Be more trauma-informed

Somebody once asked W.H. Auden why he smoked so much. “Insufficient weaning,” he replied.

In a split second two children were cut off from their parents and left orphans following one of the IRA’s most savage bomb attacks in La Mon House Hotel in the Castlereigh Hills above Belfast. In that split second safety and goodness disappeared. I was eleven, and lived 25 miles away. The bomb killed a total of twelve people, including 7 women. Some of the victims were burned beyond recognition. It was one of the most lethal bombs ever put together by the IRA and was likened to the type of device that might have been seen in the Vietnam War. The blast bomb was attached to four large petrol cans, all of them filled with a home-made napalm-like mixture of petrol and sugar which was designed to stick to whatever or whoever it hit.

I was reminded of the infamous bombing by family and friends in Belfast last month. I needed a room after a memorial service for my mother and it was the closest and most charming venue.

The language of “trauma” and “traumatic stress” has made its way into culture, movie, TV scripts, the news, and public policy discussions. Nowadays people say “Tell me about your trauma.” Trauma has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It takes many forms too; from abuse at home to sexual assault, experience in war, disasters, accidents, medical trauma, traumatic losses and interpersonal violence.

The diagnosis of PTSD and the term we use now came about because of post-Vietnam War advocacy. According to psychiatrist Bessell Van Der Kolk, “It’s really the Vietnam veterans that brought this in and the power of the large numbers of psychiatrists and patients at the VA. That was strong enough to make it an issue and a diagnosis.”  Van Der Kolk says “the goal of treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is to help people live in the present, without feeling or behaving according to irrelevant demands belonging to the past.” His own father spent time as a religious prisoner in German concentration camp during World War II.

The road to understanding and coming to terms with my own emotional consequences of war trauma is a long and difficult path. Embracing the glory and guts of emotional messiness is challenging. I feel emotions intensely. Analytical thinkers and expressive types process differently. Losing a loved recently made me more aware of how people choose to avoid social interaction when there is trauma or loss. One easily becomes isolated. Maybe others don’t know what to say, or they’re afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing, or completely avoid you.  Research has found that what makes us more resilient to trauma, both individually and collectively, is to make a decision to own ourselves fully, emotionally and physically (sensate dimension). This acceptance and leaning into your own trauma and the trauma and suffering of others can produce great benefits. Some of those benefits include wisdom, patience, creativity, clarity, deeper empathy, and resilience.

Talk therapy is helpful too but limited. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Van Der Kolk says, “It’s an outstandingly effective treatment and goes beyond the tyranny of language offered in talk therapy.  Trauma is not about being reasonable or to be verbal or to be articulate. The parts of the brain that help people to see clearly and observe things clearly really get interfered with by trauma and the imprint of trauma is in areas to the brain that really have no access to cognition.”

I still have great faith in the power of the human spirit to overcome horrific circumstances. I’m constantly amazed by how others face adversity, build resilience, and find joy in the world. It’s possible to build resilience and healthy  responses to trauma by pressing into, or leaning into the suck of trauma. These three T points might help us in that journey ;

  1. Trauma is complex, overwhelming and non-reasonable. When someone is triggered don’t expect them to be able to talk about it reasonably.
  2. Try not to pressure or incessantly question others about traumatic experiences or places. Guard against naive views. A naïve view about a place, or people group, or a seemingly innocent question on your part may be a huge trigger for someone else.
  3. Two of the most innovative and outstandingly effective techniques for treating trauma today are Yoga (Holy Yoga for Christians) and EMDR.

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