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May 23, 2012

An Overview: There is Nothing Post About Current Traumatic Stresses

An Overview: There is Nothing Post About Current Traumatic Stresses
By Darling Graciela Villena-Mata, Ph.D.

Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story;
rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)

For many people, trauma is still part of their lives. It is their main story; their ‘guiding light’. It is not part of their past or history. It is. Rather, it is their lead story which for many, govern their perceptions of their world and of themselves within that world. From those that follow lives of domestic violence to those who are ‘recipients’ of hate crimes to those who are triggered by “isms” in their midst, they find themselves reacting and creating skills to help keep themselves safe and to create “islands” of trust where they can exhale; albeit partially for some.

The increase of fear, the triggers or reminders in the news and increase tension between communities serve to create similar coping skills and reactions that one would see in people experiencing post-traumatic stress. Although the symptoms and responses are similar to those experiencing ptsd, the intervention and approaches to addressing concurrent stresses may be different. Considerations such as a person’s group history, degree and intensity of the triggers and current traumas, where s/he is on the polyculturation spectrum, the type of “safety” islands created; level of support from her/his group(s); grief and identity formation are but some of the elements to assess. When dealing with groups, an understanding of history, social justice perceptions of that group vis-à-vis the dominant group/society, and the current attitudes of that group both by that group and by others will help to tailor clinical and educational approaches in assisting them with their current traumatic issues.

In addition to clinical interventions and treatment, educational and narrative psychological approaches have assisted individuals and groups in “re-storying” their lives. For group-oriented individuals and their groups, the use of narrative psychology is a natural extension of their worldview. For individual-oriented individuals and their groups, the narrative provides an avenue for them to explore what they have and what they need to develop in order to create a bridge to a safer land of living.

Storytelling methods and techniques used by indigenous nations such as the Aborigines, the Maoris, and First Nations, which have been ‘westernized’ by Epston and White and others into Narrative psychology have made the indigenous approaches accessible to many as intervention and treatment methods and approaches. For current traumas, it becomes essential for the person to re-author their worldview. The use of language, its positioning, metaphors, externalization of issues away from the human being, and creating bridges of usable current dynamics while empowering the client to seek and create additional tools – are some of the aspects found in narrative psychology.

In addition to the psychological components of trauma, as providers it is important to understand the physiological. While we are well aware of the “fight and flight” responses activated by the sympathetic nervous system of the autonomic system, there are other physiological areas that we would do well to consider with whatever training we provide; namely transgenerational transmissions and the concept of “freeze”. Understanding the physiological transmissions passed from one generation to another (see research by Danieli and Yehuda) can help one to understand the hairline trigger reaction to trauma for some individuals and a dull reaction for others. Studies on transgenerational themes (versus intergenerational themes) by clinicians and researchers, such as Anne Schuztenberg and Maurice Apprey have helped many recipients of trauma cut the unconscious and sometimes physiological ties transmitted from their ancestors.

Peter Levine’s work on “freeze” and the need for humans to learn to ‘defreeze’ have assisted many in letting go of being in a life-threatening stance in their lives. The physiological ramifications of “f,f,f” or “fight, flight, and freeze” needs to be addressed and turned off when there is clearly no life threatening situation in the individual’s lives. Getting that person to ‘stand down’ from red alert to green alert becomes then a whole person affair. Getting that extra energy created by the immune system to dissipate as well as to tell the sympathetic nervous system to switch over to the parasympathetic becomes essential if restoration and healing are to occur. Work by Peter Levine, John Upledger, and others who addressed the dissipation of those energies created by the immune system, have proven to be beneficial for those individuals with traumatic stories.

But what if there is merit to having the “fff” on? It then becomes when to turn it on fully and when to turn it down. When to hit that ‘dimming’ switch becomes part of the intervention approach. Having it turned on fully, as we now know, not only stresses the person on the psychological level but also stresses that person’s health. Yet turning it off completely is foolhardy for individuals and groups still subjected to present-day “isms” and possible traumatic results.

Increase discussion of evidence can be found in today’s journals, talk shows, newspapers and internet sites that stress is becoming one of the major factors for autoimmune illnesses, increase conflicts, sleep disorders, and even the selection of what we eat.

This article started off with a quote from Chinua Achebe saying that the story owns us. Yes, but only if we see ourselves as the actors in our lives and not the writers. The moment we can truly experience the power of being the autobiographer of our stories, then the road to a new land of story can be created, using what we have and accessing what we need. Understanding how traumas induced by groups and societies can affect the whole human being helps us to better provide training to those who give direct services.

Traumatic stresses have many faces: not only that of the past stories that affect our present, but of the present ones as well. May the overview of these approaches serve to spark a further curiosity into the availability of these tools to help those with current traumatic stories transform those stories into successful adventures.

Darling G. Villena-Mata is the author of Walking Between Winds: A Passage Through Societal Trauma - Discrimination's Impact on Love, Safety, Health, and Conflict. She may be reached at or 703.339.8871

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