Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Our Trauma Epidemic

I recently listened to a podcast that featured Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading experts on Trauma who founded the Trauma Center in Boston, about the impacts of trauma on the human body (podcast available at I was surprised to learn that he himself grew up with a great deal of trauma. Bessel grew up in the Netherlands during WWII and had an abusive father who would lock him and his siblings in the basement for hours at a time. So not only is he an expert because of studies but he also lives what he teaches. He started the podcast by explaining how trauma effects the brain and the impact of prolonged exposure to fear or isolation. He described the importance of agency or the need to feel like you are in charge of life and can change how you feel. If this isn't present than you can "get stuck" in trauma which leads to people becoming passive and giving up. Initially people can fight against what's going on but if trauma persists or the trauma is never processed then it can eventually lead to feeling like your lack of control will never change. Continual states of fear change the brain so that it gets stuck in the fight or flight mode. You develop a "terrified brain" that has trouble turning the fear off and reacts in a panic instead of being able to logically process situations. Bessel also described Developmental Trauma's impact on children, which is a result of children enduring neglect and abuse from caregivers. It presents itself through a child's inability to connect with others, an inability to manage emotions like anger or anxiety, and an inability to love or care about themselves. These children are often given labels like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Bipolar Disorder instead of getting help repairing the trauma brain that's developed. Children who experience a great deal of trauma are also more likely to die sooner or develop severe illnesses (like heart disease, autoimmune disease, skeletal problems, etc.). Long term stress on the body is clearly very harmful. "Trauma sits in our body" and that's where the damage can be found.

The interviewer of Bessel read off some of the statistics he'd gathered from Bessels work that focused on the prevalence of trauma in the United States. He read "..1 in 4 woman are violently assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, that half a million kids are on anti-psychotic drugs, that 1 in 5 people are sexually molested, billions in government spending on anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and anti-anxiety medications for military personnel..." Bessel added to those stats by saying statistics on gun deaths are incredibly high and the number of women killed by their partners has surpassed the number of people killed in military operations since 2001. He stressed the need to acknowledge that trauma exists for thousands of people around the country. If we put on our blinders then the trauma will continue to build up in our society. This led to a discussion about the legacy of trauma; how it's passed from one generation to the next because no one stops the cycle of trauma on a societal level and if individuals don't address it in their personal lives it then effects their children. Not addressing trauma not only effects the person who experienced the trauma but the people around them and can lead to further traumas to all who are involved.

Not only is there a huge amount of individual trauma in society but generational and cultural trauma heavily exist as well. I started thinking about this type of trauma a month ago, after the Orlando nightclub shooting, and have been reminded again of it's presence with the history of violence and distrust between police and African Americans that we're witnessing around the nation. Certain groups of people have experienced a lifetime of fear and trauma that goes back centuries. Gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals have lived with a great deal of traumatic fear since the start of time; fear of people finding out, a fear of not being accepted, fear of not being loved for who they are. That fear turns into reality through traumatic events when people experience physical or verbal abuse because of their sexual orientation.  Either way, the long term trauma can take a toll on a individuals and communities. African Americans and American Indians have lived with a history of injustices and continue to live in fear. The history of slavery and persecution of people along with the current culture of racism continues the legacy of trauma for many people. Trauma has turned into an epidemic in our culture; both on an individual level and a cultural level.

In some ways. people in the United States are more susceptible to experiencing long term effects of trauma. Outside of the fact that a lot of trauma exists in our society, we also struggle with a "mind-body disconnect" which stunts our ability to cope with trauma and causes us to get stuck. In other parts of the world, they've mastered the art of helping the body cope with trauma through things like yoga and meditation which focuses on a mind-body awareness. Having the mind-body connection helps the individual notice what's going on instead of relying on the immediate reaction to guide what they do next. Eventually the body slows down and repairs the reactive mind. They've learned that being in tune with your body can help you be a more balanced person which in turn helps the trauma mind re-learn how to function outside of that "terrified brain" mode. Other cultures are also better at identifying and talking about trauma which is an important part of healing. We often feel that addressing trauma is a sign of weakness or makes us uncomfortable so we avoid listening to other people's experiences. This builds a culture of shame which keeps people silent because they fear other people's reactions to their experience. Trauma becomes a hidden secret and further widens the mind-body gap. Talking about the trauma in a supported environment (like therapy) can get rid of this shame and brings the pain out into the open so healing can begin. Often times this doesn't happen for people and they sit with their pain a lone even though so many people live with the effects of trauma every day. If we want to change the trauma epidemic in our communities can learn from other culture's experiences and start building the mind-body connection while also encouraging discussion and processing of trauma in safe environments. Bessel is very good at explaining the effects of trauma in a way that's easy to understand and talks more about ways of combating trauma in many of his books and articles. I highly recommend listening to the podcast, hearing him lecture in person, or reading some of his material if you're interested in learning more.
Thoughts by Alissa Kaasa

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