Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Complex PTSD is complicated and survivors are poorly understood by themselves and others. That's why this series unpacks the science behind why these well-meaning memes are biologically impossible for many trauma survivors and can cause more shame. Part 1 challenged the well-meaning meme, "Trauma wasn't your fault but healing is your responsibility" by describing how it can backfire in those who are extra fragile and just trying to stay alive. Now, let's unpack how other well meaning memes can shame survivors.
Let Go - Let it Go
A key but little known fact is that trauma is stored in an altered, frozen state in the subconscious mind and tissues of the body. In essence, "The Body Remembers," a book by the world's premier trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, describes how working with body-memory is key to recovery. Other trauma recovery experts have described the same thing using the word "frozen" to describe this how the trauma gets locked in.
"Traumatic or life-threatening experiences are stored in an altered, frozen state and can effect daily life through chronic pain, illness, dissociation or addiction."
Levine, 1997; Pert, 1997; Pugh, 1994; Rothschild, 2000; Scaer, 2008
An Example of how the Body Remembers
In the 1911 a French physician, Dr. Clapardede, did an experiment with an alzheimer's-type patient who was unable to recall even moments before. One day he placed a tack inside his palm and shook her hand. As expected, she naturally recoiled from the pin prick. The next time he met her, he extended his arm to shake her hand and she began to extend hers before pulling her arm back. She refused to shake his hand but could not say why. This is a powerful example of how the subconscious mind and somatic tissues of the body remember to protect us...especially from painful or traumatic events.
Telling someone with unhealed childhood trauma to relax is maddening to them because they want nothing more! But relaxing doesn't compute with their body-mind's long memory of learning to keeps all systems of protection wound up. Excessive stress hormones create constriction and bring the shoulders up around the neck. The entire body-mind is perpetually waiting for something bad to happen. The body feels clutched - a physical feeling of bracing yourself for trouble like a kid being called to the principal's office. The clutched feeling creates tension throughout the body known as body-armoring. The excess circulating stress hormones create inflammation that lock people in a fear-pain loop that shows up as chronic pain syndromes, fibromyalgia and other chronic inflammatory illnesses.
"Let Go" & "Just Relax" Takeaways:
The body remembers - The trauma is frozen in the past.
It's impossible to simply decide to "let go" - these are biological processes.
Body-armoring - is a longstanding body memory of being wound.
Stress hormones - perpetuate inflammation and create a fear-pain loop.
Stay tuned for free life-hacks - how to begin to release body armoring and break the fear-pain loop.
A trauma survivor's nervous system thinks that the past trauma is ever present and remains on-guard to threats in the frozen state of past trauma. People may not realize they're doing it at all but many will reveal feeling hypervigilent by saying that they're "always waiting to exhale" or "waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Other survivors of troubled childhoods learned to "go away" as a coping skill to distract or detach from traumatic events. This is a key concept because kids can't usually run away or numb with drugs and alcohol. It's a brilliant coping mechanism but when chronic, this "going away," called dissociation, literally wires the developing brain for distraction. The protective and coping mechanisms of scanning the environment for threats coupled with learning to "go away" make it impossible to stay present, so many survivors are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
"Staying Present" Takeaways:
The needed protective and coping skills of many survivors make it impossible to simply decide to stay present.
1 - They can't be present while locked in the past - these are biological processes
2 - Always on guard - The body-mind is on the look-out for danger; not what's actually happening.
3 - Wired for distraction - People who chronically needed to "go away" as a child often have memory impairments, difficulty focusing and become diagnosed with ADD/ADHD.
Fortunately, much of this can be reversed. Self-compassion and compassion for survivors is crucial to encourage healing through understanding and acceptance instead memes pushing impossible platitudes. See "3 Ways Shaming Forgiveness Backfires in Trauma Survivors" for real-world examples that generate understanding, appreciation and compassion in survivors and those who would shame them.
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Breaking the Chain of Generational Trauma - Together we Rise!