We cannot Google our way into closeness; it needs to be a felt and a shared experience. We need face-to-face, real-life encounters so that we can read and exchange subtle messages and meta-communications that inform and inspire who we become on the inside and template our capacity for connection. Expressions, sounds, and gestures, according to Stanley Greenspan—author of Building Healthy Minds (1999)—are our first forms of communication. Along with holding and touching, these form an intricate and attuned relational language that carries deep meaning and intention, and these nonverbal forms of communication shape our very humanness and our capacity for intimacy (Greenspan, 1999).
Experience comes first; words follow. Words can describe and give depth and breadth to a feeling that is slowly emerging into our conscious awareness. Words can help to explain and delineate bodily sensations. Words can create meaning out of experiences so that these experiences can fit into the overall framework of our lives. And words are one of the vehicles through which we communicate our emotions to another human being so that each of us can comprehend the point of view of the other.
But what happens if our feelings are unavailable to us or if when we try to dial them up from the deep recesses of our mind, nothing comes? What do we tell a therapist, a lover or a friend who asks us to tell them how we feel when we ourselves don’t even know or when, in fact, we cannot feel it?
Trauma shuts feelings down. Recovery wakes them up. The recognition that healing trauma is a mind-body process has increasingly influenced many current forms of therapy. We need to reconnect with and feel the stories of our lives in order to heal them.
In Western culture, our overreliance on words has led us to undervalue experience and overvalue talk. That overreliance has also led us to create forms of therapy that are not especially useful in resolving trauma. When we reduce therapy to only words or when we ask first responders to tell us about the scent of burning flesh, the horror of watching groups of people locking arms on the top of a building and leaping to their death, or the screams of those buried in rubble waiting to be rescued, we ask too much. And then we wonder why, over the next several months within the lives of these first responders, divorce rates rise, alcohol and drug addiction shoots up, and cases of spousal abuse become commonplace.
Similarly, when we ask a client to tell us all about their experiences as a small child who could not find safety in their home or who was abused, neglected or traumatized by frequent scenes of drunkenness or rage, we are asking them to move past defensive barriers that oftentimes they themselves hardly know exist. Debriefing these experiences in words is neither efficient nor effective because, in spite of their profound and disturbing impact, many caught in these experiences have sometimes barely let themselves believe that they actually happened.
After the fact, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate splinters of personal experience and drag them from their hidden world into comprehensible, well-ordered sentences, we feel anxious and put on the spot. What are we supposed to say? It was so long ago, and it feels so very far away. But those very moments hold the pieces to our aliveness. They have altered the way we live in our own bodies and experience our own lives and relationships. We need to stop asking so many questions and just go where the client is.
When we’re facing danger, whether that danger is a charging elephant, a natural disaster, an attack or a drunk and raging parent, the thinking mind shuts down but our feeling of fear signals the body to rev up. We’re supercharged with the extra adrenaline and blood flow that enables us to flee for safety or stand and fight. When we can do neither, we freeze. We stand there in body but disappear in mind. We feign death. And even though the thinking mind is in fact not thinking, the limbic body-mind vigilantly goes on absorbing sense impressions like the smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes that we need to read our surrounds. But the thinking mind isn’t processing experience as it normally would; it’s too stunned and shaken to organize these impressions and sensations into a recallable, coherent picture.
Being met days, months or years later by a barrage of well-meaning questions can leave us staring blankly, unable to bring the fragmented memories of what happened into consciousness long enough to describe them. And when asked how we felt at the time, we may draw an emotional blank. After all, the whole point of our instinctual defense system is to shut down unnecessary systems so the fight/flight/freeze can take over and do its job of staying safe. Our feelings at the time were not so critical to our survival, other than those of fear or terror that were necessary to trigger our emergency systems to take over. So when someone wants to know just how we felt as we were standing filled with rage, running from danger or pretending we were a statue, we’re just not sure what to say. We swim in a confused jumble of images, emotions, and sensations that appear to have no real narrative. Our physical bodies and minds may know that we remember something, but what it is exactly can be elusive.
The question, “Can you tell me about your trauma?” can be befuddling if not somewhat disturbing to one who has experienced it. It is the very nature of our human response to trauma that we defend against knowing the pain we’re in. We are, in fact, designed by nature to not let the full weight of the experience become conscious, and yet we carry the imprint of the experience in the form of sense memories and emotions that inscribe themselves into our body-mind. If the repair that allows us to reestablish our equilibrium and come back into ourselves and into our own skin occurs shortly after the painful experience, we can return to balance and perhaps even learn and grow from it. If not, these “frozen moments” live within us, vibrating with life but lacking in thought and understanding. They were simply never processed and filed away into the overall framework of the conscious self. They hang somewhere in inner space. We catch glimpses of them, but their real and visceral content can be locked away and out of reach. And our personal narrative has big, blank spots in it. It’s as if parts of us were strewn all over a room but that room is too dark for us to see what’s there. Entering that room, gathering up those pieces of our personal stories, and stringing them into meaningful and understandable narratives is the work of therapy. To accomplish this, we need forms of therapy that allow the body-mind to feel, sense, and grope it’s way along the associative mind-body pathways that will lead us toward these forgotten fragments of personal and interpersonal experience.
This ancient trauma response can become similarly activated in traffic, in a high-stress work environment, or within children who are trapped in pain engendering families. It can occur in the blink of an eye if a student is a part of a school shooting, a young woman is raped or an adult experiences a natural disaster. It can also occur if a child’s attempts to engage and feel safe are repeatedly rebuked, misread, or ignored. And even though the prefrontal cortex shuts down our scanning system revs up. We become outwardly focused and hyper vigilant ever searching the environment for further signs of danger whether that danger is an aftershock of an earthquake or the threat of repeated emotional wounding. If this activation occurs over and over again, the effects can become cumulative. Trauma can leave one with a helpless feeling that nothing they can do will help solve the situation and this can become a learned helplessness that is laced with the rage that is part of the urge to defend ourselves when frightened or to flee to get out of harm’s way. We’re defensive and defeated in the same breath. All of these responses can get triggered when one who has been traumatized seeks help of any kind. In the case of relational trauma that comes from the home, this loss of an ability to be comfortably engaged with what is going on in the moment can become a part of the child’s developmental landscape. But while they’re less able to calmly attend, they’re also anxious about being put on the spot and can be mistrustful of help.
Greenspan, S. (1999). Building healthy minds: The six experiences that create intelligence and emotional growth in babies and young children. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.