Alynn Schmitt McManus, M.S.W.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
677 N. New Ballas Rd., Suite 208
St. Louis, Missouri 63141
314-432-1056; Ext #2
When Bad Things Happen to Good People:
Understanding Trauma and How We Heal
“Through working with the body and the mind, our clients learn to take up their lives, not as people who have survived terrible experiences, but who were ultimately strengthened not destroyed by them. These hard-won achievements are the definitive mark of the successful treatment of trauma-related disorders. In the words of Victor Frankl, ….“even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so, change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”
-Ogden, Minton,& Pain, 2006
What exactly happens when trauma occurs in our lives? Why do some people react one way to trauma, and others react completely differently? What can we do to change our reactions to trauma? What can we do to heal from these events if they have already gotten the better of us?
The Neurology of Trauma
As a first line of defense, it is helpful to understand what happens when we are stressed or traumatized. From here, we can then create a plan of action to re-program, or change the ways in which we cope with difficulties on our lives.
First, we must look at the brain as the major organ in our body that is responsible for the way in which we process information, or experiences in our lives. In this, the brain is not unlike a computer, in that one of its main jobs is to take in information, make some sense of it by processing it through to completion, and either discard it or store it as memory. Here is where the first problem occurs for the brain when we experience trauma. The definition of trauma is any event that occurs outside the range of normal human experience, and does not make sense. In other words, trauma is any event that is out of the ordinary, unexpected or shocking, and has no ‘rhyme or reason’ to it; it cannot be explained. Right here, the brain’s ability to take in this information and make sense of it is de-railed. Simply put, when trauma occurs, the brain is unable to do its job.
A No-Win Situation for the Brain and the Body
A second challenge occurs here for the brain as well: When we experience trauma, we are emotionally overwhelmed. Our heart is racing, our breathing is erratic, we are flooded with
emotion. At this point, the brain is on information-processing overload; there is much more
information coming in than the brain can process, and most of this information makes no sense. This is why it is very common for people to report that they ‘shut down’, or simply don’t remember what happened to them in the midst of a trauma.
At this point, the brain climbs on a “hamster wheel”. The brain continues to try to analyze the experience by re-playing the trauma over and over again, in an attempt to make some sense of it. Many times, this will occur at night, during dream-state sleep. The trap intensifies for the brain: No matter how hard or how many times the brain goes over the traumatic event, it just doesn’t make any sense. There is no possibility of closure for the brain.
Fundamentally, the brain is trapped. Trapped with lots of unanswered questions, supercharged with emotions of the original trauma, emotions that intensify as we continuously re-live the events. We feel overwhelmed and we don’t know why. We cry for no reason. We have angry outbursts with no real trigger. We feel anxious and can’t sleep; or we sleep way too much. We can’t concentrate. And perhaps it’s been years since the trauma occurred. “What is wrong with me?”, we ask ourselves. We feel helpless and out of control.
Stories as Solutions
Healing begins in the understanding of this neurology. Healing begins in the form of unraveling the story of the trauma, the feelings about the trauma, and the negative beliefs about ourselves that we have adopted in an effort to make some sense of the pain. As a way for the brain to try to find some closure to the trauma, it is very common to decide that the trauma must have happened to us because we are bad in some way; we must have deserved it; it must be our ‘karma’. Our brain settles on a story, usually about ourselves, in an effort to close the issue and move on. These stories, especially if created in our childhood, become our truths about ourselves; the way in which we define ourselves. Because most of these stories have unhappy themes and unhappy endings in our minds, it is no wonder we feel so bad.
But There Can Be a Happy Ending to the Story
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a client-centered therapeutic approach that offers direct intervention into the neurology of trauma, giving the brain a “foot-hold” for healing. By accessing the parts of the brain responsible for storing and maintaining the trauma and negative beliefs, or stories we have adopted, EMDR can begin to unlock and reprocess these faulty beliefs and problematic emotions that keep us stuck. Developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR calls upon our own inherent healing mechanisms to change the way in which we look at the traumatic experiences that we have survived, and therefore changes how we feel about them. Much research and many theories have been dedicated to understanding this healing phenomenon.
I have been certified since 1998 as an EMDR practitioner, complementing over 20 years of direct clinical practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker/Psychotherapist. I continue to train in EMDR and related psycho-biological interventions to bring my clients the cutting edge treatment available for optimal well being.
I have been honored to witness the path of healing for so many courageous, remarkable people in my practice.
I look forward to your questions, and I thank you for your referrals.