This week I have been reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s bestselling book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
Bessel Van Der Kolk is a brilliant scientist. He has paramount understanding of brain function and physiology and he has devoted his career to studying trauma. While his work began with the discovery of PTSD in Vietnam Vets in the late 1970’s, his career has shifted over the years. Today he is a powerful advocate for the often misdiagnosed masses who suffer from the devastating effects of complex trauma.
Complex trauma (a larger category which would include betrayal trauma) affects the brain and takes its toll on the body not from a single catastrophic event such as a horrific war experience or a natural disaster where physical life is threatened, but through long-term abusive or unhealthy relationships or circumstances. This type of environment eats away at feelings of safety, efficacy, and agency over years of being manipulated, used, betrayed. There is an observable change in brain function after living for years feeling unheard, unvalued, and unloved in our most primary attachments.
Both PTSD and Complex Trauma wreak havoc on the brain and the body. Both cripple our ability to express or even understand our inner reality and connect with the world outside of us in healthy ways. Both require approaches to treatment that first establish safety.
Until we feel safe, people are paralyzed to move forward in healthy ways. This is why boundaries and social support are essential to recovery.
It was strangely comforting to hear Bessel Van Der Kolk, Ivy-league doctorate and world-renowned academic, validate and express so clearly the reality of trauma that I myself have experienced.
Flashbacks, dissociation, shutting down, being unable to express myself in a complete coherent sentence…all of these symptoms have observable physiological roots in the traumatized brain.
Our brains and bodies are fiercely loyal companions, and they respond full-force with primitive survival strategies to the horrific distress we face as our world first shatters and then slowly unravels in the face of our partner’s sexual addiction. In trauma, these well-meaning built-in blueprints make us feel like we have been hi-jacked. The very survival mechanisms that our body is using to protect us from pain cut us off from our sense of agency. We don’t know what we feel, we can’t seem to control how we react, we can’t even communicate what we think.
As Van der Kolk shares story after story, it becomes apparent that the deepest and most complicated traumas almost always involve sexual behavior or abuse. Being violated in this deeply personal way does a number on our very sense of identity. In the face of such complex trauma, it’s crazy to expect that we won’t feel crazy.
Interestingly, as I read his studies, his observations, and his conclusions, I not only felt tears spring to my eyes for myself and my sisters in betrayal trauma recovery, but also for my husband and his brothers in addiction recovery. I saw my husband’s pain as a lost and isolated little boy with no words and no way. I understood that most often, addiction feels like the only escape from the overwhelming and never-ending pain of unresolved trauma and unhealthy environments.
As I read Van der Kolk’s words, and felt our collective helplessness and pain, I wept for all of us.
Unresolved trauma lies at the heart of every broken individual, every obliterated relationship, and every unconscious person who is blindly running from their pain right into self-destruction. Understanding trauma can open the door to greater empathy for ourselves and for others.
Here are some excerpts from The Body Keeps the Score, alongside some of my favorite recovery mantras and concepts that have helped me heal, one day at a time, from the physiological effects of trauma:
“I am continually impressed by how difficult it is for people who have gone through the unspeakable to convey the essence of their experience. It is so much easier for them to talk about what has been done to them–to tell a story of victimization and revenge–than to notice, feel, and put into words the reality of their internal experience. ” -p.47
Keeping the Focus on Ourselves.
You have to Feel it, to Heal it.
Honest about Needs and Emotions.–SAL Circles Models
Journaling as a processing tool.
“Dissociation is the essence of trauma…the sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived…Flashbacks and reliving are in some ways worse than the trauma itself…There is no way of knowing when it’s going to occur again or how long it will last…these reactions are irrational and largely outside people’s control…shame becomes the dominant emotion and hiding the truth the central preoccupation.” -p.66-67
Stepping out of denial. Facing the truth.
Learning to take a deep breath and live one moment at a time.
Speaking the demon voices out loud to a sponsor or another support person.
Saying out loud: This is my trauma. This is not who I am.
Using the Full Surrender Process in the moment of distress.
Learning to live in presence.
“Our gut feelings signal what is safe, life-sustaining, or threatening, even if we cannot quite explain why we feel a particular way. Our sensory interiority continuously sends us subtle messages about the needs of our organism. Gut feelings also help us to evaluate what is going on around us…If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations–if you can trust them to give you accurate information–you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, your self. However, traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies. The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.” -p.98-99
Trust your gut.
Boundaries are essential–Listen to my triggers and allow them to teach me.
What do I need to feel safe right now?
“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their body. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” -p.102-103
“The ‘night sea journey’ is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness…The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing.” -Stephen Cope -p.125
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
“In order to know who we are–to have an identity–we must know (or at least feel that we know) what is and what was “real.” -p.136
Full Disclosure with a Qualified Therapist–a crucial turning point in my recovery.
“Our great challenge is to apply the lessons of neuro-plasticity, the flexibility of brain circuits, to rewire the brains and reorganize the minds of people who have been programmed by life itself to experience others as threats and themselves as helpless. Social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment.” -p.169
12 Step Support Groups–Connection is crucial.
Working the Steps with a Sponsor.
We have learned we cannot go it alone.
It is my belief that every human on the planet has undergone trauma of some sort, big or little. That is where the pain comes from. That is where we develop our self-defeating behaviors and coping strategies. Trauma is inevitable.
But I also believe that God is big enough for a million pathways of redemption that lead us back to Him, to healing, and to wholeness.
I am so grateful that I have had the gift of the 12 Steps, the gift of my Sponsor, and the gift of the SAL program to guide me on my journey back to Him. This is a gift I can never repay, but I can pay it forward.
No matter how crazy you feel today, there is a pathway of healing that will lead you back to wholeness and joy.
Work the program. It works.