Sunday, February 23, 2014


After trauma, the brain is permanently changed, injured, I n a way that is noticeably altered from past habits, and often in a way that is intrusive, unwelcome, and troubling.

Memories are not some sort of magic. There is no "cloud" for the human brain from which I download what I want to recall.

Memories are a result of physical changes in the brain...a particular arrangement of neurons, or weighted chemical pathways, but none the less physically real.

Whenever something huge and traumatic happens, my brain does its best to record it, or mask it, so that I will tend to survive the current event, and a reoccurrence, if it ever happens again. The triggers for creating such "unforgettable" tendencies are probably a complex coordination of sensory input, endocrine activity, inherited nature, and past conditioning/ learning.

The point is, the changes are a real, physical characteristic of me.

If someone has a scar on their arm, chanting lovely stories of rainbows and kittens does not make the scar go away. No amount of encouragement or love makes the scar go away. Scars can be accommodated, adapted to, acknowledged, and new functionality can be found, but some trace is always there. A new configuration of the person.

Similarly, mental scars probably cannot be "cured" with any amount of happy, positive thinking. But, with realistic acceptance they can be accommodated, adapted to, and new functionality can be found.

This is not a nihilistic point of view. People with great external scars, e.g., missing limbs, can go on to live full, productive, capable lives, but they do not get there by trying to wish away their scar, but rather acknowledging it, and pressing on with a sense of practicality. Some of the scar can be worked around, but other bits are a new baseline from which they can proceed in a new but different fullness.

I should remember this when I am embarrassed by how troubled I feel, or in dealing with other troubled people. Being "nice" and wishing good things, has its place, but first must come clear sight and acceptance.

Wishing for the situation to be different might well be a form of trauma avoidance by the observer, hurt by what the empathetic response is imposing. This observation is not to condem, but to encourage skill.

In the great cascade of cause and effect, the impact of all past causes carriers forward with lesser or greater effect on the Now, but can never be earased. This is Karma.

This is me.
This is where I am.
Now in full light of that, just sit for a while.
In full light of that, what is the next right action, right thought?
What will take the whole me forward in health, rather than just my fantasies and delusions forward in empty wishing?
What is really here, now, beyond even these words?

[apologies if my experience with trauma seems naive to people who have survived even bigger things]


genkaku said...

Good post.

Best wishes.


Anonymous said...

As someone who has dealt with PTSD and Zen for a very long time I'd like to offer a few pointers. I'm now sub-clinical and am different to who I was before - that's good and bad. There are still things on the list of "Thing's I'd like to reclaim".

A good site is written by a trauma survivor (Michele Rosenthal) who's been there, done that and got the T-shirt before training to help others. Whatever the original trauma, PTSD survivors all have to deal with the same things. There are many different ways to heal, it's worth finding out what they are and trying some of them.

Zen is a good tool for PTSD even if it stings. The key thing is something called Neuroplasticity - you can rewire your brain by exposing it to the right stimuli. Zazen will allow you to face lots of things over time. It will not be fun and the Happy Hippy Zennists will not get it but don't worry about them.

Traumatic memory recall will fade if you learn not to react to it or feed it when they arise. Memories are tied into emotion so emotions trigger trauma recall. Every time you fail to act on a memory the brain treats it as less and less important so eventually you'll stop memory recall triggering Trauma memories. Mostly.

Repeated controlled exposure to triggering stimuli will eventually stop the recall providing that you learn not to react to the stimuli. Triggering is about bringing to the forefront memories from the past that led to survival. With practice you can retrain the brain that these things are not relevant - you do that by not reacting to them or feeding them.

Basically mindfulness is the key to lots of healing things as part of a process of not learning to run away.

My brain is not what it was before. For some situations I go from day-dreaming to hyper-vigilant in the blink of an eye. I can at least step back from that. For most of everyday life everyday things that people sweat about don't bother me - they are just below my pain threshold.

Those of us who are eventually able to transform PTSD into Post Traumatic Growth can go and do whatever we want because we've learnt to deal with and accept discomfort and pain and distress as a transient part of life.

It's a process, you only have to move forward one step at a time, and it takes as long as it takes. Just keep working at it.

As someone who's dealt with PTSD and Zen for a long time and written about it extensively in the past I'm quite familiar with the unique challenges that it offers. If you need someone to bounce things off or whatever then let me know and I'll PM you and get the lines of communication open. I cannot do the work for you. I cannot make it easier. I'm not a therapist or a Zen Teacher but I have been there. I'm willing to make myself available as a fellow traveller if you think it would help.

Lauren said...

adam, thank you.

anonymous, thank you for the additional ideas. I browsed Michele's website and enjoyed her video with the 3 questions (what do I want, what are my choices, what action will I take).

"Post traumatic growth" is a nice phrase.

Although a bit wary of 'Anonymous', I am interested in more communication, and certainly interested in fellow travelers. Please do PM.

Anonymous said...