Both the event and the perception of the event must be considered when discussing trauma – Jane Simington.
I want to preface by noting that what I am unpacking in this post is not new information. There are plenty of people who have been writing about some of the concepts below. However, every time someone attempts to write about, what I believe to be are spiritual ideas of transformation, I like to imagine that it means we are getting closer to a collective awakening. Therefore, please know that I am not claiming to be an expert on this topic, but instead, I write about perception, trauma, and consciousness through lived experience and many nights of contemplation.
Over the years I have attended numerous pieces of training on trauma recovery, along with an incessant drive to consume information about the topic. In the beginning, I was driven to understand my diagnosis of PTSD and to unearth how I can heal. This drive never ended and resulted in me finishing grad school, training as a trauma-informed therapist, and developing a healing program for mothers.
I think what inspires me the most about becoming trauma-informed is the power gained. I knew in my bones that I could heal. And I hold this belief for others as well.
In my past, I struggled with depression for years, and I felt disempowered and afraid of being diagnosed with a mental illness. I held a perception that it meant that I would be cursed forever.
I tried to change my thoughts so I could feel better. However, I didn’t experience the results I craved. Granted, this quest to ‘change my thinking’ helped me become mindfully attuned to my thoughts. And as it stands, mindfulness is now receiving gold star status in healing and recovery.
Our physiology is innately intelligent and has a seeking drive that ‘seeks’ to attune towards health. I love this about our bodies. And our mind is deeply interconnected to our physiology (for those eager to unpack the concept of the mind, read The Mind by Dan Siegel).
The body and mind are one.
It is about time that we claim this knowing. Therefore it makes sense that both the physiological impact of an event AND the psychological impact of the event ought to be a part of the trauma discourse.
There is plenty written about the physiological impact of a traumatic event. To name a few, in ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ and ‘Waking the Tiger,’ both Van der Kolk and Levine, discuss the physiological imprint of trauma. Dan Siegel, founder of Interpersonal Neurobiology and author of a handful books, writes about healing from the mind, body, and relational perspective.
The literature readily available today surmounts what was available just six years ago. It is as if trauma-informed care has skyrocketed. I imagine it has done so because it speaks to how we can heal tangibly. It offers a perspective on causation to many of today’s mental, emotional, physical, relational, and behavioral challenges –not just a list of symptoms but a probable physiological cause due to unprocessed traumatic material in the nervous system.
Within the conversation of trauma-informed care, we recognize that each is impacted by a traumatic event differently; each has different variables to consider. One of the variables concerns how the experience becomes etched into the mind/memory/psyche of the individual; in other words how the individual perceives the event.
This comment has left me with many questions. A somewhat simple statement is full of complicated calculations and considerations.
What is perception?
How is perception formed?
How do we control perception? Or do we? How do we change perception?
Who is in control – self or brain?
Who is self?
As you can imagine this spiraled me down a rabbit hole of deeper discovery, philosophical consideration, spiritual questioning, and scientific evidence. Unpacking the notion of perception is not an easy task. There is little room for error because misrepresenting a concept could send the reader down the wrong rabbit hole.
And yet, isn’t it all perception anyway? Meaning the lens through which you read this has perceptual embedded within it, filters.
This leaves one to pose the following question: what are those filters made of?
Definition of Perception
Perception, according to the Dictionary refers to “the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses. The neurophysiological processes, including
memory, by which an organism becomes aware of and interprets external stimuli. 2 the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted. An intuitive understanding and insight.”
Thus, perception is the process in which we make sense out of an event. It includes our thoughts and senses. Perception informs how we communicate about an experience, both externally and internally. In other words, we are meaning-making machines.
For some time now, I would argue that we were taught that we have free will and thus, how we understand and interpret an experience is within our realm of control. And so, if it is within our power to influence how we perceive an experience, then do we have control over how we make sense out of an event? Regardless if the event is positive or traumatic.
This above notion may sound optimistic and perhaps even motivating for some. And when I first considered this idea I felt empowered to do something about my state of being. That said, the deeper I went down the rabbit hole, the more challenged I became by this concept.
First of all, I felt frustrated that I encoded my traumatic events in a negative light that complicated my healing and my physiological response to trauma. I experienced self-blame. Why is it that some people could move on and have a less aggravating perception of an event, while others become entirely derailed by the experience? Could perception be the main differential factor?
