Is it possible to survey and map the chaos of trauma?

How can something as personal and particular as trauma be defined in any sort of general way?

One perspective is that trauma is what happens when people experience, witness, or confront events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other perceived threats to their physical integrity.

When an individual’s affective response to an event of this kind includes intensely-charged emotions and feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror, they can be traumatized. This can give rise to post-traumatic stress disorder, and any number of crippling symptoms.

Seemingly unrelated objects or situations in everyday life might become triggers for powerful physiological and psychological responses and reactions. Memories of the traumatic event can erupt into consciousness without warning; intensely vivid flashbacks might assault someone. Dreams with thematic content related to the trauma might plague a person, indicating that trauma can have powerfully synergetic effects on the deep unconscious structures and dynamics of the psyche.

Individuals don’t have control over when and how these symptoms manifest and intrude on them, flooding them with strong negative emotions linked to the initial trauma.

Trauma can infect our orienting reflexes, conditioning someone to have a much more broadly generalized response of fear towards the unknown than the average person does, conditioning them to interpret events as potentially dangerous with a much higher frequency.

This is an existential state in which an individual spends much of their time and resources scanning their environment for hints of danger with obsessive vigilance. This kind of steady-state of hyperarousal is exhausting, and can have long-term consequences on overall health.

Sadly, the coping mechanisms and necessary adaptations which people might develop in order to avoid the activation of their fear response and the confrontation with the potentially dangerous can result in behaviors of avoidance that have the potential to paralyze someone’s personality over time.

Even though behaviors of avoidance reflect a person’s attempt to gain emotional and psychological distance from the trauma, they can be generalized to all emotions and experiences, negative and positive. People who survive trauma can end up feeling numb and hollow most of the time, detached from life.

All this can create a highly constricted lifestyle that destroys a person’s ability to relate to other people, engage with life productively and joyfully, and hope and plan for the future.

Is it possible for individuals to personally administer any sort of practical therapeutic interventions aimed at addressing the disordering effects of trauma when most of us aren’t professionals trained to administer complex medical interventions?

Medical professionals and psychotropic drugs exist for many good reasons, but what can ordinary people (or those unable or unwilling to seek professional help for any particular reason) do on their own to approach their trauma and potentially undiagnosed traumatic disorders with more flexibility and creativity, in the interest of competently doing what they can to facilitate deep and lasting healing?

How can people begin to modify the meaning of traumatic experiences they’ve endured? How can people who’ve experienced trauma practice narrative techniques that enlarge and reframe their understanding of what they’ve experienced and reduce the generalization of their fear response?

How can people proactively seek to inoculate themselves against their typical responses to stressful situations? How can they inoculate themselves in ways which dampen the reactions in them that are reflexively associated with a trauma they’ve experienced, reactions which often surface in stressful situations?

How are these reactions and responses rooted in the soil of the soul? How do the historically charged sub-personalities that may have been birthed by a traumatic event relate to the structure of the ego? How might the relationship between these sub-personalities and the ego be governed by agents of more lordly caliber within the psychic hierarchy?

What impact does trauma have on people’s belief systems? How can therapeutic interventions help someone make the adjustments necessary to reconcile a traumatic event with their prior experiences and beliefs?

How can the tendency and drive in human beings toward growth and completion come into contact with the need for the anomalous and incompatible information of a traumatic experience to be integrated into existing belief systems?

How can the conflict between the need to reconcile a traumatic event with the rest of a person’s life story, and the desire to avoid emotional pain, be resolved?

These are not simple questions.

People who have experienced trauma and developed PTSD or other trauma disorders are often unable to see those traumatic experiences as time-limited; they assume that the trauma they experienced has inexhaustible implications for the future.

They may overgeneralize based on their experiences and assume that normal activities are more dangerous than they actually are. They may overestimate the probability that the trauma will repeat itself. They may interpret their symptoms in the present as a sign that they’ll never be able to cope with life in the future.

People with trauma disorders may adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms, strategies, and behaviors. These can actually insidiously increase their symptoms and prevent changes to the memory of the trauma which would make it less fragmented and easier to integrate.

How can the processing of traumatic memories aid in cognitive readjustment by integrating the sensory and physiological information related to the trauma into everyday life?

How can meaning be searched for and found in traumatic memories? How can cause and blame be accurately ascribed to the different agents and operators involved in a traumatic event with as much precision and detail as possible? How can a sense of relative safety in and control over a person’s environment be restored, reducing hyper-aroused states of pronounced and prolonged negative emotion?

To achieve truly deep and lasting integration of traumatic experiences, people may have to edit their memories over time in order to resolve the conflicts between the traumatic events and their belief systems. They may have to transfigure their memories of the events to re-establish their pre-existing belief system or alter their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions in order to accommodate new information.

How can writing be used as a structured therapeutic practice that incrementally exposes people to their traumatic memories while also teaching them how to challenge their negative thoughts and assumptions about themselves?

How can writing be used as a means of identifying patterns of problematic thinking? How can it generate alternate and balanced thoughts about the traumatic events themselves and the overgeneralized assumptions about self and world that have emerged out of them?

How can writing assist people in articulating how the aspects of life that are commonly disrupted following traumatic events (safety, intimacy, trust, control, confidence, spontaneity, etc.) have been disrupted in their own particular life?

How can writing do this in ways that help people find themselves planted on the path of a living option pointed towards a brighter future?

How can it help people remember and accept what has happened to them by exploring their memories of those traumatic events and the emotions that are associated with them?

How can it help people allow themselves to feel their natural emotions and let them run their course, so the memories can be “put away” without such strong feelings still attached to them?

How can writing about their trauma help people balance beliefs about life that have been disrupted or reinforced so that those memories no longer repetitively generate a one-sided story?

