Gerry Georgatos (The Stringer, 17 November 2017) argues that we should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed and dominated by trauma, that we should get back on our feet, strengthened by our scars. He is right, of course, that trauma does not have to be a life sentence, but the question is … how do we choose the better way, the active path to healing, and avoid the idea that the aftereffects of trauma are insurmountable?
Neuropsychologists will tell you that repeated trauma (frightening experiences) or major trauma (an extremely frightening experience) can overwhelm the brain and the nervous system, resulting in physical damage. There are people who have been in the armed forces, for example, seeing many years of active combat in different countries, who have been diagnosed as totally and permanently disabled by posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. This does not mean that they cannot function at all, but that they struggle every day with fear, anger and depression, making it difficult or impossible for them to hold down a job. They may be able to do the work but they cannot get along with other people.
Children who have grown up with family and domestic violence, and children or young people who have been sexually assaulted, may also suffer from ongoing fear, anger and depression. Both the war veterans and the child abuse victims tend to use alcohol and other drugs to numb their feelings and to keep going as best they can. This strategy fails most of the time as under the influence of psychoactive substances, or while withdrawing, people may become perpetrators of violence, destroy their most valued relationships, take risks that result in arrest, or commit crimes such as drug dealing or armed robberies.
Going to prison is a traumatic experience, in and of itself, and being locked in a cage can create such a high level of anxiety that the prisoner may develop PTSD. If they already have PTSD, it may be exacerbated due to their imprisonment. So trauma may lead to more trauma, and some people do become overwhelmed and hopeless, trapped in a life of suffering. They are the chronic alcohol and drug abusers who live on the streets, homeless, and alienated from their families; those who find themselves better off in prison, with a warm bed and regular meals, than on the outside.
In order to break out of the cycle of trauma, chronic PTSD (fear/anger/depression), and substance abuse, another person needs to hold out a hand of friendship or offer help. When Mervyn Eades from Ngalla Maya offers to help an ex-prisoner find a job, hope dawns. A pathway opens up. When Gerry Georgatos assists an ex-prisoner to enroll in a study program, hope dawns. Trapped in the emotional aftereffects of trauma, the person simply cannot pull themselves out of it by their own efforts.
Once the person has been given hope for the future they need to learn the facts about trauma. Yes, the damage to the brain and to the nervous system can be significant. But the body has enormous potential to heal. The first step is to understand that we have to focus on the present. The past is gone and we cannot go back there. We have to deal with the brain and body we have now, in the present moment.
The emotional system, or the emotional brain, is on high alert when a person has suffered trauma. This is a very uncomfortable physical state, known as anxiety, and substances that are available in the environment, such as alcohol and marijuana, do give temporary relief. People have to learn that there are other ways to manage their feelings, other ways that will help them to keep their jobs, or concentrate on their studies, or look after their children, or maintain positive relationships with their partners and families.
When there has been trauma, it is essential to stay in the present. We work in the here and now and we can use the human body’s dive reflex to soothe our anxiety and stress … ice cold water on the face constricts the blood vessels and slows the pulse. Angry or anxious people have an urge to fight or run away, but the dive reflex reroutes the blood from the arms and legs into the heart and lungs, restoring calm. So a cold shower really does help when someone is under stress.
Regular intensive exercise, such as walking or running, swimming or surfing, also soothes anxiety and lifts depression. Learning to breathe slowly and to meditate, or practising Dadirri, traditional Aboriginal deep listening, soothes anxiety. Dancing, singing, writing songs, making art, practising culture and religion, working and studying, are all healing pathways. But in order to keep going forward, “emboldened and empowered” after trauma, we need a helper, a mentor, a counsellor, or a life coach. Someone to take us by the hand and show us how we can gain strength and engage with life. And the person doing the helping is also gaining strength and being healed. We all have our stories.
- Dr Meg Perkins runs and works from Tweed Coast Psychology and Educational Programs in northern NSW and is the founder and coordinator of the annual National Close the Prison Gap Conference.