“Trauma defies language; it resists being communicated”
Central to healing in the aftermath of a traumatic event is the transformation of trauma’s unspeakable imprint to a story that can be told without reliving it.
Understanding how trauma leaves us without words may make it easier to consider ways that can help unlock the story hidden in visual images, painful feelings, flashbacks, bodily symptoms or silent avoidance. Both are important steps toward finding your words and continuing your story.
What is a Traumatic Event?
A traumatic event is most often one that is threatening to the life or bodily integrity of self or a loved one. It may include combat, sexual and physical assault, death of a child, suicide of a loved one, accidents, being held hostage, imprisoned, or tortured, natural and man-made disasters, as well the diagnosis of a life threatening illness.
- In the acute or immediate aftermath of traumatic events, most people don’t have a coherent story of what has happened because they have been surviving.
- In face of danger, our human psychobiology takes over. The right hemisphere of our brain associated with survival behaviors and emotional expression is activated and the left verbal-linguistic part of our brain is suppressed. With nervous system hyperarousal, we experience increased heart rate and respiration, cold and pale skin, dilated pupils and raised blood pressure. Our body has prepared us to respond with the survival reflexes of fight, flight and freeze.
- Often misunderstood, the freezing response is instinctive to our survival. It occurs when fight or flight are not possible; the threat persists over a long period of time or is extreme. It is a form of dissociation, such that time slows down and there is a feeling of an altered reality with pain and fear frozen. For the prisoner, the rape victim, and the child victim –it is the escape when there is no escape.
- Given the nature of the body’s fight, flight and freeze response, it is likely that most who have experienced traumatic events will have some lingering traces manifested in symptoms of hyperarousal (irritability, insomnia, quick to startle, difficulty concentrating); intrusion (flashbacks, dreams, sensory reactivity) numbing and constriction (can’t feel).
- In most cases, regardless of the severity of symptoms, the memory of the traumatic event is not like our memory for ordinary events that can be told as narrative with a beginning, middle and end. Because it has been encoded under light/fight/freeze conditions, it is experienced as fragments of highly charged visual images, bodily feelings, tactile sensations or sensory reactivity to reminders of the event.
- Traumatic memories are often choppy, disorganized and non-sequential with little change over time. They are the imprints of trauma that we need to transform.
When asked what had happened, a man kept reporting he could taste dust and describing a horrifying image of a face with long hair buried near ground zero.
A young mother could not report what happened in the accident that injured her child. She could only remember a dog in the road and feel terror.
A rape victim could not figure out how she could call from the hospital for help. She had no words for what had happened.
A hurricane survivor kept dreaming of being stuck under water. She would wake gasping for breath.
Adding to the activation of human survival reflexes in the face of trauma, there are often psychological reasons that keep us from finding the words for what has happened.
Months and even years after a traumatic event, people can become so terrified of re-experiencing the horror of a traumatic event that they will avoid any triggers of memory. Protecting themselves from pain, they are unable to see in the triggered memory, the dream or flashback an opportunity to “ make meaning” – to find the words.
Protection of Others
Some never put words to the feelings, sensory images or somatic glimpses of their traumatic experience because they try to protect others from what they have faced. Combat Vets fear contaminating their partners. Rape victims fear shaming their families. Children of the Holocaust learned to maintain the silence.
- In the face of family or widespread disaster, many see so much pain that they overlook their entitlement to bear witness, to put words to their experience, to be validated and verified. “Who am I to speak – look how others have suffered.”
- Describing them as “ The Forgotten Bereaved,” Kari and Atle Dyregrov consider that siblings after suicide rarely feel entitled to put words to their pain. Confused, guilty for not saving their sibling, adrift without parents who are lost in grief, they don’t want to add to the pain so they remain painfully silent.
Over the years, many report that they hide the fragmented images or emerging memories of their trauma because their attempt to share the history of multiple cancer recurrences, the death of their child or a combat experience brings with it so much upset and concern that they end up taking care of those listening. Sadly, their experience confirms a fear of being different, pitied, or damaged. It keeps them from finding those who can share and bear witness to their story.
Ways of Transforming Trauma-Finding Your Words
Establish Physical and Psychological Safety
Safety is essential to remembering and transforming trauma. It can be secured differently for different people. For some, the passage of time allows enough psychological distance and life experience to step out of the feeling of danger and translate trauma into words. For others, their mastery as an adult serves as the buffer for fear and allows them to reach back to re-connect with a traumatized self.
The child victim as an adult finds a voice and seeks justice.
After sixteen years of silence, a rape victim informs the world by publishing her story.
Utilize Positive Connections
Connection on both conscious and unconscious levels makes it easier to heal trauma. Trauma disrupts patterns of connection. It isolates, shames and makes us feel different than others. Trauma theorist, Judith Herman tells us, “The action of telling the story in the safety of a protected relationship can actually produce a change in abnormal processing of the traumatic memory.”
- Over many years human connection with friends, trusted relatives, or a partner can be the context for an unfolding story. Telling pieces of your story that emerge in different ways to different people over time can help integrate and heal from trauma.
- Connection with a professional therapist from any number of models (cognitive behavioral therapy, trauma focused therapy, psychodynamic therapy, prolonged exposure etc.) can be crucial in transforming trauma- particularly when haunted by traumatic events, unable to get past pain, using substances to hide memory, fearing judgment or re-traumatized by a recent event or loss.
- It is within a protected space with a trusted therapist who is there to listen, observe and contain what cannot yet be fully articulated that the trauma can often be glimpsed in dreams, identified in patterns and remembered in a different way.
- Healing in a group is a powerful use of connection. Groups of many types offer an opportunity for validation, bearing witness, altruistic giving and containing the unspeakable aspects of trauma.
I have sat with civilian and uniformed service groups, bereavement groups, couple groups and caregiver groups in the aftermath of trauma. Nothing is more powerful than to see members silently bare witness with tears or to hear someone say to another “ You just said what I feel – I couldn’t say it.”
Narrating Trauma May Start With Your Body
We understand that given the psychobiology of human survival, what we often cannot say or remember is held within our body. Exercise, dance therapy, yoga etc. serve in the reduction of trauma symptoms because they allow the movement we are wired to experience in face of danger and they re-set a positive connection to our personal experience of bodily sensations.
Trauma experts like Peter Levine in his book, An Unspoken Voice, recommend that we work from “ the bottom up” i.e., that we attend to the sensations, senses, images, postures and behaviors we associate with negative feelings as a way of unlocking the hidden unspoken traumatic story and releasing healing potential.
The Power of Creativity to Tell the Story
- Creativity in art, music, writing, and drama draws upon many parts of our brain and in so doing offers a means of expressing aspects of trauma that were never encoded in words but find expression, release and realization in personal and powerful ways. Creative outlets are so often the conduits to the healing narrative.
- Those writing about their trauma are often driven by a powerful voice that can speak of things that can’t be said aloud, that unfold from a horrified, confused, isolated self. The power is in this vehicle of translation. In Operation Homecoming, thousands of troops and their families gave written voice to their personal inside experience of war. Michele Rosenthal, author of Before the World Intruded calls her written journey of trauma an “uncorrected proof.”
- Many, such as the authors of Narrating the Healing, see value not only in writing one’s narrative but sharing it and reading the narratives of others as a way to experience the complexities of trauma at a distance – as a way to find the words for what was too painful to say.
The story that we cannot tell – haunts us but never helps us.
Listen in to Sharon D’Agostino discuss SayIt Forward.org a site where girls and women across the globe can share their stories of overcoming adversity in a safe place.