In addition to the experience of acute, discrete traumatic events, how might writing be able to be used as a healing practice when it comes to the cumulative and continuous traumas of unmet dependency needs in childhood that can hamper healthy development and take a torturing toll?

These are not simple questions.

One structured approach to answering all these questions is for people who have experienced trauma to first write an impact statement to determine how they have made sense of the traumatic event.

The purpose of having people formulate an impact statement like this is NOT to have them render an account of the trauma itself, but to have them get at the meaning of the event in their lives, to outline how it has impacted their belief systems; this type of written statement can help them determine what sort of assimilation, accommodation, and overaccommodation has occurred in their lives since the event.

Here’s an example of the kind of prompt that can be used to inspire this sort of impact statement:

-What does it mean to you that this traumatic experience happened? What effects has this event had on your beliefs about yourself, your beliefs about others, and your beliefs about the world? How are the topics of safety, intimacy, trust, control, confidence, and spontaneity related to the meaning that this event has had for you?

After formulating an impact statement, the A-B-C sheets of Cognitive Processing Therapy can be used to identify patterns in the events, beliefs, and consequences of a person’s life.

In column A, people write down events that activate a response in them. The initial trauma should be one of these events, in order to trace its influence in everyday life. Under column B, they record the thoughts they have about the event in question. Under column C, they write down their behavioral and emotional responses to the thoughts they put down in column B.

If people tell themselves something a lot, it becomes automatic. After a while, they don’t even need to think those thoughts consciously, they just go straight to the feelings associated with them.

It’s important to stop and recognize automatic thoughts in order to consciously decide whether they make sense or should be challenged and changed. The writing that A-B-C sheets inspire can help someone do this. On the third sheet, columns D-E-F create opportunities for people to articulate ways they can challenge the patterns they’ve just identified.

Another way to brainstorm about any one of the particular beliefs/stuck-points of column B with greater detail and precision is to answer challenging questions similar to those of column D in the third sheet:

-What is the evidence for and against this idea/belief?

-Is your belief a habit or based on facts?

-Are your interpretations of the situation too far removed from reality to be accurate?

-Are you thinking in all-or-none terms?

-Are you using words or phrases that are extreme or exaggerated? (always, forever, never, need, should, must, can’t, every time, etc.)

-Are you taking the situation out of context and only focusing on one aspect of the event?

-Is the source of information reliable?

-Are you confusing a low probability with a high probability?

-Are your judgments based more on feelings or facts?

-Are you focused on irrelevant factors?

Thoughts and feelings are interconnected expressions of the total unity of the human organism. Over time, practicing new ways of thinking can be a road to feeling differently.

One aspect of changed feeling through changed thinking involves learning new thought patterns through the competition of thoughts; with more repetitions of the new thoughts their associated feelings will follow them, and eventually win out over old ways of feeling.

In order to do this, however, problematic patterns first need to be identified.

Writing about their own stuck points can help people identify patterns of problematic thinking that stir up powerful negative emotions in them and drive them towards engaging in self-defeating behavior:

With reference to your own stuck points and beliefs concerning any particular activating event, how are you…

-jumping to conclusions when the evidence is lacking or even contrary?

-exaggerating or minimizing a situation, blowing things way out of proportion or shrinking their importance inappropriately?

-disregarding important aspects of a situation?

-oversimplifying things as good-bad or right-wrong?

-overgeneralizing from a single incident, seeing negative events as never-ending patterns?

-mind-reading, assuming people are thinking negatively of you when there is no definite evidence for this?

After working on that, statements of alternative thoughts can be articulated as ways of seeding and transplanting new perspectives on activating events that can take root, grow, and eventually overshadow a person’s stuck points and previous beliefs:

-How else can I interpret this experience? How would I rate or describe the strength of my belief in this alternative thought? How much do I now believe the old thought that I’ve been getting stuck on? How do I feel now, after my alternative thought has had a chance to change my belief in my old thoughts, and stir up new feelings in me?

After you’ve done a considerable amount of this sort of writing (approaching various events, beliefs, and consequences, challenging them from different viewpoints, and identifying problematic patterns and alternative thoughts) write a full account of the traumatic event itself and include as many sensory details (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) as possible.

Paint as complete and total a picture of the situation as you can. Include every thought and feeling that you can recall having had during the event. Pick the right setting to write in so that you have privacy and plenty of time and are away from people you might be tempted to lash out at. Don’t stop yourself from feeling your emotions though.

If you need to stop writing at some point begin writing again when you can and continue to write the account even if it takes several occasions. After completing it, read the whole account to yourself out loud every day for a week. Allow yourself to feel your feelings.

If you engage in writing like this over any extended period of time, consider writing additional impact statements every once in a while, specifically addressing how your understanding of the meaning of the trauma has changed after all the work you’ve done. You can articulate additional impact statements by exploring your current thoughts and beliefs regarding safety, intimacy, trust, control, confidence, and spontaneity now that you’ve put in so much time and effort into facing the trauma.

There’s a lot more to the therapeutic treatment of trauma than has been said here. More inspiration, direction, and blank worksheets concerning and related to the approach I outlined in this post can be found here. None of this can replace a therapeutic relationship with another living person. At the same time, mental health professionals aren’t always around when you need them.

People who have experienced trauma and developed PTSD or other traumatic disorders have to be willing to do hard work to recover from what’s happened to them. The anxiety and fear that trauma generates can be suffocating, but they can paradoxically also be sources of immense creativity, growth, and transformation.

Over time, writing can help people tap into this potential.

By surveying and mapping the chaos of trauma we can escape the weight of its darkness, and triangulate triumph over it.

I want to integrate affective neuroscience, ecological and depth psychology, and narrative therapy, as a way of catalyzing human optimization and antifragility.