Let me offer an example specific to the demographic I mostly serve:
Mother 1 – comes to therapy because she had an unplanned, unwanted c-section after a transfer to the hospital that resulted in complications that could have been terminal for either herself or her newborn. She is relatively calm about the event, is processing some grief due to the loss of physical constitution and dream birth, but she has a healthy perspective the c- section was the best option at the time and that It makes sense to her. She feels sad about the event but grateful to be a mother. She expresses frustration that she didn’t plan for a c-section or a complication arising and felt annoyed with herself (a bit foolish) but otherwise, she ‘get’s it.’ It was needed. I am well. My baby is well. We will be okay. After a few sessions of grief therapy, this mother feels like she has made sense out of the experience and in her words: ‘I am okay with what happened.’ She isn’t showing any signs of dysregulated physiology, and one would assess that she is not carrying any trauma about this event, even though her life and her baby’s life had been threatened.
Her perception = I am okay. My baby is okay. It is over now. We are okay. It makes sense to me. It is okay to have disappointment and grief, and I will move on.
Mother 2 – Comes to therapy because of an unplanned, unwanted c-section after a transfer to the hospital and being told ‘failure to progress’ and ‘your baby’s heart rate is dropping.’ Everything about the event feels horrifying to her. The image I get is that of a battleground. She felt the terror that her baby was unsafe. She didn’t want to cut open. She didn’t trust the hospital staff, and she didn’t trust the midwives. She presents as dysregulated, hyperaroused, disorientated, and has big energy and emotions. The sense you get is as if she is about to
explode or float out of the room. She has difficulty maintaining eye contact. She wants to tell you her story over and over again. One of the themes is that the caregivers failed her and she finds fault in all that they did. Everything was a violation of ‘abandonment’ to ‘touching without her consent.’ In a nutshell, she has perceived the event as violating, disempowering, disrespectful, disheartening, and believes that the caregivers are to blame.
Her perception = I was harmed. I was violated. I was mistreated. It is all their fault. I was neglected.
Granted these are radically different examples, but they are based on similar cases. Both Mothers experienced unwanted c-sections, transfers to the hospital, and a threat to their baby’s wellbeing. Both suffered physical trauma due to surgery (according to Levine, surgery is a trauma) and each would have experienced prolonged pain due to an induction at some point throughout their labor. Further, childbirth is an incredibly vulnerable experience. Therefore some of our protective strategies that keep us feeling a sense of control in our lives are dropped during labor and birth. Both mothers were equally at risk of having experienced their birth as traumatic based on these factors alone.
However, both had different experiences and are processing differently in the postpartum. Recovery has been quicker for Mother 1. Mother 2 presented with symptoms of postpartum PTSD. All of which poses the question, why did Mother 2 imprint her birth as traumatic? Did she have control over this? Does she have the power to change her perception of the event? These are hard questions to consider. By no means does it reflect that Mother 1 is ‘behaving’ better than Mother 2.
The trap that the old worldview can feed – Just get over it and get on with it, it is selfish to focus on the self.
This worldview leaves mothers feeling ashamed and guilty for how they are responding to their childbirth and can result in suppression of emotions and thoughts. The old ‘ignore it and it will go away’ mindset. I don’t think I need to explain to you that this does not work because your physiology won’t forget about it. As Van Der Kolk states: ‘Your body keeps the score’.
Unfortunately, there is no ignoring; there is only going through.
There are so many variables that could have contributed to each of the Mothers experiences of birth. I am sure I will miss a bunch, however, here is a list of some distinct factors to consider:
- History of attachment with family of origin
- Adverse childhood experiences – abuse/neglect/poverty/malnutrition
- History of oppression – marginalized race, gender, religion
- Financial circumstances
- History of sexual assault
- Support systems
- Religious or spiritual beliefs
- Physical health before birth
- Mental health before birth
- Marital status and relationship health
- Other stressorsAll of these reasons and more influence a person’s ‘way of being’ in the world. Further, they inform how our physiology and psychology encodes (make sense of) life events. Unless we become conscious of this material intrinsically, we cannot ‘change’ our way of thinking and being.
Therefore, can we control how we perceive an event at the time of the event? Or is it only afterward that we can influence how we store the information?
From what I understand, our past informs our present way of being until we wake up to the programs of the past. Therefore, if we are unconscious of how our past experiences have influenced our way of thinking, feeling, doing, and being, then we have no power to change our perception of an event.
Perception is how we make sense out of a life event. And how we make sense out of current circumstances is based on our past experiences. Therefore, we are living in the past until we become conscious of these core patterned ways of being. Dr. Joe Dispenza speaks powerfully about this notion in his book ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.’
