Do you have unhealed trauma from childhood that weighs you down? This can be any sort of trauma, including sexual abuse, physical abuse or emotional abuse. It can be hard to continue living a happy life if you get triggered by events in the present moment that re-trigger experiences from the past.
According to the renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr. Ivor Browne, we need to become aware of how we talk about and explain trauma to clients who come see us in our practice, as this can be problematic. A lot of how we process trauma is not processed correctly because of the language we use to explain it. We have become so used to using the Freudian word “repression” to explain how to stop painful episodes from impacting our lives, rather than truly facing the hurt that occurred. Therefore, when something triggers us, we often run from it. Although this can provide initial relief, it brings no resolution or joy. This can take many years of hard work in therapy to resolve.
From a scientific perspective, all experiences that occur in our lives pass through the primitive part of the brain, the limbic brain. “Normal” experiences such as reading this article or recalling a movie pass through the this part of the brain quite quickly. But when frightening experiences occur, it can cause the body to shut down, cool down, sweat, run or panic. Through evolution, this has become the body’s response to get us away from what we find threatening – the fight, flight, freeze response. Therefore, when we experience something frightening or triggering, our body says “Shut down, get out of here, I cant handle this” and responds accordingly.
The Frozen Present
Ivor Browne calls this the “Frozen Present”. How we understand the impact of trauma is of vital importance to how we can work with trauma. Ivor’s idea of “the frozen present” is a key part of understanding how he looks at psychiatric and psychotherapeutic work.
“Once that shut down happens, then that experience is frozen. So it is not a case of a threatening memory being repressed, it is that it has never gotten in properly. Once it is Once that shut down happens, then that experience is frozen. So it is not a case of a threatening memory being repressed, it is that it has never gotten in properly. Once it is frozen it is outside of time, so twenty years later this can be activate – some everyday event can trigger it – and you then experience it as if it is happening now. You don’t think about it and remember it – you feel it and experience it. And of course at that point you think you are going nuts because you look around and nothing traumatic is happening, yet you experience this traumatic feeling. That is why I called it “the frozen present”, because when it comes, it comes through as the present, not as the past. Eventually when it works its way through and you experience it a few times then it moves into the past”.
“The best example is grief” says Ivor. “If you have lost someone you have to do a lot of work overtime in order to integrate that to allow it to become a memory. Then it becomes less threatening. By processing the trauma, it has shifted into memory.”
Trauma in Psychotherapy
The psychotherapeutic model carries across some unhelpful reductionist assumptions of psychiatry. ‘The very title “therapy” suggests that it is something that the therapist does. That is probably the deepest falsehood in the whole thing. The notion that we, as therapists, have treatments that we alone can do to people. The reality is that the person does the work. If the person is not prepared to do the work of change, you can be the greatest therapist in the world and you cannot achieve anything. I don’t think we can apply normalizing elements, like ideas of the ten-session model, to psychotherapy. Each person will react differently. People that train as psychotherapists (which psychiatrists often forget) learn about their own personal difficulties by going to therapy themselves. Essentially, the relationship in psychotherapy is heart to heart. The person therefore feels protected and safe enough in the relationship to do the work. There is a paradox here, because quite a lot of psychotherapists, while they have had good training, have not had the experience I have had in dealing with what their client presents with in the therapy. So in some situations, the therapist may be afraid that if the situation were to blow up, they might not be able to handle it. Consequently, the client may pick up on this and instinctively refuse to open up.
The first important aspect for therapists is that the person sitting opposite them should feel safe and comfortable enough in themselves to do the work. The second, perhaps even more important aspect, is that the client feels that the therapist is safe and comfortable enough in themselves to handle whatever might come up. In therapy, it is often assumed that therapists do not feel fear. When in reality, a lot of therapists could very well feel scared if a client were to present an issue that they have no previous experience with. Or if they have not healed their own wounds through their personal therapeutic journey.
The Therapeutic Relationship
Once people feel safe with the therapist and the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard are met, then their trauma can be worked through a lot easier. At the very core of therapy, is the heart. If the heart is closed, no healing can occur. If the heart is open, then therapist and client can merge, helping the client feel safe enough to connect with the wounds that inhibit their growth.
Spiritual & Existential Approaches to Healing
Ivor Browne describes clients’ problems as being both spiritual and existential in nature. The therapy itself must reflect this healing process, with the therapist being vulnerable enough to show up with an open heart. This will enable the client to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and connect with themselves. Spiritual interventions such as “inner child” work, shamanic and energy work, poetry, journaling and regressive therapies are very effective ways for clients to meet and greet their pain. Remembering however, that if the client or the therapist resists going to that place where the trauma and heaviness resides, then the pain and numbness will inevitably persist.
Shamanic View of Dissociation
What is Spiritual Dissociation
When we go through trauma in our lives, we may mentally dissociate from that phenomenon. However, when a painful experience occurs, a spiritual dissociation also occurs. According to the Shamanic tradition, the soul fractures and part of the soul leaves us in order to protect us from experiencing more trauma. Christina Lopes describes this as “soul loss” or “soul dissociation”. Soul dissociation is a protective mechanism that the soul purposefully engages in in order to protect the psyche from imploding in on itself. It does this so that you can survive the trauma that is occurring.
When we experience “soul loss” (a term Shamans use to refer to suffering experienced in either childhood or adulthood) we may experience protection initially. But as you continue to grow up, still living out this dissociated state, this part of your soul that is somewhere out there begins to weigh heavily on you. It is like something deep within you is missing. You may experience this soul loss in the form of addiction, depression, chronic fatigue, etc. There are many conditions that can occur as a result of Soul Loss.
Soul loss occurs initially to protect you energetically from the trauma. However, you can’t move forward without reclaiming and reiterating the quintessential essence of who you truly are. How can you move on in the present without the reclaiming and reintegrating your very essence?
Spiritual and Existential interventions such as automatic writing, spiritual journeys, inner child work, journaling and meditation can assist the client to connect to and release unprocessed wounds. This allows the lost soul parts to return to them in divine order, healed and whole.
The renowned Shamanic healer Alberto Vivoldo believes that utilizing and engaging in shamanic soul work can help to heal the client much quicker than years of psychotherapy alone.