By Bethany Roberts, LISW, Psychiatric Associates
Trauma can have a profound impact on the mind, body and spirit of survivors. It can leave those in its path feeling unsafe on a level that goes beyond a way of thinking and into a deeper, sensory level of uneasiness throughout the body.
Trauma can also cause a tidal wave of disconnection. Disconnection from life before, disconnection from people who didn’t experience it or don’t seem to understand, disconnection from your own body.
But survival is the strongest biological instinct. And it’s possible to rebuild structural changes that happen in the body and find reconnection by processing the past and embodying the present—so you can live fully right now.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that resides in the body. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the brain activates stress hormones. This increases heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen intake to prepare for fight or flight.
If an individual is trapped or unable to escape a threat, the natural mechanisms for survival can remain activated long after the threat itself has passed. This persistent sense of fight, flight, freeze or collapse makes living in the present moment extremely difficult.
This is not a choice, a way of thinking or a sign of weakness. It is a physiological change to the structure of the brain and body. If the nervous system acts as though it’s threatened all the time, developing a sense of safety and well-being is challenging at its best and impossible at its worst.
As a result, individuals who experience PTSD symptoms can be left with a deep-seated belief: “I am broken. I am flawed. I am bad. I am not safe."
PTSD is commonly associated with combat veterans. This makes sense, of course, because they face the threat of enemies, bodily harm, loss of comrades and the fight for survival under unbelievable conditions.
However, there is a vastness to PTSD that’s often overlooked. There are battles being fought in our communities that can cause the same symptoms—flashbacks, emotional shut-down, hyper-vigilance and nightmares.
PTSD is not limited to one type or severity of trauma. There are many life-threatening experiences that can trigger a trauma response: accidents, natural disasters, assaults, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, sexual violence, serious illnesses and many others.
Retraining the brain and body
As a therapist, I have learned so much about the human capacity to heal and prevail through unthinkable circumstances. I have seen the beauty of human resiliency, and I have witnessed transformation through the use of evidence-based practices.
There is a broad body of research that demonstrates the ability to retrain the brain’s and body’s responses to traumatic memories. Knowing that trauma responses are stored in the body means that we can focus the healing energy on the body rather than the mind. The goal is to create a sense of safety and allow the nervous system to return to a state of calm.
Just like the sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for fight, flight or freeze, we have a parasympathetic nervous system that prepares for relaxation and pleasure. This system can be activated by doing yoga, taking three deep breaths, focusing on the breath, tensing and relaxing muscles intentionally and methodically head to toe.
Using mindfulness to retrain the brain and engage the parasympathetic nervous system can help to reinstate the bodily belief that we are safe—so the fight, flight response can go offline.
EMDR therapy for PTSD
Practicing mindfulness and developing self-regulation skills for trauma responses can create a sense of safety within your body that allows you to revisit and reprocess the traumatic memory in a healthy way. This can be done using a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
EMDR doesn’t require you to talk about the details of the traumatic incident. Instead, it uses the body’s natural healing abilities by integrating left brain and right brain to gain a new understanding of the incident.
This left-brain/right-brain integration happens through bilateral stimulation. With the guidance of a therapist, you might tap both sides of the body, for example, or move your eyes left to right to activate both sides of the brain.
When both sides of the brain are working together, the left brain can provide language for the experience that was only a “felt” sense living in the right brain—frozen in time. Going through the feelings of the experience while keeping the logical part of the brain activated allows a healthy narrative of the events to emerge and occur on a deeper, bodily level of knowing.
I can feel that I am safe now. I am in control. I am okay. I survived!
Reprocessing the event with this sense of safety and resiliency decreases the body’s response to the memories. It also increases a sense of empowerment—knowing you got through the pain from the past and you can live your life in the present moment now.
While there is trauma all around and the impacts are severe and life-altering, healing is possible. As Bessel van der Kolk, MD (a best-selling author and researcher who studies how children and adults adapt to traumatic experiences), says, “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another.”
Humans are incredibly resilient. In the same way our bodies have the ability to heal from broken bones, lacerations, tumors and disease with the assistance of leading-edge care, we have the capacity to heal emotional wounds—through connection with others, regaining control of our nervous system and creating a new way of viewing ourselves and the world through the lens of recovery.
Life after trauma is not about returning to life before trauma. It is about re-entering life with a new sense of strength, courage, meaning and purpose.
If you or someone you love is suffering from PTSD, we can help. Call Psychiatric Associates at 319-356-6352, or use our online form to request an appointment in our Iowa City office or our North Liberty office.
Bethany Roberts, LISW
Bethany is a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW). She treats adults who have experienced trauma, anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder, as well as individuals struggling with life transitions. Therapy treatments may include Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Internal Family Systems (IFS), among others.