Trauma: A Holistic Approach

There was a time when the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma disorders would fly under the radar. It is not helpful to place the fault on mental health practitioners for PTSD’s misdiagnoses as different mood disorders or dissociative disorders. Over the past decade, those working in the mental health field have been enlightened by employers, publications, and the accrediting bodies that be, of PTSD’s prevalence as well as the research stating that a holistic approach to diagnosis and treatment in conjunction with psychopharmacological drugs (if needed and with autonomy respected) is an optimal approach.

In 2014, Dutch clinician Bessel van der Kolk published the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which examines the ways in which trauma “rewires the brain and changes the way people experience the world”. Dr. van der Kolk has been researching trauma since the 1970s after spending time with veterans of the Vietnam War struggling with adjustment to home life and unable to forget the often horrific and visceral memories of wartime. He drew several conclusions during his extensive research which included the use of brain imaging and other advanced scientific methods. Three particularly relevant takeaways to benefit the approach taken by licensed counselors such as Jen, Christelle, Krystal and I are listed below.

1.  The memories associated with trauma are essentially relived and may manifest themselves through sensory/visceral and dissociative experiences.  This means that our brains are wired differently than if we were to experience a seemingly “normal” experience of visiting our uncle to have coffee on a random Tuesday, for instance. We remember waking up, getting dressed, arriving at our uncle’s residence, and engaging in small talk for an hour before going about the rest of our Tuesday. Traumatic experiences create a physiological change producing a heightened state of anxiety and re-experiencing of the trauma which feels real and difficult to separate from reality (dissociation).

2. “Drugs and talk therapy, two of the most popular approaches to mental healthcare, are useful in the treatment of trauma, but have limitations because they do not truly bring the person out of the trauma and into reality.” (The Body Keeps the Score: Key Takeaways, Analysis and Review; 2015) Although these approaches to treatment may offer temporary relief of symptoms such as depression, anxiety or sleeplessness, they do not address the root of the problem which is the re-experiencing of the trauma itself.

3. Holistic approaches accessing the brain, mind and physical body through expressive arts such as yoga, dance, massage and singing as well as neurofeedback, EMDR which help reorganize and reprocess trauma are ESPECIALLY effective.

At Ubuntu Wellness, LLC: we approach clients with the understanding that trauma may be a part of their life’s dance. It is of utmost importance that we do not ignore the needs of those affected and offer dance, massage, EMDR, reiki, and yoga as means to treating trauma. We also understand that this holistic approach benefits everyone, independent of trauma.  Expressive arts are what convinced Jen and I that each of our glorious struggle’s offers innumerous opportunities to heal one another and bear witness to incredibly cathartic and beautiful experiences on our journey of mind, body and spirit.

Blank Slate: Mind and Body

Philosopher John Locke's interpretation of the mind at birth as a "tabula rasa" or blank slate upon which experience imprints knowledge, is quite magical until we reach the age of reason and beyond, when "life" happens. All our experiences, shaped through sensory experiences, form schemas: our mental framework that develops from our experiences with particular people, objects or events. 

Not so magical when you truly think about it now, is it? Not when the first time you get stung by a bee, you go into anaphylactic shock. Or the first time you vomit, you dry heave until you break blood vessels in your eyes. Or the first teacher you remember, used to draw a dot on the chalk board for you to put your nose against as punishment. BAD SCHEMAS!! And for many, these are traumatic events which are stored completely differently in our brains  (kind of like scattered debris across a treelawn). But the schemas aren't lost, just the particulars, and the generalizations remain the same until we have enough good or different experiences with people and events that we create adjuncts to the originals.

Other traumatic and unfortunate schemas lead to pathological thoughts and behaviors requiring the attention of a mentor, therapist or other professional to help reframe and change.  Our brains are wired, and being the behaviorist that I am,  I truly believe we can begin each day with our bodies as blank slates. We have the opportunity to change just ONE thing as soon as our feet hit the earth. Instead of a pastry: take a banana. Instead of checking your phone, read or practice meditation. Instead of lighting a cigarette, eat a pastry.

Beyond breakfast and morning routines, our day is just one giant cluster of decision making: eww!! Often times, theses decisions are habitual and comforting because they don't require much thought or effort, until one day: we get pulled over for speeding down a road we have always sped down, or our blood pressure suddenly reaches a new high because of our diets, or we are learning that our depression is rooted in more than our brains and SOMETHING must change. 

Change comes slow and often times there are setbacks, but remember that here at Ubuntu and millions of other communities of support, we embrace humanity and understand that we all have "stuff". Heavy heavy loads of stuff that we need one another to help lift, throw away, store differently, or polish.