Trauma Is Not A Life Sentence


Events that are traumatic can feel as though everything we experience is “too much, too fast.” So we run like the gazelle in fear but without the essential piece of instinctual energy that “knows” that if we trust and follow our bodies, let them shake and tremble, we have a fighting chance of being okay in the end. - Cara DeVries

Trauma Is Not A Life Sentence
by Cara DeVries, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Website: www.caradevries.com

“Trauma is a shock too large to contain. Like a current too strong for the body to dissipate, it burns us as it passes through. It disfigures the spirit.”

These words from author Cary Tennis, while poetic with elements that seem achingly true, left me wondering:  What else is true about trauma?  I get it; living with trauma has its own special suffering. One cannot help but feel some sense of disfigurement, some betrayal of the body and spirit. Confusing at best, fragmenting and utterly disorienting at its worse, trauma is a singular thread that runs through many of us.

The good news about trauma is, as Peter Levine says, “it’s not a life sentence.” This also feels true, as I’ve seen over and over in my practice.  Working with Post Traumatic Stress in my clients, I know it is possible to find containment and resiliency in the shock, to cool and soothe that burning current, to find ourselves again intact and whole.

Working with trauma using the bio-physiological approach of Somatic Experiencing has opened my eyes to the infinite discoveries and delights of our animal bodies.

Picture the Serengeti plains of Africa. A herd of gazelle is peacefully grazing, yet always vigilant, ready, instinctual. A slight movement in the distance indicates danger. How do they know it’s that big “top of the food chain” cat and not a falling leaf? They know. Deep in the back of their brains is pure survival. They know, and in that knowing, they will mobilize every ounce of energy available to run, to escape and survive. Statistically, one in that herd will not make it, perhaps. But there is still one more chance for that caught gazelle. As she brings her breath and heart rate down to imperceptible levels by “playing possum”, our big cat may lose interest and turn away just long enough for that gazelle to escape, for now. Back with her clan, the gazelle will involuntarily and instinctually shake off the excess energy and carry on. Without a complex human brain to make meaning of the event, construct a story of fear and attach that fear to the excess energy, she (and all wild animals) will not experience trauma symptoms at all. It will be just another day of survival on the Serengeti.

But we humans are much more interesting right? We have this big neo-cortex leading the way. Not a bad thing really; except that we often leave our bodies behind. With trauma, this very leaving of the body is our way of surviving. The body, rather than a place of resource and refuge, is a dangerous place to dwell; full of anxiety, panic, disorientation and fear. And it’s that fear that has us attempting to think our way through the discomfort, if we could only run fast enough, be one step ahead of time and ourselves. It is the fear that has us believing we can actually trick time by anticipating every possible dangerous or not so dangerous outcome. Events that are traumatic can feel as though everything we experience is “too much, too fast.” So we run like the gazelle in fear but without the essential piece of instinctual energy that “knows” that if we trust and follow our bodies, let them shake and tremble, we have a fighting chance of being okay in the end.

Trauma and its ensuing nervous system dis-regulation are like killers for our soul. But here’s the irony: it is through the exploration of that anxious and fearful body that with a skilled therapist and lots of support and self compassion, we can slowly discover (actually, its more like tripping over) our innate capacity for resiliency, reclaiming our sense of ourselves, finally finding peace again. Inside every body and spirit, even one that has experienced a traumatic event, there is what Peter Levine calls our “innate goodness.” What a relief!

Cara is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with offices in San Francisco and Marin. For over 20 years, she has worked with children and their families in hospitals and is currently piloting a program to help those families find the tools for self-regulation in the aftermath of hospital trauma. She works with individuals and parents specializing in Post Traumatic Stress. You can learn more by visiting her website. www.caradevries.com

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