Lilly was ten. When she was in school, she could dig into her work and her mind could entertain itself with whatever the subjects were; she loved school. It was when she came home that the problems began.
Her father had a temper that would erupt easily. Lilly could not know what would bring it on. Her mother didn’t know either.
Her mother’s response was to beg her father not to hit the little girl. Her father might push her mother out of the way as he came after Lilly. Lilly knew that she could find a hiding place in the back of her closet. Her father would stomp off if he didn’t grab her before she fled into hiding.
That’s why, as she got just a little bit older, she found the greatest refuge in school. She could always find some reason to stay late — library research, a team practice, helping a friend.
When Lilly reached adulthood she got a very well-paying job on Wall Street. She was pretty happy there until there was a shuffle in her department and a new boss took over. He had a temper.
Lilly could not understand for the longest time why his temper would send her home crying and shaking on the railroad. She was ready to quit her job.
Was Lilly suffering from trauma?
Joe remembers living in a happy family. He, his three brothers and sister got along, played, did their school work, and generally lived uneventfully. At 18, his mother received a scary diagnosis and before the family could gather their wits about them, she died.
Things were not the same after that. His father could not afford to leave work to care for the children and besides, with Joe the oldest at 15, he was in a good position to look after the younger children.
But Joe could not get over the grief of the loss of his mother.
He was glad for the opportunity to cry to God. He appreciated God’s Presence in his life. It was soothing.
As time went on, people started suggesting to him that he might want to start dating, but he was able to deflect those people. Ten years later, Joe was still deflecting. Was Joe suffering from more than grief?
Aaron lived the happy life of a six-year old, but that changed when his father got a major promotion and the family eventually had to move overseas. Not only did Aaron leave behind the new friends he was making in school and the old friends he had grown up with in his neighborhood, but the family circumstances required that he adapt to a totally different culture.
For some people, moves like this are great adventures.
When my son and daughter-in-law moved, their children were bursting with joy and excitement and none of them ever looked back. Their parents prepared them during the preceding year with stories about how wonderful their lives would be living in another country. They rapidly made new friends and find the new language a fun challenge rather than a barrier.
But researchers have shown that how a small child adapts to changes is highly dependent on the attitudes of the parents.
For example, James Garbarino, professor at Loyola University and consultant to the NIMH, the AMA, and the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, found that children growing up in war zones will gauge how afraid they should be by their parents’ reactions!
Aaron picked up the vibes that either or both of his parents gave about this move. His father was concerned about his ability to meet the expectations of his employers and his mother was not happy to be moving to a foreign country. Aaron did not do well.
When Aaron was old enough to elect where he wanted to apply to college, he returned to the United States and never looked back. Throughout his life, he had an overwhelming fear of change. Was Aaron suffering from trauma?
To understand whether these three people, Lilly, Joe, and Aaron, were suffering from trauma, the question to ask is: To what degree does the problem take over their lives?
The Veterans Affairs website suggests that a person who has gone through combat, terrorist attack, assault, a car accident, or a natural disaster may very well be suffering from trauma. However, the important point is to focus less on what happened and more on how a person handles it.
If it feels overwhelming and the person feels unable to cope, then it might be trauma.
One of the key ingredients to the definition of trauma, or more specifically, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is that a person avoids situations that call up similar feelings to the event. All three of these people are doing that.
Healing from this type of pain — whether these people would receive a PTSD diagnosis or not — requires the building of new neural pathways in their brains.
Here’s the “why” and “how”: Our conscious brain deals only with the moment. In order to live a robust and full life, the vast majority of our knowledge and creativity is unconscious. This is very economical and efficient. We don’t think about these automatic responses. You say “black,” and I’ll say “white.” We know our way around the area; we know how to shop and what we learned in school. We can navigate new social situations by drawing on past experience. This is all to the good.
In the cases above, the brains of Lilly, Joe, and Aaron automatically take them through neural pathways that end up in sending out “caution” signs when they encounter something that feels like the original painful experience.
These caution signs were meant to be helpful; warning of danger is good. But there comes a time when the warning is overdone and no longer useful.
Because that process is unconscious and rapid, talk therapy will not help much. New understanding of the brain’s “wiring” helps to remedy the situation more effectively.
Mental images that disrupt the neural pathway, even momentarily, serve to stop the rapid process of generating scary or bad feelings.
That is why for many years EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) has worked effectively: in the process of recalling traumatic or painful history, a finger moving in front of the eyes literally disrupts a neural pathway.
In the same manner, hypnosis has worked by generating empowering feelings which is a disruption of the old neural pathway of fear.
So, for example, when Lilly came for a hypnosis session, she was asked to imagine herself as the adult she is now who would come to protect her younger self. She started to enjoy the scenario, thinking of the things she could say to stop her father. As she opened her eyes, she remarked, “It’s true; he’s older and not really scary any more. When I would go visit, I kept feeling like a little child. I don’t feel that way any more.”
Hypnosis is one powerful method in dealing with trauma. Stay tuned for more on this in the next post.