Trigger warning: this article begins with an experience of a car accident.
On September 29, 2011, I was living in California with my family. My mom had just come in for a visit, and my daughters and I were taking her to Big Bear Lake to spend the day. The car was on cruise control at 60 mph and Enya gently played on the radio. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw two round headlights of a truck. I said to my daughter in the passenger seat, “What is this guy behind me…..?”
I never finished the sentence. The white Toyota Matrix hurled through the air doing somersaults. The front end hit the pavement. The backend hit the pavement. Three times this happened until it skidded on its side and stopped at a mound of ice plant on the side of the freeway. Through the cracked windshield I saw my 11-year-old daughter, propped up against that mound of ice plant, bruised, bloodied, shocked. Our lives were never the same.
Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot….It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it. ~Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror
We all survived the accident. Life went on. I resented that. I needed life to stop. It didn’t. It doesn’t. But trauma lives on in our bodies. In the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. says, “After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life.”
After a traumatic event, many of us move on. Life doesn’t stop, and the messages we hear from the culture around us is: move on. It’s over. You survived. Get over it. And, so we do. We stop talking about it. We stop thinking about it. We get back into our lives. But, really, we are just suppressing that “inner chaos” and in doing so our lives and our selves no longer feel the same. We may stop feeling safe or joyful or content. We may experience flashbacks, which disturb our day-to-day activities. We may have physical sensations that scare us. We may be jumpy and anxious. We also might start drinking more alcohol or taking pills that calm us down. All this can be happening without any conscious reckoning that our bodies are still processing the trauma we experienced.
After our accident, I had flashbacks. I felt my body in that car again. I saw my daughter over and over on the side of the road. I cried. And, sometimes I had this overwhelming urge to scream, but couldn’t. The scream and terror, trapped inside me. For a while, I thought I had Multiple Sclerosis. My hands and feet would go numb. I would wake up in a panic in the middle of the night scared I was dying. What helped me is I had some awareness that was this was trauma processing itself through my body. I was also getting a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which has shown to be effective in the treatment of trauma.
Recognizing trauma, and treating it is essential. So many of us have experienced trauma. Sometimes just turning on the news, especially lately, is traumatic. We see our fellow human beings suffering in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, fires and mass shootings. Or we are those fellow human beings caught up in survival, with hardly enough time to consider our mental and emotional states. There are also groups of us suffering from historical trauma, which is experienced multi-generationally by a specific cultural group. Many of us were abused and neglected in childhood. And so many of us keep going through life as if time heals the wounds. Time heals nothing because as Van Der Kolk says, the body keeps the score. It remembers. It holds the trauma, and if not conscious of it, the trauma binds us.
In brain scans, during flashbacks, the right hemisphere of our brains is activated. This is our emotional, intuitive and visual side of the brain. What is also known, according to brain research, is that the thalamus, which Van Der Kolk describes as the “cook” within the brain because all of our sensations join together there, shuts down. This is why trauma is often remembered in snippets of sounds, images and physical sensations and not in a narrative format, with a beginning, middle and an end. Therefore, people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may receive several of these snippets daily, or several times a day. If there is no conscious connection to the traumatic event, they may feel like they are going crazy. These experiences also make it challenging to focus, concentrate and have new learning experiences. Overtime, if not addressed, a person can begin to shut down, becoming numb and depressed.
Fortunately, there are several interventions, which can help with the symptoms of traumatic stress. According to Van Der Kolk, “The fundamental issue in resolving traumatic stress is to restore the proper balance between the rational and emotional brains, so that you can feel in charge of how you respond and how you conduct your life.” He goes on to say, that we are shoved outside of this proper balance when we are triggered and then, become “reactive and disorganized.” Therefore, we must become conscious of these triggers. For example, recently I was triggered when I saw a car accident on a television show. Immediately, my body felt anxious and I became distracted and could not focus. When I recognized the symptoms in my body, I connected the image of the car accident on television to my own real experience in the Toyota Matrix. Upon making this connection, my mind could orient itself back to the present moment. I took some deep breaths and my body began to calm down. This would be an example of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is simply a state of being aware. Self-awareness is the fundamental principle of recovering from trauma. We just begin to notice, notice what is happening in our bodies. Notice what we are feeling, especially when triggered by either an external or internal event. Developing a meditation practice can help facilitate mindfulness. Journal writing can increase self-awareness. There are also many therapies, as mentioned earlier. Some of them include: EMDR, art, music and dance therapy, Yoga, and Narrative Therapy.
The important realization in regard to traumatic stress, is we do not have to be bound by it. We can be free in our bodies, minds and emotions. We can feel alive again, and take in new experiences. It takes consciousness. It takes desire to understand. It takes support, and we can know the support is there.
*Originally published in The Volk, Winter 2017