The word trauma originates from the Greek word for ‘wound.’ What wounds us as human beings and what hope do we have for healing and recovery?
What is Trauma?
The existential psychotherapists maintained that we need not suffer any particular traumatic event to be wounded. Simply being a person in the world is difficult enough. The givens of existence make it so: we have to contend with natural, social, cosmic, political and economic forces beyond our control, not least the specter of our own mortality. For good measure, there are all the other vicissitudes of life to confront, such as loss, disappointment, illness and rejection.
However, there is another sense by which we understand the word trauma:
an event/s outside the range of normal human experience that overwhelms us. Such experiences strain our coping mechanisms beyond capacity.
Often, these events involve a real or perceived threat to our being, such as the horrors of warfare, assault, natural disasters, physical and sexual abuse.
Some clinicians refer to these as ‘capital T traumas,’ whereas experiences like public shaming, verbal abuse or being emotionally invalidated as children are sometimes considered ‘small t traumas.’ Both forms of trauma can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
a distressing psychological condition characterized by hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts and memories, avoidance behaviors, emotional numbing and possibly dissociation.
Such symptoms are normal responses to abnormal circumstances.
By these definitions, every trauma involves extreme stress, but not all stressful events are traumatic. What are the distinguishing features of trauma?
The Imprint of Trauma
Hungarian-Canadian physician, author and trauma expert Dr Gabor Mate has famously said that,
‘Trauma isn’t what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.’
Unprocessed trauma can have a significant impact on our perception of ourselves, others and the world. Unprocessed trauma has also been strongly correlated with numerous medical conditions, such as autoimmune diseases and chronic pain. As many clinicians attest, it is at the heart of almost all dependency, depression and chronic anxiety. Indeed, a core premise of EQNMT’s philosophy is to view these afflictions as symptoms of trauma.
Built For Survival: Trauma and the Brain
From a neuroscientific perspective, trauma has been defined as:
Anything that changes the brain in a maladaptive way, negatively impacting our sleep, mood, relationships, work and play.
Neuroimaging suggest that trauma locks us into a state of sympathetic arousal (fight/flight/freeze response): the amygdala, the locus of threat detection in the brain, becomes hypersensitive to stress, while the hippocampus, the seat of memory, is impacted such that we may struggle to distinguish past from present. Moreover, cortisol flooding creates hyperarousal (a state in which the body's natural alarm system becomes overly sensitive and active. A person can easily become agitated, anxious, or easily startled, as their nervous system is on high alert even in non-threatening situations), and in time may also contribute to autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, insomnia, and gut and heart health issues.
Lost Connections: Trauma and the Mind
Psychologically, trauma may create a sense of disconnection from ourselves and the world, as others may be felt to be untrustworthy. We may begin to perceive the world as a hostile, dangerous place. Moreover, trauma may disconnect us from the present moment, as we react to current relationships and situations as if they’re from our past.
A ‘repetition compulsion’ may ensue, whereby we unconsciously recreate aspects of past trauma in an attempt to gain mastery and control over reality: it is always ‘better the devil we know than we don’t.’ Such intrusions from the past into the present appear more prevalent the earlier the trauma. As the poet Louis Gluck wrote:
"We see the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory."
However, the most poignant and damaging consequence of trauma may pertain to how we relate to ourselves. It is one of the great and tragic ironies of human nature that a victim of trauma should begin to adopt a shame-based view of the self.
This is especially the case with childhood trauma: as children, we need to retain a view of reality as safe and predictable. Thus, if hurt by others, we reason that it is because we are corrupt, and that if only we were good enough, we wouldn’t be hurt. This assumption of radical responsibility for the ill that befalls us may, in adulthood, devolve into ‘toxic shame’ - the iron clad conviction of our inherent worthlessness and corruption. Such a shame-based view of self is at the heart of most dependencies, treatment resistant depression and chronic anxiety secondary to trauma.
