“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 potentially 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.
Why There Are NO Words
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.
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.”
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.”
Use Your Body to Heal
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.
Drawing upon Creativity
The story that we cannot tell – haunts us but never helps us.
Car accident photo available from Shutterstock.
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From Psych Central's website:
Creative Expression and EMDR to Deal With Trauma, PTSD and Abuse | The Creative Mind (September 11, 2012)
Last reviewed: 16 Mar 2012