Trauma, PTS and Shakepeare
“Trauma is a terrible event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. It is an event that you are incapable of integrating into your system. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Life threatening events, memory, and future responses
A traumatic event can range from a bad fall or car accident to a violent assault, death of a loved one or witnessing a horrifying event. All unexpected events that are interpreted by the mind as life threatening will leave an imprint on our systems. Responses to future events that remind us of the original threat will cause a physical stress response. (This can be demonstrated with a simple test that measures the stress response hormone, cortisol, in our saliva.)
For PTS sufferers, it is debilitating and limits or eliminates all possibilities for pleasure, happiness and connection in the daily interactions of life.
Additionally, childhood attachment issues coupled with trauma, and multiple traumas, both emotional and physical, can produce what is currently being called Poly-trauma. In Poly-trauma, a person will spend the entirety of their existence in disassociation (numbness, inaction - “freeze”) punctuated by high levels of hyperarousal (rage, terror, vigilance and grief, - “fight or flight”). If what is meant by “cure” is everything goes back to the way it was before the event, there is no “cure” as of yet. Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself to form new neural pathways, compensating for injury or illness), it is reversible. Finding the catalyst to use neuroplasticity is what we seek through this work.
Current understanding of trauma acknowledges that the singular struggles of addiction, depression, uncontrolled rage, thoughts of suicide, an inability to form connections with other people – all the things that stop sufferers from having a satisfying and productive life – are all often symptoms of PTS.
Let us make explicit that FoC is not therapy. While we acknowledge that many participants find the work therapeutic, we do not promote ourselves as “fixing” anything. We mindfully practice having no agenda of change for our participants, but rather, we create a safe space for them to explore, in the moment, emotional experience and emotional expression. We explicitly encourage them to then work with their therapists on what they might learn about themselves and what to do with that information.
Somatics: Finding the neural door back to Now, to the agency of the body – re-membering
Somatics is the therapeutic use of the somatosensory system. The somatosensory system is relating to sensations that involve parts of the body not associated with the primary sense organs (sight or hearing). How we take in temperature or touch, for instance.
One of the most effective doors back to now is through physical sensation. When the sensory parts of the brain are turned off, we lose the ability to feel our body. Many of the things that are helping trauma survivors begin to function more satisfactorily (yoga, massage/bodywork, meditation, some sports, arts and music therapy) are activities that draw mindful attention to the body.
A unique property of the somatosensory system is that it works in both directions. That is, we can make the shape of a feeling – a clenched fist, say – and the brain will recognize that as the beginning of an angry feeling. As we put our veterans into the imaginary circumstances of anger, fear, grief, confidence and so on, we ask them to use their body and their voice to show us what those feelings look like.
When we ask the veterans to present the imaginary circumstances and speak the poetry of Shakespeare, yet another amazing thing happens: Shakespeare is full of metaphor, and metaphor works in the brain differently than regular language. In order for the brain to understand “plum lips” it must shuffle through the memories we have of “plum” and “lips” and figure out why we might put those two things together. A plum is purply-red, plump, juicy, sweet, delicious. Lips are something we might enjoy kissing if they were these things! The hippocampus must ask the sensory cortexes to remind us of the EXPERIENCE of these things in order to make sense of these two seemingly unconnected images. We might actually (if we like plums) begin to salivate or get a whiff of the fruity smell in our nostrils. Ever so gently, the parts of the brain that have been turned off, begin to communicate again.