join others in telling them that they are not alone and that their pain and fear is real and understandable for the situation and when we can help people reframe their trauma and remember who they were before the trauma occurred and the negative belief was formed; perhaps then we can get to a place of helping each other heal rather than reinforcing trauma and the unhealthy trauma responses that come with invalidation and isolation. When we dare to work on ourselves, when we heal and reclaim the wounded parts of ourselves, then we will be able to hold the wounding of others and come from a place of compassion and understanding. Tools such as Matrix Reimprinting, Drama Therapy and Clinical Hypnosis can offer very powerful healing in a brief and strategic way. Let the healing begin!
More on the collective shadow to come.
With love and understanding,
Michelle Hardeman-Guptill LMFT, CCHT, EFT/MR Practitioner