nightmares Articles

The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Change the Legacy

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

family story of traumaWhether in the past or the present, a traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it the violent loss of a child, the devastation from natural disaster, the injury of a combat vet or the suicide of a family member, trauma assaults the lives of all family members and the legacy they share.

How Does a Family Cope?

One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened.”

All families engage in story telling. Around the dinner table, in car pools, at holidays, in the middle of the night, family members share the day-to-day experiences of big and small events in their lives. Through the stories they tell, families create the fabric of their life and their legacy.

Why is it Difficult for Families to Speak About Trauma?

  • Families have a difficult time speaking about traumatic events because traumatic events assault the fabric of family life.
  • They are unexpected events that threaten, injure, and take the life that was known and the people that were loved.
  • They leave family members overwhelmed, frightened, angry, haunted with images, self-blaming, and bereft.
  • They are beyond what family members can physically and emotionally comprehend.
  •  Traumatic events feel “beyond words”.

Family Protection Through Silence and Avoidance

Given this impact of trauma, the inclination of many family members is to protect each other by not speaking about the trauma.In an effort to spare others from more pain, prevent the stirring of feelings, avoid contaminating with traumatic memories, or burdening the family with grief, both adults and children disavow history, deny feelings and often avoid connection. The myth is that “if we don’t talk about it we can live beyond it.”

Historically we know that the opposite is true. As  trauma expert, Cathy Caruth says, trauma “will out” in one way or another in spite of being silenced or denied. What can’t be said must be carried and acted out.


You Needed Last Night’s Dream: Research and Re-thinking

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Whereas there is increasing recognition of the importance of sleep, there is less awareness that one of the reasons we need to sleep is that we need to dream.

Even though you may not remember them, you dream several times a night.  In a typical lifetime, we spend about six years dreaming.

Throughout time and across cultures man has ascribed importance to dreams. Recognized for his seminal contribution of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud considered dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. According to him, dreams represented instinctual aggressive and sexual drives pressing for discharge. Disguised by the primary process of symbols, displacements and condensations, the dream was believed to represent hidden instinctual wish fulfillment.

While dreamers still make important use of the metaphors and symbolic representations in their dreams, the royal road has been expanded and repaved.

Evolving psychological theory and research from Brain Science reveal that well beyond wish fulfillment, we need and use dreams in the organization of data, the consolidation of memory, the integration of skills and the regulation of psychological functioning.

Matt Wilson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells us “ Dreaming is a process, and not only is it useful, it may be essential for making sense of the world.”

Important in understanding the function of dreams are the new findings on sleep cycles:

  • Early dream studies had found that at those times when sleepers were deeply asleep with muscle tone at zero, they were exhibiting rapid eye movement (REM). When awakened, they reported dreaming. This was termed REM Sleep.
  • We now understand that most people sleep in 90 minute cycles in which they descend from light sleep, stage 1, without rapid eye movements (non-REM) to deep non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4, also known as “slow-wave sleep”), then begin a return journey; but don’t quite make it. Just before waking, we enter REM sleep after which we repeat the cycle four or five times a night.
  • Lab studies reveal that we have dreams in both phases of sleep and that non-REM dreams and REM dreams actually serve different functions.

The …


“The Hunger Games”: Some Suggestions For Parents

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The new film, “The Hunger Games,” based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, has outstripped Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax as the top grossing film this year. Perhaps because it is based on a young adult novel written in the voice of a 16-year-old heroine with many young fans, it earned a MPAA rating of PG-13 despite considerable violence. As such, there has been concern about its impact on the millions of teens who will be viewing it.

Research studies have demonstrated both an increase in aggression and desensitization to violence by children and teens viewing many hours of violence in TV shows, interactive games and films. Longitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental studies have all confirmed this correlation.

In “ The Hunger Games” what is of particular concern is that the violence is lethal violence of children against children, an activity portrayed as “games.”

The Role of Parents

As parents you can best mediate the impact of what your children have seen or are viewing if you are “media literate” i.e. – you know what your children and teens are exposed to. Accordingly, if your teens have seen or are going to see “The Hunger Games,” it makes sense for you to see it. If necessary, see it separately.


Transforming Trauma: From No Words To Your Words

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

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.


The Death of Bin Laden: Looking Backwards to Heal Forwards

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

feelings about Bin Laden's deathThe news of Bin Laden’s death has erupted on national and international levels in a mix of feelings. Attached to the thrill of justice served and military courage recognized are shadows of fear and the pain of catastrophic loss.

For survivors and the thousands who lost so many loved ones on 9/11 this is not only long awaited news, it is a déjà vu of that September day.

Once again there are ongoing calls of condolence and remembrances, non-stop media reports, and the visceral pain of losing a Dad, a child, a partner, a firefighter, a friend, a community, and the illusion of safety.

What Does this Mean for Emotional Healing?

It Invites Revisiting:

Highly charged events like Bin Laden’s Death are quite likely to trigger traumatic memories that unlike ordinary explicit memory for daily events are encoded under fight/flight conditions in those centers of the brain dealing with sensations and emotion. They can be sequestered for years – untold, intrusive as nightmares and flashbacks, haunting but never integrated into the story of one’s life.  While this event might trigger pain, it may offer an opportunity to bear witness, to share and transform traumatic memories.


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Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP & Dianne Kane, DSW are the authors of Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress. Pick up the book today!

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