Storm. John Kyffin Williams.1960. Wikioo.
“When someone is going through a storm, your silent presence is more powerful than a million, empty words.”
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis
This first quote is full of wisdom, for it emphasises the value of an empathic silence.
So many people who are with others experiencing trauma resort to “empty words” or meaningless phrases.
They do not know what to say, as, understandably, being with those who are going through stormy times is difficult.
However, the very act of ‘being with,’ rather than rushing into ‘doing,’ is a great gift. Such silences speak volumes about a person’s ability to really empathise with the needs of others.
“Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”
Once we have been there with another, waiting in an atmosphere of quiet, containing empathy, then, in time, words generally emerge out of the silence, words that feel appropriate and congruent.
Trauma. Yolanda Feindura. 2003. Wikioo
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
Bessell Van Der Kolk.
This inspiring writer on trauma powerfully expresses the way in which a traumatised person feels uncomfortable in their body.
The body stores memories, which may not be available to consciousness; yet, persistently, such memories return in the form of physical sensation and pain.
This can, understandably, be very distressing and disturbing for the trauma survivor.
As Van der Kolk describes, numbing the body and ignoring the pain becomes a necessary coping mechanism for some who are feeling too terrified to understand or face what is happening.
Tension. Morris Cantor. 1946. Wikioo.
“Many trauma survivors hold their breath and their bodies tightly, bracing themselves for whatever is coming next.
Staying alert for years takes a toll.
Create spaces where you can take your armour off.”
Dr Thema.(On Twitter)
This quotation develops the theme of the previous quote, about the effects of trauma on the body.
Many traumatised people are in a perpetual state of vigilance.
They have very exaggerated startle responses, often jumping or looking shocked and afraid when there are relatively mild outside stimuli, but obviously intense inner ones.
A noise or a sudden movement can trigger great alarm and anxiety.
These responses are to echoes from the past, revivified in the present, and they do indeed create tension and stress.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze – Fear, Expression Head. Wikimedia Commons
Being able to relax is not easy, and muscles become rigid and painful, sometimes from years of holding them tense in constant anticipation of further trauma.
The hope is, as the writer of the quote points out, that the survivor will find, or create, safer places in which this uncomfortable defensive ‘armour’ may be put down for a while.
Such places can be, for example, somewhere we might go for therapy, bodily treatments, or trauma-informed yoga.
Alternatively, a safe haven could be at an empathic friend’s house, or a quiet place in the countryside, or a special, calming room.
It is also important to remember the wise words of Winnicott at this point:
‘The catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.’
Winnicott is referring to the fact that those who have been abused in the past may feel afraid in the present, but in reality, these current fears are a memory.
In some cases, such as child abuse, this is often quite an early memory, a re-experiencing of the past in the present.
This is indicated by, amongst other symptoms, hyper-vigilance, withdrawal into the self, agitation, body-memories, and utter terror.
It may feel as though such feelings are relevant to now, but it is often helpful to locate the trauma where it belongs, in the past.
Obviously, this can only be done when, and if, the survivor is ready, and has the ego-strength to remember, and to begin to realise that the trauma they are fearing actually happened in the past.
Then, they were lost, unprotected and perhaps without the adult strength and power they have now.
For refugees from recent or current war, it may take a long time to process the fact that they are safe now.
PTSD, including flashbacks, desperate fear of attack and hypervigilance, can still be with them long after they have left the area and time of the fighting.
Memory – Frida Kahlo. Wikioo.
Wounded Bird. Morris Kantor. 1946. Wikioo.
“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”
Laurell K. Hamilton
Psychological pain is often invisible to another person.
Although we may pick up signs that the person is troubled, we cannot really know what is happening in their inner world, unless they choose to share this.
Even then, it is very difficult to communicate the extent of such deep and desperate pain.
Reaching into their painful world, as a therapist, with great care and sensitivity, is important. Most often, traumatised survivors feel locked in and emotionally paralysed by their experiences and their memories.
Healing (Protection) Clare Galloway. 2000. Wikioo.
“Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.”
Bessel A. van der Kolk
I end this post on a definite note of hope.
The words above underline the fact that the self of those who have been traumatised can survive fairly intact, protected by the resilient defences of the survivor.
The Flame (Goddess of Fire)1896 – Odilon Redon. Wikioo.
“Just because we are soft
doesn’t mean the there aren’t flames
within us that rise
a thousand miles above.”
With therapeutic help, the protective coping mechanisms, the heavy ‘armour,’ may no longer be needed, so that the ‘essence’ of the person can reveal itself, healed and free.
Open Doorway, Morocco – John Singer Sargent. Wikioo.
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