Healing the Psychological Wound
by Lesli Musicar, M.Ed., R.P.
Can you imagine being in a car accident and being forbidden to talk about it? Seems bizarre, doesn’t it? This is because we inherently understand the need to process traumatic events. A traumatic event is one in which we feel overwhelmed and helpless. And to “process” is our human need to externalize the shocking things that happen to us. We will talk, express our feelings, try to make sense of what happened, and seek understanding and compassion from others. The more severe the trauma, the longer it takes to process. Once this processing is completed, we can recover from the psychological injury of the trauma and get on with our lives.
If it had indeed been a car accident and the processing was finished, we would stop jumping every time we heard brakes squeal. We would stop having nightmares of being run over by a truck. We would get the car fixed, the insurance taken care of, and hopefully, have only minor physical injuries to heal from. And we would stop needing to talk about it. Our friends and family would breathe a sigh of relief. And life would return to normal.
However, for those of us who have sustained traumatic injuries less socially acceptable to discuss—like rape, battery, emotional abuse, child sexual abuse, abandonment or neglect (to name a few)—the processing of the psychological injury often fails to take place at the time. This is because these things are rarely talked about. Most families cherish their good image in the community. And for a family member to tarnish it would be risking their place in the family. Moreover, when bad things happen to children, they believe it is because they are bad. This is usually reinforced by their perpetrators who frighten them into keeping their mouths shut.
Shame is another silencing factor. Even if no one blames a woman for being raped or battered, it is almost impossible for her to escape self-blame. Blaming the victim is such a deeply entrenched practice in our society. The result is a shame that silences. So, these victims walkaround carrying the impossible burden of unprocessed trauma. However, sooner or later, they find they are unable to contain it. Drugs, alcohol, rampant spending, over-eating, compulsive reading, sex, gambling, disastrous relationships--all fail to stave off the symptoms as they begin to leak out like a festering wound.
What happens when you accidentally cut yourself and neglect the wound? It becomes infected. It gets filled with poison, becomes more painful, and demands your attention. This is the body’s attempt to heal itself: to get the wound cleaned out, resealed, and dressed. Essentially, a psychological wound caused by a traumatic event works the same way. If it is not attended to at the time, it also festers. And it strives to be healed by drawing attention to itself. But, how it does this is not familiar to us the way a physical injury is. What occurs instead, are sensory intrusions, recurring physical ailments, sleep disturbance, and a host of other distressing symptoms.
Sometimes, the symptoms are so strange, people secretly believe they are going crazy. This could mean hearing things, like voices, especially at night in bed. It could be an eerie sense that things around them are not real. It could mean seeing things out of the corner of one’s eye that disappear when they turn their head. Or it could be an awful sense of dread for no apparent reason. Something small may happen triggering panic. Or something big could happen and one feels nothing. The list of symptoms goes on. But it all adds up to the same thing: posttraumatic stress.
One way of understanding posttraumatic stress is to think of the psyche as trying to tell its story. In other words, the psyche is striving to process traumatic experience by externalizing it. But, unlike regular memory, which we tend to experience as pictures, traumatic memory is more often recalled in the form of emotional, sensory or visceral disturbance. This is because it has not been processed.
But how do we start to have symptoms in the first place? Many people will say they went years without experiencing anything out of the ordinary. One possible explanation is that they actually have been symptomatic without realizing it. This is because they have been using a variety of techniques to cope. As mentioned above, these may range from substance abuse to various compulsive behaviours. Creating chronic crisis in one’s life is another common coping mechanism. Often, it is when we experience something that resembles the intensity of the original trauma, that the ball gets rolling.
Emotional intimacy is one of the most common triggers. For example, one may have lots of one-night stands or brief affairs and have no trouble with sex. But as soon as a good relationship comes along, problems suddenly start to develop. One may begin having panic attacks or simply shut down during love-making. Usually, this is due to the fact that the original trauma took place within the context of an intimate relationship. So it is the emotional intimacy and that serves to unlock the traumatic memories.
The first step in healing is to understand what is going on. For example, imagine having acute indigestion that manifests as chest pain. If you did not know it was indigestion, you would think you were having a heart attack. The same thing happens with posttraumatic symptoms. Because we do not recognize the symptoms, we get scared. This just exacerbates the situation. So we must begin to recognize and name what is going on. This can be quite challenging, as it demands a high level of conscious awareness. Working with a clinician who specializes in this area can be of great help. Groups for trauma survivors can also be an invaluable support.
The next step is to begin to consciously externalize our experience. In other words, just like being in a car accident, we need to be able to emote, express our thoughts, feel heard, understood, and be believed. And we need to feel cared for by both others and ourselves. This is a process that takes time, patience, and commitment, but it is worth the effort to heal our psychological wounds.