Friday, January 2, 2009

How To Heal PTSD: Tap Your Inner Hero

Dr. Peter A. Levine has a unique take on the effects of trauma and how they are to be healed. In the introduction to his landmark book WAKING THE TIGER: Healing Trauma, he writes, “Most trauma therapies address the mind through talk and the molecules of the mind with drugs…. However, trauma is not… fully healed until we also address the essential role played by the body.” Through an in-depth explanation in the book he goes on to couple this idea with how the body and mind work together in the moment of trauma as well as afterward.

About WAKING THE TIGER Levine writes, “This book is about the gift of wisdom we receive as a result of learning to harness and transform the body’s awesome, primordial, and intelligent energies. In overcoming the destructive force of trauma, our innate potential … lifts us to new heights of mastery and knowledge.”

This is exactly what PTSD healing should be about. It should be about reclaiming our power, not reliving our trauma. Don’t get me wrong, of course it’s necessary to map out what occurred and examine and respect it and honor our experience. But then, it’s necessary to move beyond. We cannot heal if we drag around this old stuff in every new moment.

My trauma therapist put it to me like this one day when we were discussing my inability to finally ‘let it go’:

“Michele,” he said, “You’re like the survivor of a shipwreck who made it to shore by clinging to a piece of driftwood. Now you’re on land, and everywhere you go you continue to carry this soggy, waterlogged piece of driftwood. Put it down.”

He was so right. But when we feel traumatized and powerless and that becomes how we see ourselves and how we define our identities, how are we supposed to let that go? That would be like letting go of our own selves. But what if we replaced one damaged self with another healthy, strong self? Here's one idea of how we can do that: We must redefine our self-perception as a hero rather than a victim. We must find some action to take that replaces the inaction we felt at the time of the trauma. HEALING OURSELVES CAN BE THAT ACTION.

A little background. Studies have proved that those who act during their trauma vs. those who freeze, develop less aftereffects. Here’s an example that really interests and inspires me:

In 1976 in Chowchilla, CA, twenty-six children ranging from age five to fifteen were kidnapped and imprisoned in an underground vault in a quarry for about thirty hours. The children were stunned, terrified and immobilized by fear – except for Bob Barklay. When the roof of the vault collapsed and threatened to kill them all, this fourteen year old decided to dig a tunnel to freedom. This idea, which he executed with a single classmate, allowed all of the hostages to escape unharmed.

In follow up studies of the children, every single one of them – except Bob – exhibited severe signs and symptoms of long-terms effects on their psychological, medical and social functioning. Why not Bob? Levine explains, “By bringing the other children to freedom, Bob Barklay successfully met an extraordinary challenge. On that day … he was unquestionably a hero. … He was able to stay in motion and flow through the immobility response that completely overwhelmed and incapacitated the others….”

Many of us suffer from an immobility problem when we are traumatized, either physically or emotionally. During my own trauma I accepted that my death was imminent and did not engage to fight. (Well, I did fight at first and then felt the situation was more enormous and powerful than I was, so I stopped fighting and waited for death to come.) I was terrified and in a great deal of pain. I felt powerless and impotent and certain there was nothing that could be done to save me. I resigned myself to whatever would occur. I froze and dissociated and waited to be released from the horror.

When we survive our traumas, we must eliminate the after effects of our immobility. Sometimes, this immobility is what we do to live through trauma; it becomes a part of how we coped – and how we cope. But this causes a problem: Our minds and bodies become stuck in this aspect of the experience. We are traumatized and defeated and cannot imagine being cured.

But what if we were like Bob Barklay? He developed the idea to dig the tunnel when the roof collapsed; in the moment all seemed to be lost he found an idea that lead to everyone’s safety.

On our path to healing there are these moments when we glimpse a crack in the foundation of our trauma; when we see there might be a small inkling of a healing possibility; when we allow ourselves to hope for just a second that we might eventually be PTSD-free. --- And then we sink back down into our immobility response. But those are just the moments we need to do what Bob did! We need to ‘flow through the immobility response’ and take an action.

Recovering a sense of our own power catapults us down the path to wellness. Becoming our own heroes redefines our perceptions of ourselves and allows us to put down that driftwood after all. Mustering up the strength to heroically dig ourselves out of our PTSD hostage situation returns to us the power of which we were robbed.

We cannot change the past or our traumatic experience, but we can change the future and how we function in it. It all comes down to this idea of power. When we are traumatized we lose our power. When we heal we take it back. Rising up and committing to the challenge of healing PTSD can be just the heroic act we need in order to free ourselves from those heavy PTSD chains.

This can be done. This isn’t just me thinking it’s possible – I have done it through a rigorous, self-determined transformation, and you can, too. Healing is a choice, but like anything worthwhile, we have to work hard and fight for it. All the therapy in the world will not cure us if we do not participate in our own healing. We must dig our own tunnel to escape PTSD. In the end, we must become our own hero. Even Dr. Levine agrees:

“I learned that it was unnecessary to dredge up old memories and relive their emotional pain to heal trauma. In fact, severe emotional pain can be re-traumatizing. What we need to do to be freed from our symptoms and fears is to arouse our deep physiological resources and consciously utilize them. If we remain ignorant of our power to change the course of our instinctual responses in a proactive rather than reactive way, we will continue being imprisoned and in pain.”

Get ready: 2009 will be the year you begin to tap your Inner Hero.

(photo: Neville_S)


zebra's polka dots and plaids said...

Bravo, Michele. A very clear and eloquent piece on taking back the power once taken from us by trauma. I can certainly relate...after years of therapy and searching for the answers outside of myself, taking control of my own life - for me - is the one thing that truly makes me feel free of the pain and torment. A standing ovation to you and your work...Susan

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Susan - Your words are inspirational! Can you name one thing you did to take back control?

zebra's polka dots and plaids said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zebra's polkadots and plaids said...

A more concise answer would be that I learned to live in the moment. I learned to recognize when I was "lost in the past" or focusing too much on the future at the expense of experiencing my life as it is right now, in this moment...thanks Michele for being willing to share your experience in healing with us! Susan

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Susan -- I'm so sorry, but your answer begs the question: HOW?!

It's so tough to learn to live in the moment. That was such a struggle for me. The pursuit of joy - dance - was the only way I could get myself to focus, and then stay focused. Without getting too personal (and don't answer if it is) What worked for you??

zebra's polkadots and plaids said...

That is a tough question and one that is my hearts desire to attempt to answer if for no other reason to let others know that they can find freedom too.

I started a post on the subject "In this moment..." where I am trying to lay out some of the groundwork of this "aha" moment. And while this is not a complete answer, I had a moment of insight where I literally saw - I understood the connection between the racing thoughts in my head, my maladaptive coping skills (like dissociation) and how if I could begin to use my thoughts, behaviors and feelings (good ole cognitive behavioral therapy - but viewed from the inside out as a survivor) as "red flags" or what I now call "opportunities for change" then I could change my life.

This answer seems so inadequate for the need and the subject...

Anonymous said...

I'm haves PTSD for 10 years and I'm coming to the conclusion that I have to fight the negative thoughts or they win . It can consume your whole well being . Everyone with PTSD you have to remember this that your thoughts are strong they can kill you or you can start to think positive and think you'll get better and you are tricking the PTSD to die it might sound weird but this is what i'm currently dong Also look into timeline techniques and tapping techniques . Take whole food supplements . Go to Herbalist and natural doctors .