We cannot escape life without experiencing traumatic events. Granted, some more horrific than others. However, from what I can see and read, humans have been suffering from trauma as far back as we can go.
We have a physiological system that responds to trauma and fights for our survival. The problem is that once we have ‘survived,’ unlike other mammals, humans have a hard time returning to a state of calm, connected homeostasis. The challenge is that our neocortex gets in the way.
We have a thinking brain that tries to make sense out of the sometimes senseless acts and experiences. This brain is responsible for our evolution, and also, it keeps us trapped in trauma as we relive it in our mind’s eye over and over again. It is as if trauma glitches the system for some and puts the record on repeat. Thankfully, there are ways in which we can recover and respond to the glitch that puts the nervous system into overdrive.
It is imperative that the trauma (i.e., stress) response completes its instinctive cycle. Thus, body-centered therapies are beneficial. They can move the trapped energy in the nervous system. Associated with this nervous system energy are all the thoughts, emotions, felt sensations, and images about the event. Those also need to be processed, and ‘digested’ so that the limbic system can turn off the alarm bells.
During this process, I am noticing that the final phase of recovery pertains to a change in perception in which the person views the situation from a different vantage point – usually, this involves a compassionate release towards self and other.
This does not mean that if someone experienced violence and violation that the perpetrator is not held accountable for their harmful actions or that a mother does not file a complaint against a caregiver if deemed necessary.
But instead, the perceptual field grows to include a deeper understanding of the self at that time, the others at that time, and any influencing historical information that would elicit a compassionate tone of understanding.
Sound like a spiritual awakening?
From my perspective that is exactly what is happening when we grow from one state of perception to one that includes the self, other, living creatures, planet, and cosmos. In a state of deep understanding, we by-pass our conditioned responses based on historical content. Our physiology may ‘keep the score,’ but one can argue that ‘consciousness’ exists within and without the physiology.
When we can ‘know’ that we are more than our physiology, more than the programs we have received through genetics and experiences, we can begin to change our embedded reactionary response to life events – be it traumatic or ecstatic.
For many, trauma is a wakeup call to move beyond the physiology. One’s physiology will be full of experiences and patterned responses to those and similar experiences. We cannot do anything about our past experiences, but we can change how we think and feel about them.
When faced with a traumatic event we may not be able to influence how our system responds to that experience; our physiology responds quicker than our thinking brain can. It is as if we are always one step behind the body’s imprinted and instinctive reactions. How can we catch up?
This leaves me to pose a question about consciousness itself or rather the part of the self that is the Witness, the spiritual self, the higher self, the One, the Void. Perhaps Buddha was on to something as a contemplative enlightened figure who speaks about the cycle of human suffering. He speaks about transcending suffering by non-attachment to the ego identity. I hear un-attachment to our physiology.
The physiology holds the imprinted ways of thinking, feeling, and doing.
When traced back all the way to the womb of the mother, we know that chemicals that tell us if we are safe, wanted, secure, loved are already being embedded into our growing embryo. We learn about the external world before we are born via our mother’s response to it…and on and on we go.
One could argue that we are born imprinted with pertinent information about our place in the world. From that area forward we learn about our physical self through relational attunement with our primary caregivers. Before we can make sense rationally, we are receiving perception about belonging, safety, love, pain, emotions, and behavior. We mirror those around us.
Our personality emerges from these experiences. I liken my personality to a large dose of environmental circumstances infused with the energetics of my ‘soul’ (another blog post on that notion). Much of how I perceive myself is based on external circumstances that informed me about myself. From here we see the birth of ‘core beliefs.’ In particular, core limiting beliefs.
Our perceptions are infused with core beliefs about the self, others, and ways of being in the world.
Thus, going back to the earlier example about the two different mothers. One could postulate that Mother 1 holds a core belief based on historical experiences – I am okay in the world, it is safe to be here. Whereas, it is possible that Mother 2 holds a core belief based on historical experiences – The world is unsafe, and I am at risk of being harmed.
I am making a broad stroke with this last statement. However, I am offering a point of view that how we currently perceive aspects of our history profoundly influence a traumatic experience that we have not considered before. Elements such as core beliefs based on childhood experiences. Secondly, I am suggesting that trauma is an opportunity for awakening to the ‘self’ that exists outside of our physiology. As such, perhaps from this place, we can rewire how we store memories so that we are no longer chasing our physiological reactions, but instead, changing the program so that the physiology responds differently in the future.
Is this not what the ancients meant when they said: When you heal, you heal seven generations back and seven generations forward.