What is Trauma?
At one time or another everyone seems to have heard the phrase, "...that was traumatic.” Those words may have been said in relation to a physical assault, accident, job loss, death of a loved one, natural disaster, financial ruin, abuse or other devastating event . So...what is trauma and how does it impact us?
Trauma can result in a host of physical, social, intellectual, and emotional problems. These include:
Nightmares or night terrors
Flashbacks of the event
Loss of interest in life
Spontaneous startle response
Plain and simple, trauma is damage to the brain. This damage produces a sunami of symptoms that puts ones very identity in jeopardy. Therefore, it is imperative that interventions are made to restore the mind so that life is not a grim, white knuckling affair, but life’s fruits- pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, and love- are present and available.
Trauma and the Brain
To understand trauma we need to have some idea of how our brain works. Our brains have an amazing ability to defend us - physically, emotionally, and cognitively - against threatening events. For example, a car suddenly and unexpectedly veers toward us as we are standing at a stop sign. Our brain instantly perceives this event as danger. Our mind shuts down our fear, slows down our sense of time, and our body instinctively responds to take corrective action. Our brain has helped us survive this threat!
The ability to shut down emotions, however, can come with a price. Unfortunately, you can’t just eliminate the bad feelings and keep the good. Everything gets shut down. Over time, when traumatic events are NOT processed, a “deadened emotional life” results, and a disconnection from self and others occurs.
As we live life, all our experiences are encoded in our memory. This occurs when neurons in the brain are triggered. The more neurons that “fire” in a group, the more vivid those memories and the greater influence they have over our actions and behaviors. This encoding process occurs in the nucleus basalis (adjacent to the brain stem) where the chemical “acetylcholine” is secreted throughout the cortex. Each time this chemical contacts other neurons, the connection is strengthened and the data becomes more important. This is a normal process.
Often people don’t realize that when we are talking about our past, it is not the actual past or the literal “truth,” but our biased representation of that event. Encoded in the memory is the mind’s assessment of the self. The brain actually rates our “self.” That is, it judges whether we are good, bad, to blame, innocent and so forth. This rating process allows us to draw meaning from the event. Therefore, if we re-examine a memory and add new information to it, we can create an entirely new meaning of that event. With that new information we can look at our past and readjust our rating. For example, if an individual misses their airline flight they are likely to view themselves harshly. But if that airplane crashes on the runway before takeoff, the person may now see this event as a blessing.
As we grow and develop, our brains store more and more memories and we rely on these as a way to see the world. Our memories guide us in the present as the brain acts as an anticipatory machine to help us prepare for the future. These memories shape our present by creating a filter through which we anticipate what will happen next. In this way, our memories create biases as we are “primed” for how to interact in the world. For example, if you were a straight A student, you would expect to get A’s on the next test.
It is important to note that many of our biases are unconscious; meaning that we don’t even realize we are experiencing a memory. Rather, we believe we are seeing things in the present alone.
There are two kinds of memories, implicit and explicit. Implicit memories start at birth and encode life events. Implicit memories reside in our brain stem, the part of the brain that is linked with survival (fight, flight, freeze, appease). Implicit memories code information with no link to conscious awareness. When we experience trauma the implicit memories of that event can be re-activated without warning.
Explicit memories begin around age two, but adults often can’t recall memories formed before the age of five. An example of this is riding a bike. From the moment you decide you are going to ride a bike, your body draws from implicit memories telling you how to sit, how to pedal, how to hold your hands and so forth. You have no awareness that these “instructions” are based on a memory. But if you saw an old style bike that reminded you of one you had when you were seven years old, this “picture” is an explicit memory. “Oh, that was just like the bike my dad taught me how to ride on and it was so scary to ride down that big hill by our house”. You know you are experiencing a memory and likely in your mind’s eye you have vivid pictures, feelings, and sensations linked to that specific memory.
Explicit memories are formed in the hippocampus, the area in the brain that categorizes experiences. The images you see in your “mind’s eye” are explicit memories. These explicit memories are linked to the facts of the event and to a sense of yourself in that event. One may have a memory of falling off the bike (factual) and an interpretation of that event (I was clumsy, bad, foolish). As life goes on, our memories accumulate into a time line that creates an autobiographical story or narrative of our self. In this “life-story” resides our self-image and our understanding of the world.
When trauma occurs, the hippocampus will temporarily stop functioning. At the same time, the memories are being recorded out of a state of flight/fight. The result is that trauma gets coded in a fractured, disorganized way rather than cohesively and organized. This process is unconscious. Raw moment-to-moment fragments of the experience are locked in the brain in “free-floating implicit puzzle pieces” (Siegel). The brain codes all of the information of the event, including senses, perceptions, emotions, images in a jumbled, disjointed fashion.
Let's look at an example. A woman is raped. She is terrified, anxious, and overwhelmed by feelings. Her hippocampus shuts down her emotions and she dissociates (meaning that she is no longer aware of her own body, feelings, or thoughts). She sees a yellow bird sitting near a window and focuses all her attention on it. Because her brain has closed down and she is numb to what is going on around her, she becomes only conscious of the bird. Then 20 years later she sees a similar bird, her brain awakens all of those fragment images and reactivates an “implicit-only memory reaction” which psychologists call a “flashback.” The woman has no way to make sense of what is triggering her feelings of terror, pain, and powerlessness. All that she knows today is that she is seeing a little yellow bird and she feels terrified.
Healing Trauma: The Levang Method
The Levang Method is a cutting-edge therapeutic approach aimed at healing - once and for all - past trauma. This method is drawn from over 30 years of clinical experience and training in psychology, brain research, and the mind/body connection. The Levang Method is NOT talk therapy. Rather, the therapist assists the client in carefully revealing the trauma incident and moving through it with the aid of therapeutic antidotes and supportive interventions. At the same time, new memories are created by waking up the brain so that it forms a functional memory of the trauma rather than the disjointed images created at the time of the incident.
The initial steps of the Levang Method focus on helping the client identify those negative feelings and internal messages connected to the trauma. These inner experiences are validated and acknowledged in a safe and caring way. As the client feels a sense of being accurately understood and “seen” in the immediate moment, trust begins to be developed. The client realizes that “...someone is finally seeing ME, is wanting to hear my unspoken words and feelings that I have been waiting so long to be recognized.” As the process continues, the client begins to share more and more of their “inner self-map” – (inner story). As what is inside becomes understood on the outside, both the client and the therapist work together to re-engage the hippocampus and begin to heal the implicit memories formed during the trauma. As these memories are expressed and validated, the client is able - often for the first time in their life - to feel safe. This sense of safety allows them to secure support, empathy, and guidance to work through the trauma.
The new picture/memories created shift the client from the past to a new life of healing and healthy functioning. While processing the trauma may be an emotional time, the client’s new sense of being understood fuels hope and possibilities - emotional states that were not available at the time the trauma occurred. A grief/relief response will be felt in which the client will grieve over the hurt, pain, and loss that occurred, yet also experience a sense of relief for having survived without being forever wounded. As the healing progresses, the client is able to see that their life can be radically different.
Key Learning Concepts
If we re-examine a memory and add new information to it, we can create an entirely new meaning of that event.
Our memories create biases that prime us for how to interact in the world.
Implicit memories code information without conscious awareness and can be re-activated without warning.
Explicit memories are linked to the facts of the event and to a sense of yourself in that event.