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The word “trauma” has entered the mainstream vocabulary. It is frequently used in many contexts and occurs in many different situations. The common factor: the unpleasantness and the disruption they cause.
Just as “depression” can be anything from Monday morning blues, a persistent gloomy mood, or having serious thoughts of self-harm, trauma can also come from any situation: being ditched by a lover, sustaining physical injuries from a fall, enduring a nasty boss daily, surviving a painful divorce, sexual abuse, domestic violence, witnessing death.
In the professional psychological literature, traumatic experiences are the ones in which the fabric of your existence is torn apart, and you feel powerless in a bottomless pit.
“I have fallen into an abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is my nightmare”, wrote Camille Claudel, who was committed in a psychiatric asylum for the last 30 years of her life, despite being mentally sane.
I do not use the word “powerless” without reason. The two main features of a traumatic event are violence and powerlessness in the face of it. Here are some examples of one-time events which can be traumatic:
Natural disasters like earthquakes, which in a couple of seconds, reduces your home to a pile of rubble, kill your family members and friends, as well as devastate the surroundings.
Assaults by other humans to your body. Physical violence with or without weapons to cause harm, a murder attempt, rape.
Being in life-threatening situations such as a serious car accident, falling from a great height, being trapped in a building on fire, drowning in the ocean.
These are seen as simple acute traumas, which, if not addressed, can lead to serious disabilities. Let me share two case studies of acute trauma that went unaddressed.
I had a patient who was a police officer who was on duty at a bank robbery. She had a gun held to her head for about two minutes, which she perceived as a couple of hours. Twenty years later, she was hospitalized for psychosis, and in our work together, we uncovered its roots in her terrifying experience of the bank robbery.
Another patient of mine was an experienced rescue boat captain. One night while on duty, he and his team had to aid another ship transporting goods to safety during a storm. They were swept up in dangerous waters for hours, with both ships in danger of capsizing. He somehow managed to bring his boat to safety, but they lost the other ship.
A few years later, he developed a serious form of ulcerative colitis, inflammation, and sores along the lining of the large intestine. He was referred to me for depressive symptoms, and when I started to work with him, we traced everything back to that harrowing brush with death.
Both patients suppressed all memories of the traumatic incident, which then found expression in other ways. The one-time menacing and disruptive events cause what is called a simple acute trauma; but when the threats and disruption occur many times or over a prolonged period of time, then it becomes a complex trauma.
Other than simple and complex traumas, we also have collective traumas transmitted over decades, or even centuries, from one generation to the next. These often involve not only physical violence and massacres but also assaults on the culture and the very identity of the victims. They shape the collective mindsets of both the victims and the perpetrators and perpetuate the destructive cycles that arise out of the collective traumas.
It is important to distinguish between people who have undergone violence and powerlessness as children or as adults.
Traumatized Adults: think of soldiers and civilians involved in wars; victims of severe persecution or blatant genocide. According to statistics, today there are 65 million registered refugees spread all over all continents.
Traumatized Children: they are the ones who flee war, persecution, famine, climate disasters with their families, or alone and have experienced neglect, deprivation, abuse.
Why make a distinction between a child undergoing violence and powerlessness and an adult exposed to the same? Because these experiences will form the personality of the child, whereas the personality of an adult is already formed. Trauma affects them very differently.
The consequences of simple and complex trauma can be grouped under the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People who suffer from PTSD can experience any of the following: Nightmares, horrendous memories intruding in neutral and even pleasant present situations, incongruous behavior, loss of memory, irrational fears, anxiety, hopelessness, apathy alternating with frenzy, despair, dread, depression, anger, rage, violent behavior, loss of sociability, emotional numbness, psychotic breakdown, psychosomatic illnesses.
Depending on the severity of their condition, one can become an emotional, physical, social, cripple.
Healing From Trauma
So can someone recover from trauma? Yes, if treated soon after it happens. But if too much time has elapsed, it is much more difficult for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one of my sub-specialties, and I have treated hundreds of people suffering from it. The principle may sound simple, but it necessitates skills and experience learned over a long time: it consists of alternatively re-living the traumatic situation, and covering it up. Pressing one time the gas pedal and pressing another time the brakes, and knowing when to press which.
Bring up or recall the traumatic experience
Re-living the traumatic situation
The wound, the hurt of a trauma is in the mind. The mind has the amazing ability to expand. An expanded mind can experience itself from a higher and more neutral vantage point, from what is called a meta-level. From this meta-level, the mind has the capacity to heal the hurt.
Instead of “mind”, I can also use the term “consciousness.” Consciousness has the capacity to expand, experience its own content from a meta-level, and just by doing this, heal its wounds. Not all in one go, but bit by bit, over time. Consciousness has the capacity to heal consciousness.
In this process, it is crucial to bring up the traumatic experience, re-live it, integrate it into the mind /consciousness of the personality as a whole. This has to be alternated with covering up the traumatic experience, to give the body-mind system the opportunity to rest and let the integration occur. Without covering up the traumatic experience, you would be traumatized again, instead of being healed. Unfortunately, I saw this happening many times.
So when is a trauma healed?
Every trauma carries in its core a potential for the personality to grow, to find more inner peace, more inner freedom, to create a more meaningful life, and to live with more joy.
By processing a traumatic experience, whether it is simple, complex, or collective, we extract its quintessence, which is wisdom. In other words, we extract a deep, lived-through, embodied understanding of what it means to be human and to live on the earthly plane of existence. When this happens, the emotional burden can be discarded, what stays is the gained wisdom.
Psychedelics for Healing Trauma
Psychedelics are nowadays intensely researched for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in war veterans. So far the research is promising, especially with MDMA.
Yet the positive results are after treatment in controlled clinical trials, to which few people have access. Also, many people suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder not due to war, but to early childhood abuse and other traumas. Many take psychedelics on their own, or underground, with less experienced guides. The users and the guides consider the psychedelic often a magic bullet, which it is not.
Although psychedelics do seem magical, helping to heal different afflictions, without Western science understanding well “how,” the truth is that psychedelics can heal trauma, and can also be very disruptive.
Please watch the videos on my Youtube channel to see examples of healing trauma with psychedelics from my clients.
Donca Vianu is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She offers individual counseling and guidance for integration processes. You can follow her work through her Youtube channel and watch the video versions of this article here and here.