Attending to human dignity – Inexplicable symptoms made intelligible in trauma counselling
Many people who’ve experienced trauma recognise the phenomenon: even years after you’ve gone through terrible experiences you find that all of a sudden there are bodily conditions that are intensely physical, very unpleasant – and you can’t find any clear reason for them. Your heart palpitates, you’re out of breath, you feel faint, your senses deceive you, your body doesn’t function as it should, your moods zigzag.
Staff at the Deaconess Foundation (in Helsinki) continually encounter children, adolescents and adults for whom damage to their early affectional bonds and traumatic experiences have left disruptive scars in their daily life.
These scars can be difficult to identify and treat. Trauma artfully triggers a wide range of illnesses for which there is no physiological or clear diagnosis. It’s therefore not always apparent what to treat and how to go about it. But there are various ways to do so.
Trauma can be difficult to identify and treat. It is capable of simulating a wide range of illnesses, however, which do not have an organic cause or a clear diagnosis.
Trauma artfully triggers a wide range of illnesses
These scars can be difficult to identify and treat. Trauma artfully triggers a wide range of illnesses for which there is no physiological or clear diagnosis.
The first thing you have to understand is how difficult and frightening experiences affect us. In a threatening situation, the parts of our brain to do with instinct are roused first of all. They prepare our autonomic defences that help protect us. In the midst of fear and terror our thinking brains often don’t function efficiently and quickly enough.
Trauma is essentially a matter of survival, but we don’t survive it in the best possible way by fighting or fleeing – as victors – and instead have to resort to other means of survival in our bodies. These means include transfixion and paralysis, a death-like state and condition of exile psychologically.
Our experiences consist of different facets – bodily sensations, sensory perceptions, emotions, movements, and the significance attached to experiences. During a traumatic situation our brain function becomes segmented. The experience is left fragmented and disconnected to different degrees and does not combine with our other experiences and recollections, as happens with agreeable everyday situations. Corporeal activity is stored in our body memory in a similar way as are our early experiences before we develop speech
Trauma is essentially a matter of survival
Trauma is essentially a matter of survival, but we don’t survive it in the best possible way by fighting or fleeing – as victors – and instead have to resort to other means of survival in our bodies.
For different reasons, fragments of past trauma can pop up in the midst of our ordinary daily lives, and we suddenly find that our chest feels constricted, words won’t come out, or we experience unreasonably powerful feelings.
For all these reasons, the vestiges of trauma generally have negative connotations and are seen as a sign of failure, even though they are indications of a vital means of adaptation that help us survive in the best possible manner or without greater injury. It’s not therefore a matter of illness, and the physical symptoms of trauma are not set in stone for the rest of your life. They can be treated, and for that we have the French psychologist and psychiatrist Pierre Janet to thank.
At the beginning of the 20th century Janet understood the link between trauma and our inclinations. His observations have started to be re-explored in recent decades. Janet outlines a three-stage treatment model where priority is given to calming our nervous state, in other words stabilising and lessening physical symptoms. The model is still serviceable.
The key words in the treatment of trauma are meaningfulness, stabilisation, and empowerment concerning behaviour and body function.
It is indeed possible to rediscover – often with the help of another person – various internal and external resources that can help regulate the state of the nervous system. This way you can take the risk of examining the vestiges of traumatic experience that remain with them, and ultimately address the memories that lurk behind them and strip down the traumatic experience into small parts
For a number of years now meaningfulness, stabilisation, and empowerment concerning behaviour and body function have been studied and used in the work of the Deaconess Institute.
Past experiences can be adjusted so that they no longer determine your day-to-day life and future.
Past experiences can be adjusted as long as you comprehend the meaningfulness of trauma traces and repeated experiences of now being safe. In addition, you need consolation and help in controlling your harrowing emotions. It’s not an easy road, but it can gradually release you from the chains of your history – so that they no longer dictate your daily life and future.
You start to make use of the resources that you’ve discovered to challenge yourself to venturing into new areas of life without excessive distress. Once again, there are new opportunities in life, and above all there’s hope.
The writer was a senior physician for child and family services at the Helsinki Deaconess Institute Foundation sr.
Deaconess Foundation provides child protection specialised non-institutional and foster care services, especially for children requiring psychiatric care, children in foster care and their families, and for families with particularly difficult problems.