Trauma is not about a story that happened a long time ago. Trauma is the impact of that event on you. It changes your brain and your sense of self.
The treatment for trauma is finding a way in which you can own yourself and be restored to your maximum internal functions. Where trauma becomes a part of your past but not a part of your present.
Psychiatrist and author, Bessel van der Kolk tells us: “The more trauma a person experiences, the more likely it has shaped the way they see the world.” For example, in the case of PTSD, it is likely an individual’s brain functions well if returned to war-time or a situation of abuse. Because it is familiar. But, sadly, the mind gets stuck there. And it is not a particularly good mind to have in the present.
So how do we change the brain? Van der Kolk says new experiences are key—but science isn’t quite there yet.
For decades, scientists have known the minds of trauma survivors are often stuck in fear or terror. “What we didn’t know until recently is that we can retrain the brain,” says van der Kolk. “And we can do this by playing games with our brains.”
Van der Kolk explains: “We all have filters in our brain. Something comes in and we decide what is important. People who are impacted by trauma have a messed-up filtering system. They cannot distinguish between what is important and what is not.”
Neurofeedback can be a helpful technique to help restore the optimal pathways of the brain. How does it work? You know the phrase “stuck in a rut?” Well, sometimes brains of trauma survivors can get “stuck” and this can affect their day to day life. Neurofeedback is a therapeutic intervention that provides immediate feedback to the brain from a computer-based program. The result is much like going to the gym for the brain.
There are different ways to receive this feedback. It can involve playing a game, listening to music, or watching a video. But note, the stimuli (game, music, or video) only operates smoothly when a person’s brainwaves are functioning within an optimal range. If it starts to slip back into its “rut,” the screen will slowly darken and fade.
Fortunately, van der Kolk tells us the subconscious brain will go looking for what it wants (that is, more stimuli) so will figure out how to move into the optimal range. This, in time, retrains the brain.
“This is the next phase of psychiatry. We started off with drugs. They aren’t always bad, but they are a little bit like sledgehammers: you pour some chemicals into the brain and hope for the best. Neurofeedback is precise enough to determine what part of the brain is firing and how we can shape the brain to be more attentive, calmer, more focused, more within the window of tolerance.”
If neurofeedback is not available in your area, van der Kolk recommends body-oriented activities to help your child feel calm, safe and empowered. He suggests yoga, tai chi, dancing or playing music; basically, any activity that will bring your child into sync with others—with the emphasis on commonality, rhythm, back-and-forth, and being part of a larger whole.
“Or simply throwing a beach ball back-and-forth can help to establish a safe rhythm but also helps your child to get in sync with others.”
© Fel Stewart, 2019