How Trauma Can Be Treated
Encouragingly, there are a variety of effective, evidence-based treatment modalities for trauma, from logo therapy, EMDR, Neuro Feedback, supportive psychoanalytic therapy, somatic therapy and mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). As many clinicians appreciate, different modalities are suitable for different people.
All successful trauma therapy has two common features:
1. Reconnection with the body and re-experiencing of somatic sensations as benign, and
2. Re-exposure to traumatic memories within a context that feels safe and validating, such that we may attach new meanings to the trauma, ourselves, others and the world.
In this sense, every trauma presents a deep psychological and philosophical conundrum, which takes the form of questions such as ‘How could this have happened? Could I have done something differently? Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to them?’
To heal, we need to arrive at possible solutions to these dilemmas by creating a map of reality that contextualizes and accounts for the trauma, so we can feel more prepared for the future. In the absence of such meaning-making, traumatic memories rarely loosen their grip on us.
Psychedelic Medicine: Potent Catalysts for Healing and Recovery from Trauma
In previous posts, we explored the neurological mechanisms of action and therapeutic conditions within which a psychedelic medicine journey takes place. How do these newly kindled brain states, profound alterations in consciousness and carefully constructed therapeutic environments help us heal from trauma?
Medicines like MDMA and Psilocybin may augment the effects of traditional therapy by:
lowering our sense of threat detection
increasing insight, and
improving social connection.
They may also facilitate mystical-type experiences of oceanic merging, whereby we feel interconnected with something far greater than ourselves. This creates the ideal neurochemical and psychological conditions for re-experiencing traumatic memories.
By feeling safe while revisiting traumatic experiences, we’re able to access novel perspectives and meanings around our trauma, as our brain has the opportunity to form new associations to distressing memories. So effective is coupling best practices in psychedelic medicine with traditional therapy, that some studies show an astonishing 88% success rate, compared to success rates of 67% and 50% for traditional talk therapy and medications such as SSRI’s respectively.
Crucially, the psychedelic journey seems to facilitate another process: the recovery of lost aspects of self. Since trauma may disconnect us from ourselves - from our self-trust and self-worth, our curiosity and our authentic self expression - many people who participate in psychedelic healing programs describe a rediscovery of lost aspects of self that have been long suppressed.
EQNMT Case Study: A Client's Experience of PTSD Recovery with Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy
A young man with chronic PTSD who joined EQNMT’s program blamed his playful, adventurous spirit for the sexual assault he experienced at the hands of a stranger as a child while on holiday in a caravan park with his family. He believed that, if only he’d been less curious and resisted the urge to explore the camping grounds, he never would have been assaulted.
As a consequence, he avoided all forms of play and creative self-expression throughout his life, for these impulses had become unconsciously associated with unbearable pain. His depression was his psyche’s compromise: safety in exchange for numbness.
As the great child psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott said:
‘A person can be normal without being alive.’
During his psychedelic journey, he had an epiphany: he was simply doing what children do - innocently and curiously explore their world. He knew this intellectually. But in the journey, he felt this truth with the force of an emotion. As tears streamed down his face, he quietly uttered the words, ‘I forgive you. I forgive you.’ Finally relinquishing blame for his trauma, he was able to recover his playful spirit and in time, with the support of integration therapy, his depression lifted.
Recovering from trauma requires us to shore up fragmented parts of ourselves and become more whole. It is an act of courage and self-love. Indeed:
While trauma is not our fault, healing is our responsibility.
And for those among us who have suffered greatly, it is worth bearing the great 20th century psychotherapist, Carl Jung’s words in mind:
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.”
DISCLAIMER: This article was written for educational purposes only, and is not intended as advice. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is not helpful or indicated for everyone, and professional, trusted advice from a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought before entering into any new form of treatment. Similarly, we advocate for the safe, legal use of psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, guided and administered by qualified professionals.
Contact us to find out whether psychedelic-assisted therapy is the right option for you.
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