Monday, September 12, 2016

Trauma: one of the biggest health problems in the world?

I believe trauma is one of the biggest public health problems in the world, if not the biggest. One of the most famous studies linking trauma to physical and mental health issues is the ACE study. Ischemic heart disease, cancer, liver disease, severe obesity, drug abuse and depression are just a few of the conditions linked to adverse childhood experiences (ACE), depending on how high an individual scores on a 10 item questionnaire. Questionnaires are not always accurate though, especially if you only have to tick yes or no or circle a number on a likert scale. So if a person only ticks one item, that doesn't mean that they're not traumatised. More in depth interviews are also needed to give an accurate diagnosis of trauma. Trauma is much more widespread than previously thought, a diagnosis of PTSD is not the only way trauma can manifest.

This comes as no surprise to many of us. So instead of getting bogged down and only treating symptoms, which is a never ending, but extremely profitable, merry-go-round, we should be looking for and treating the root cause of physical and mental dis-eases. And it’s obvious to a lot of us that the root cause in the vast majority of cases is trauma.

There is a mountain of research showing the ill effects of unresolved trauma. It’s important to note that we can go through something traumatic and not develop trauma. Trauma occurs when our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed and we dissociate. Dissociation is an ingenious survival mechanism that allows us to freeze any experience(s) we find unbearable. We do this on both a psychological and somatic level. And we all dissociate to a greater or lesser degree, we are all somewhere on the dissociation continuum.

Not surprisingly, dissociation happens more often with babies and children (in utero and beyond), as their capacity to process difficult experiences is limited and very much dependent on the attachment and support they have from their caregivers. If their caregivers are the harbingers of trauma, deep betrayal occurs. How can a baby or young child process that? They can’t. They need their caregivers for their very survival, so they’ll do whatever they can do to survive the situation. And that usually means dissociating from the pain and the fact that their parents are the abusers so that they can go on.

But dissociation has a high price. While it’s a brilliant short term solution, long term it can cause havoc. Seemingly unexplained symptoms start to show up in our lives from about the age of 30 onwards, of course, sometimes that can happen a lot earlier. We might wonder what’s happening and go on a long and difficult journey of trying to find out what’s wrong which can lead to frustration and which is very often retraumatising. When trauma is the root cause of our ill health, it is our dysregulated nervous systems that need attention and treatment.

This is why I believe that talk therapy is not effective on its own, we need to include the body in trauma therapy. It is almost criminal not to in my opinion as it is leaving out a crucial part of the healing equation. Whatever therapy you choose though, make sure you find a responsive and attuned practitioner with whom you feel safe. In my experience, these are the most important ingredients to get right. If our nervous system doesn’t feel safe, we will remain frozen. Our bodies can’t and won’t lie, they are a fantastic guidance system when we (re)learn to trust and feel safe in them.

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