BUT I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT; Do we need to talk about trauma in order to heal it?
This article is part of the Therapeer Event Hosted by Justin LMFT
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THE NEW SCIENCE OF TRAUMA
The question of whether we need to talk about the traumatic events in our lives in order to heal them is one that is only recently emerging. In the world of therapy and life coaching, it used to be essential to “process memories”, to hash it out, to integrate our experiences by talking about them with a compassionate witness. The cliche image comes to mind of the client on the couch with kleenex talking to a figure sitting in a chair with a notepad and glasses.
Lately, however, the new science of trauma is giving us a much deeper understanding of what trauma actually IS. And with this incredible knowledge discovered by pioneers of the field like Dr. Bruce Perry, Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Allan Schore, and Dr. PEter Levine, we are finding out that much of what trauma truly is - is present within our body’s adaptive system - the nervous system. These pioneers have made clear for us that trauma is more than a feeling or a thought. Trauma, when unhealed, actually penetrates our physiology itself. It interferes with how our bodies function - metabolism, organs, cells, DNA, heart rate, breath. And what’s more - the new science is showing us that the trauma is actually stored within our biology.
IF THE BODY HOLDS THE STORY - WHY SPEAK IT AT ALL?
This is powerful news. And it begs the question - if the body is holding the story - why speak the story at all? Why not just build capacity within ourselves to allow the story’s effect (emotion/sensation) to emerge from our system and be effectively healed altogether (over time, with consistent practice, commitment and support of course)?
For me - the answer to whether or not we need to talk about our trauma to heal it is yes, but it’s also no. Throughout my journey first as a child who experienced major trauma within my family system, and then as a life coach who helps clients recover from their childhood pain, I have realized that there is no such thing as black and white. Most of the good stuff - exists in the paradox - in the flow, so to speak.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In my case, growing up with a narcissistic mother who also had paranoid schizophrenia, my trauma was clouded in shame. My father and mother were in deep denial about the magnitude of my mother’s condition and there was an unwritten rule in my family that we don’t talk about what goes on at home. I kept it secret. And I over-achieved and sought perfection so no one would find out. My real circumstances at home felt like a stain and left me feeling disgusted with myself. I was so confused and felt like an alien on earth (later I would realize that most of the reason for that feeling was chronic “shut-down” in my physiology and nervous system). My family’s unwritten rules taught me to hide my intense suffering as a result of my mother’s harsh abuse. Only years later, when I first sought out the help of a therapist and she gave me a checklist to fill out did I realize I was in fact being abused and that my home was very unsafe. I was in a dangerous situation, and I needed some support to leave it. The checklist very clearly illustrated to me that I was, in fact, being abused.
That first year of work with a therapist when I was 20 was filled with talking. I talked about my experience - I hashed out my denial and fear. I wept. I argued with her. “But wasn’t it my fault?” My therapist helped me re-organize my thoughts and feelings. She gave me the support I needed to move out of my volatile home away from my parents. But as the years passed, I felt I needed something more. All my self-help books, my years of trial and error, my years of practice and commitment to healing, and various healing practitioners had laid the groundwork for me. They helped me dissolve a lot of the secrecy and shame associated with my volatile childhood memories. But I could sense I was ready for something more.
MY FORAY INTO THE NERVOUS SYSTEM GALAXY
In my seeking, I discovered the Somatic Experiencing modality - specifically, Dr. Peter Levine’s beautiful books “In an Unspoken Voice” and “Waking the Tiger”. Through his work I was introduced to the world of trauma physiology. I learned about mammalian responses to fear, danger and life-threat. I learned that what goes up (intense fear and terror) must come down (discharge). I learned that if we don’t take the time to work with our own innate, beautiful nervous system, that we can hold onto traumatic experiences for the rest of our lives no matter how much we talk about them - and that we can even pass them down to other generations. I found Dr. Allan Schores incredible work on early childhood attachment and right brain relationships. And I learned about Dr. Stephen Porges’ deep work on Polyvagal Theory - a theory that explains how we have evolved over time to shut down in the face of threat when no other options are available.
My knowledge of the fight, flight, and freeze responses deepened tremendously. And I began working with a somatic experiencing practitioner and studying all I could about the modality and its sister modalities - like the polyvagal theory, and others.
SO - WHAT'S MY ANSWER?
Now after years of my own application of this work (both talk therapy, coaching, and somatic experiencing) - coming out of chronic freeze, dissociation and hyper-activation, here is what I believe:
With our new understanding of safety and physiology I believe there is no either-or. We are whole beings. And what we talk about and what we think about affects our physiological state. And our physiological state impacts when we talk about and think about. We are complex and beautiful beings. The new science of trauma has given us a frame of reference for understanding those times when talking about what happened may cause a flare-up of chronic unhealthy physiological patterns like shutting down or becoming overly-activated.
This knowledge also gives us more ability to do our due diligence when we’re acting as practitioners. Understanding the biology of trauma and its effects on both the body and the brain can help us break through with clients who can’t seem to find the words to articulate what’s going on with them. Or clients who present with symptoms that seem to “make no sense”, but in the context of polyvagal theory and nervous system theory, they now make complete sense. And, I do believe where there is a lot of secrecy around the trauma (incest & sexual abuse comes to mind… and enmeshed shaming families), that allowing the client to speak their story can lessen their insurmountable burden and allow them to be heard and seen - to stand in their truth. And also, there comes a time when talking about the event(s) no longer help the client make progress - and being with them in their present emotion/sensation allows them to begin to move away from the past and begin building a new future for themselves right here and now in the present from a place of grounding and embodied awareness.
So - does trauma need to be talked about to be healed. Yes… and no.
Continue Forward in Healing,