Published on January 20, 2020
Written by Janelle Koop, MSW practicum student
Think about the last time you got a small cut on your hand. For a while that small little cut had the capacity to hold your full attention. Over time, before you knew it, with some gentle care and protection, it healed and your hand was back to regular functioning. Had you put dirt in the wound, or cut yourself again on top of it, it would not have healed at the same rate, and may have been considerably more painful.
When wounds are deeper than that small cut, or when they are psychological wounds, we can tend to forget that our body and brain wants to and has the capacity to heal. We seek answers from medical professionals, counsellors and psychologists, the internet, friends and family, which can be very helpful and necessary, yet we can still, at times, resign ourselves to the fact that we are not going to heal. We can lose faith, and stop trusting that when we respond with care, discipline, nurture, and trust, our bodies and brains have the ability to heal the bigger injuries as well.
Traumatic events, big and small, can cause deep wounding and have the ability to hold an enormous grip on someone’s life, impacting the brain and body’s health.
What we have seen with the Traumatic Stress Recovery Group (TSRP) at DRG, is that healing from trauma is possible and can be a gentler process than we sometimes expect it to be. When people with PTSD are in an environment where they are able to give themselves the compassion and care they need, just as that wound on the hand heals, so can the body and brain heal after trauma.
Trauma and the brain:
When trauma has occurred, the brain’s functioning can be altered in significant ways. The fear center in the brain (Amygdala) tends to be over-activated, always on the lookout for danger and hyper-alert to any signals that there might be a threat to their safety. In this state, the brain becomes disorganized and overwhelmed. We stop digesting food, adrenaline and cortisol come rushing in, blood rushes to our large muscle groups to help us act quickly, and our body becomes inflamed. We are less able to think clearly, our language and memory structures are compromised, and we are in survival mode.
For people with PTSD and anxiety, this fear response happens whether the danger is real, or whether we believe the danger is there when actually there is none. It is the body’s alarm and survival mechanism but often kicks in when it is not needed – when the danger is in our head, rather than in reality. We think we’re in danger, which is enough to trigger our body to react or freeze.
The protective fear response our body has can also be helpful in assisting us to survive real danger. For instance, fear is helpful when it warns us of danger and helps us avoid a dangerous situation.
A traumatized brain is regularly in the fight, flight, freeze state. In response to this, and in order to find lasting healing, it is essential to increase the body and brains exposure to moments of calm, reward, pleasure, and joy. In order to gain more access to the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain), therapeutic interventions should include calming the nervous system, bringing oxygen and blood flow back into the brain and body. A leading psychiatrist in the trauma field, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, states that “Traditionally, we’ve tried to heal PTSD through talking and making meaning of the event, but treatment methods that help calm arousal systems in the deeper regions of the brain have been helpful in calming PTSD more than those that try to do so through talking and reasoning”.
In Part 2, we will explore the variety of evidence based interventions used in the Traumatic Stress Recovery Program (TSRP) to help individuals with PTSD on their healing journey.