Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Healing PTSD: What We Learn from Seeking Help

Continuing from Monday's post...

We never know from where or when healing comes. We receive the gift of progress from unlikely places. This can happen even more frequently if we're openly seeking input and advice from people whose perspective we admire. My experience at the trauma conference last weekend is a perfect example. But first: bringing the story up to date in terms of my own history:

I got to a point in my healing that I was so bitter about the medical and psychiatric community that I refused to engage with it anymore and set about my own healing path alone. I stumbled, I fell, I felt worse; I crashed and burned and picked myself up out of the wreckage and tried again.

And now it's a few years later and I've succeeded; I'm PTSD-free and last weekend attended the 20th Annual Trauma Conference where I was surrounded by therapists and psychiatrists and scientists whose sole job and mission is to help people like us heal. Now, I'm wishing I'd had the ability to attend the conference years ago because by the end of the weekend I'd heard a lot of theories and ideas that could have helped me during my healing. I met a lot of men and women who are really devoted to participating in relieving our pain. I also wish I had attended years ago because I saw the value of seeking help up close and in person when David Kaiser, a neuroscientist from Rochester, New York, told me, as the conference ended and we were left chatting in the lobby of the World Trade Center Boston, one very important thing.

After all I'd learned about the brain over the weekend, and how it changes in response to trauma, and how those changes perpetuate themselves and how our biology, physiology and psychology team up and become entangled and make our lives miserable - and since many people can engage in the same experience and not all develop PTSD - which adds to the proof that PTSD comes from psychological perception - I had one question I really needed to hear answered. So I cornered David, who had presented at the conference, and I asked him this:

If neurological PTSD symptoms come about in response to a powerful psychological experience, is it possible to reverse those neurological changes by engaging in an equally powerful opposite experience?

"You mean, instead of experiencing trauma experiencing a powerful bliss?" David asked.

I nodded. "Yes."

David didn't even hesitate: "Yes. Definitely. If you could induce an equally powerful inverse experience it would impact the brain and cause neurological changes."

OK, I hear you all thinking, Michele, be serious! And I'm well aware that inducing bliss - without chemical help - isn't the easiest thing to do. But I submit to you this idea: joy is a powerful and transcendent experience. Each of us has something that brings us that feeling. And no, maybe doing that thing once will not have the powerful immediate effects of a single traumatic event, but we are habitual creatures. We are, as David explained in his presentation, responsive to operant conditioning, which means we do more and more of the behavior for which we are rewarded. Which means, the more joy we feel the more we want, the more we seek, the more we practice behaviors that engender it - which means we develop a joy habit which means the cumulative effects of all that joy can begin to replace the singular effect of trauma.

This is entirely possible. The outcome is scientifically available. It would take time but the goal is attainable. I have done it, so I can vouch for the idea. I can also say it's a much more fun way to progress healing than simply sitting in your therapist's office. An added benefit: through the pursuit of joy you further develop your post-trauma identity so that, as the depression lifts and the neurological changes slowly take place, you can be at the same time shifting your entire self-perspective away from survivor toward the new you; the untraumatized you that has gifts and aspirations and possibilities and most importantly, a definition outside of trauma.

I've wondered, since I decided alone to pursue joy as a way to heal, if it was a silly thing to do. Yes, it worked for me, but I had no idea how to factor my experience into the greater schema of PTSD literature. I don't believe I'm unique, so I do think my experience could be applicable to the general healing experience. And now here's David, answering my seeking by handing me the definitive answer that lets us all know we are not irrevocably damaged. Neuroplasticity is gaining public awareness and momentum. The implications it has on our own ability to heal are infinite.


Anonymous said...

"And I'm well aware that inducing bliss - without chemical help - isn't the easiest thing to do"

But it is possible. There are meditations that can do this. They can be 'dangerous'. It just takes practice....

Michele Rosenthal said...

@Anonymous - Is it possible to induce this state in a safe, secure way where survivors could be supported while having an experience that could progress healing?

Anonymous said...

Not easily or safely.

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