Healing after Trauma

The photo above has the qualities of a ‘reversible figure’. At one moment it looks like a happy girl facing right with arms behind her, a life ahead of her. Then, the photo seems to show a sad, dejected girl looking left with her arms hanging limp in front of her. Reversing one’s interpretation of a visual stimulus can happen in less than a second. Reversing one’s mood from sad to glad usually takes more time.

Victims of trauma caused by, for example, parental abuse, combat in war, and betrayal in marriage need to ‘reverse their understanding’ of what has happened. The most basic feature of this change is the realization that the traumatizing event is in the past. Panic attacks, dissociation, and depression occur when memories of the injury become conscious. This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In other words the person is still suffering from an injury that occured in the past. They are now no longer in danger. But somehow memories associated with the trauma causes a ‘reliving’ of the pain in the present. This is an awful thing to live with. As Freud said, these patients are suffering from memories.

How can one get over this? Another way to ask this question is, “What gets in the way of recovery in this and other mental disorders?” Triggers related to the original trauma such as a car backfiring, reminds the veteran of gunshots. The sound triggers memories of the original trauma, and symptoms like panic. Neurologically, trigger information reaches the amygdala, the fear avoidance part of the brain, a fraction of a second before it gets to the neocortex. This means that tendencies to flee from the trauma memories gain momentum before they reach the part of the brain that can reason. The part that can say “that was then, this is now”. But fleeing from memories one needs to understand in order to heal, makes the healing process tortuous.

In treatment, aspects of the personality least injured should be enlisted in the healing process. For example, if one has a particular expertise that has remained in tact, such as painting, it should be practised as much as possible. Creative processes cause good feelings somehow. And the better one feels, even if for a limited time of day, the more one ‘learns to feel good (again)’. The memories of being creative in the morning can work to displace bad memories at night. It is the nature of the creative experience, making something new, that gives one hope for remaking an injured mind. This is like seeing the better side of a reversible figure—the hopeful girl. In the throes of a mental illness like depression or panic, it is hard to imagine not being depressed or anxious. To imagine accomplishing anything like writing a book, composing music, or cooking a meal promotes an image of oneself as not being imprisoned by memories. People who get over PTSD, by definition, will experience a greatly expanded idea of what life is about.

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