A crash course in healing from trauma

By Diana Somerville

When my daughter stopped for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, someone rear-ended her car. An everyday occurrence — statistically, there’s an accident every 15 seconds — and, in terms of damage to her car, Kelmie’s accident was minor. Yet her journey toward recovery has brought us a new understanding of how trauma impacts our bodies — and our lives.

A massage therapist for more than 10 years, Kelmie had worked at a center specializing in accident rehabilitation; she knew about whiplash and crash injuries. But after months of treatment with medical and body work specialists, nothing helped for long. Intense pain in her neck, arms, shoulders and lower back forced her to give up the work she loved. Plagued with nausea, blinding migraines and startling outbursts of anger, “I feel like a complete wreck,” she sobbed.

Anxious, confused and unable to sleep, Kelmie was overwhelmed by the challenges of single motherhood when her son’s behavior zoomed out of control. His fits of anger, screaming and defiance were hard, but Kelmie felt helplessness descend when the energetic 5-year-old began tripping and tackling her. He had been in the car crash, too.

Swamped by a sense of dread and doom, she found a therapist to puzzle out their complex emotional and neurological symptoms. The therapist recommended “Crash Course:  A Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma and Recovery,” by Diane Poole Heller and Laurence Heller.

I wondered, how did a simple fender-bender create such a tangle of injuries that seem to defy treatment? I called the Hellers at Rocky Mountain Psychotherapy Associates in Denver.

“We tend to think that if there were no broken bones, then you shouldn’t have a strong reaction,” Laurence Heller said. “The cultural message is that in six moths or a year you should be over it and get on with things.” But the nervous system has its own logic.

Who would expect being rear-ended while stopped at a crosswalk would create a serious trauma. Photo by Andrew Bossi, via Wikimedia Commons.

When threatened we have three biologically-based responses:  fight, flight or freeze. These “survival modes,” regulated by the instinctive or “reptilian” part of our brains, flood our nervous systems with adrenaline and other neurochemicals and mobilize huge amounts of kinetic energy. Unaffected by logic, the primitive brain has one mission:  to insure our survival.

“Our own body knows what to do when we’re not overwhelmed,” Laurence says.  But if our natural, easy flow of charge and discharge is interrupted, our nervous systems are de-stabilized, and we’re stuck in survival mode. The resulting physical and emotional symptoms “are definitely not in your head.”  Months afterwards, seemingly unrelated side effects — depression, disorientation, weight gain, marital or sexual problems — may appear.

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our capacity to cope. The good news is that recovering from trauma is a normal process — completing the sequences essentially “hard wired” into our bodies. The bad news:  Cognitive therapy can’t get the process back on track because it’s controlled by the reptilian brain, beyond the reach of the conscious mind.

Humans and animals share similar instinctive systems. But creatures in the wild, though constantly threatened, don’t suffer from anything like Post Traumatic Stress.

A bird that flies into a window will fall to the ground, lie still, then shake and tremble before flying away.  A dog nicked by a car may stagger across the road, collapse, shake and tremble, and then get up and walk away. A possum’s first instinct is to freeze and play dead until the danger is past. Collapsing, shaking and trembling allow the animals to discharge the flood of kinetic and neurochemical energy.

Looking at how animals behave, Peter Levine began a quiet revolution in trauma healing, developing a technique called Somatic Experiencing, which he detailed in “Waking The Tiger:  Healing Trauma.” His training program in Somatic Experiencing and a series of audio tapes is transforming the way we treat trauma, say a number of professionals.

We’re different from animals because we can override our instincts with the rational part of our brains. But we pay a cost for blocking our discharge responses. Consciously, we may believe we’re “over it,” we’re not afraid, but our traumatized biological systems can’t really calm down.

Stuck in survival mode means that our nervous system is like an accelerator pressed against the floorboard while our rational mind is slamming on the brakes full force.

No wonder exhaustion is a common response to a trauma. Another result is that we lose our capacity to orient to the world around us in a nonstressful way. Consequently, our driving skills are less easily available after a crash.  We’ll tend to over focus on tailgaters. We don’t do normal things like hitting our brake lights. Traumatized, we may unconsciously blank out areas in our visual fields.

In 1989 Diane Heller trained in Somatic Experiencing, and Laurence completed the training  a few years later. It wasn’t a big part of their practice — until Diane was in a head-on collision shortly before their wedding.  She developed the auto accident recovery program detailed in “Crash Course.” Different from traditional therapy, it’s written for people who have been in accidents and know they’re still suffering — or those who may not realize how they’ve been injured.

Even efforts made with the best intentions can keep nature from taking its course. Strapping you down may stabilize back or neck injuries, but it also stops your body from the trembling and shaking that are a part of the body’s discharge sequence. The hullabaloo around an accident — sirens, flashing lights, crackling radios, bullhorns — feed our sense of fear. The demand for details from police, ambulance drivers and hospital staff forces you into rational mode.

Then there’s retelling. After any trauma, it seems natural to ask, “What happened?” But in terms of healing our nervous systems, it’s the wrong question. “Whether it’s an assault, an accident or an avalanche, we don’t need to relate the experience,” Laurence says. Retelling everything in sequence essentially forces you to re-experience the trauma. Far more helpful is simply to ask, “When did you first  feel safe after the incident?”

Traumas swamp us with too much happening too fast. The result is a sort of energetic logjam that swamps our nervous system. Loosening the logjam doesn’t require touching every log. You need only move a few on the edges to get the flow restored.  Remembering what safety feels like reconnects us to our body and provides a gentle way to move a log or two.

Crime, rape, assaults and natural disasters are equally traumatic, evoking the same biologically-based responses, the Hellers say. Their own experiences keep drawing them into traumas in surprising ways. The Columbine shootings happened in their neighborhood, and Diane helped. A videotape of her work, “Columbine:  Surviving the Trauma,” aired internationally on CNN. It’s become an educational tool.

Laurence took the tape to a training session in Germany when that country experienced its own school shooting.  By some strange serendipity, he was in New York City — to teach health professionals how to work with the aftermath of trauma — on Sept. 11, 2000.

Learn More:

“Crash Course: A Self-Healing Guide To Auto Accident Trauma & Recovery,” by Diane Pool Heller, Ph.D. and Laurence S. Heller, Ph.D., North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2001. Website: http://www.traumasolutions.com

“Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma,” by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. Atlantic Books, Berkley1997. Website: http://www.traumahealing.com. His tapes are available through Sounds True in Boulder, Colo.

“The Body Bears The Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease,” by Robert C. Scaer, MD., Haworth Medical Press, New York, 2001

Foundation for Human Enrichment- Trauma Healing Short-term naturalistic approach to the resolution and healing of trauma. http://www.traumahealing.com


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A freelance writer who lives near Olympic National Park in a house overlooking the Salish Sea, I'm nourished by Mother Nature and enjoy exploring the places where science, spirit, and story come together. Part science geek, part spiritual feminist, part Earth-loving tree-hugger, I continue learning the many ways that how we think and what we believe helps shape our world. Quantum physics shows us that our personal energy is too often overlooked as force for positive change; indigenous wisdom leads us to connect with all beings in a good way. I've told the research stories of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado, Boulder, and contributed regular columns for newspapers in Boulder, Colo., Sequim and Port Angeles Washington.

One thought on “A crash course in healing from trauma”

  1. This thorough, succinct piece traces a remarkably wide spectrum of healing from trauma, and doesn’t stint on explanations. At the same time, its clear, well-written structure doesn’t overwhelm with what could easily be scientific terms and conditions lost in translation. Thank you for demystifying this all-too-common circumstance with clarity, and offering gentle tools and resources.

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