The fact that traumatic experiences are encoded and stored differently in the brain explains why we can sometimes know things intellectually (in our head, in our logical brain), but we feel something entirely different (in our sensory responses and in our emotional brain).
We may know intellectually that a person isn’t responsible for the death of a loved one, or for a family member’s addiction. But, placed in the same circumstance ourselves, we somehow feel at fault, regardless of people attempting to “reason” us out of that conclusion. “Basically, no matter how intelligent or spiritual or experienced or educated we are, the memories can simply be stored in the wrong form of memory” (Shapiro, 2004, p. xiv), where any amount of verbal reassurances fail to make the memory feel any less powerful or painful.
So, what actually works when it comes to healing trauma? Generally, there is no single approach that fits everybody; instead, we focus on the brain’s own natural ability to change and grow.
According to trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk, there are three fundamental avenues that help people feel fully alive in the present & move on in their lives:
- Process memories of the trauma – by allowing ourselves to know, understand and talk about what is going on with us, while (re-) connecting with others and monitoring the body’s sensations. Specifically, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and EMDR are helpful.
- Shut down inappropriate alarm reactions and change the way the brain organizes information – by taking certain medication or by specific brain exercises known as neurofeedback.
- Recalibrate the autonomic nervous system – by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that resulted from trauma. Breath, movement (exercise or dance), or touch (massage) are helpful.
Later in this series, we’ll move on to discuss signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of a trauma, plus a more thorough discussion of how EMDR can help address and heal the part of the brain where these traumatic experiences or memories are stored.
Written by: Mindy Pierce