Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Welcome to My Mythic Garden

Trauma and its Aftermath

Trauma shocks, numbs, overwhelms, disrupts the victim’s life and totally throws his/her nervous system into a state of chaos, shatters our assumptions about life and destabilizes the integration of the self.   It reduces the immune system, creates health problems, fractures relationships and often leads to depression, panic attacks, addiction, divorce, suicide, and even those who respond to the event are affected. It has far reaching consequences, affecting everyone in its wake.  Factors affecting the severity, duration and effects of trauma are (1) the type, (2) age when it occurred, (3) perpetrator-natural or human, and (4) immediate circumstances. Violence related trauma is particularly devastating when it is a community wide event.  Sandy Hook, Tucson, Columbine, Oklahoma City and 9/11 are examples of the devastating wake trauma can have on whole communities.  Natural disasters are also examples of traumatic events which have extensive effects that create a wide swath after it has happened. Early attachment related trauma to young children is also likely to created lifelong effects because the young brain is still in its formative stages.

All these various types of trauma push us to life on the edge and become a boundary experience by destroying our normal, stable, taken for granted lives.  There is no area of  our lives that is not touched when a traumatic event occurs.  The question is just how deep are the wounds and how extensive is the damage.  Each person’s experience is different.

The destabilizing features of trauma occurs as person’s life goes off track and  is also accompanied by many painful losses. Being a victim and vulnerable, losing control of one’s life is a terrifying ordeal. It is this psychological event that I have made my life’s goal to understand and to work with victims who have suffered from catastrophic, life changing events.  I have discovered that Trauma is not very well understood and is often unrecognized and its effects are frequently minimized.  People are less likely to seek treatment for trauma because its dangerous effects are not appreciated.   My interest in trauma following the death of a child has ironically enriched my life in so many different and unexpected ways.  I have met many interesting people, heard amazing stories, and learned a great deal about the depths of the human experience as revealed in tragedy.  I have found that trauma, when approached with knowledge and care can lead to life transforming growth.  With this preface in mind, I want to write this time about some interesting things which are happening in the area of therapy and brain development as it relates to trauma.

Recently my quest has led me to look at the effects of trauma on young children.  Working with children in the foster care system gave me another unique opportunity to study very young,  abused, traumatized children who, were replaced from their families of origin.  My Book:  Broken Systems-Shattered Lives opened up new vistas as I did research in the area of neurobiology and the effect of trauma on young brains.

What I discovered in my research was that our brains are amazingly complex and resilient.  My biggest surprise was that I found that the human brain is “experience dependent” which means that the very young brain is shaped by the environmental and relational experience between parent and child.   It is the attachment bond which writes, so to speak, the program for the young brain.  Trauma, violence, abuse, and neglect not too surprisingly, are very harmful to the very young.  Hence, young children and those who care for them after placement are confronted by serious behavioral and developmental trauma issues.  As a corollary I found a term I recently discovered by reading Daniel Siegel, “neuroplasticity.”  He contends that because the brain is experience dependent, it is possible to rewire the brain.

The intriguing question for me is always how?  Again I am back to the old and familiar curiosity about the relationship between trauma and transformation.  I also am intrigued about his method which does not come from theology, philosophy, psychology or even neurobiology.  This line of investigation dove-tailed nicely where I return to my roots, my interest in a unifying concept, a paradigm which allows for integration of these major fields of thought: as I moved away from my early religious and philosophical background, searching for some way to make sense of things. Eastern wisdom practices: mindfulness, or meditation began to have a powerful resonance with me.  Sounding more like a Zen master than a psychiatrist, Siegel writes:

Our proposal is that the inner reflection of mindfulness practice involves a form of internal attunement in which an observing self attunes to an experience of self in an open and kind way.  Attunement, internal in mindfulness and interpersonal in attachment can therefore be seen as a manifestation of integration. (Interpersonal Neurobiology, ch 5, pg. 6)

Interestingly enough, Siegel has borrowed this concept from a diverse field of “wisdom traditions from around the world:  Lakota Indians, Innuit, Polynesian, and Hindu cultures.  This he contends is a path which produces mental health, secure attachment, a kind life, and “neural integration.”  How is it possible? I wondered how this can in any way address the devastating effects of trauma.

In brief, Siegel argues that with intentional creation of mindful awareness, the brain can be stimulated through the focus of attention to link differentiated areas to one another and relationships can be made more empathic and harmonious. Integration in the various brain areas creates a balanced and coordinated nervous system.  In turn an integrated brain permits empathic relationships and resilient and healthy minds. This I think provides a natural bridge to using this as a means of possibly remediating the effects of trauma.  Since trauma is one of the biggest impediments to neural integration and creates impairments to personal as well as interpersonal integration.  Integration in the various brain areas creates a balanced and coordinated nervous system.  In turn an integrated brain permits empathic relationships and a resilient and healthy mind. These are the major tenets of Eastern thought-empathy, compassion and at oneness with life.

Siegel suggests that such a practice requires that we take time to reflect on our inner lives, focusing on the here and now (present in the moment) and being attuned to what is happening moment by moment inside our minds and when we do, it will lead to greater integration of mind, body, and spirit.  Disruption and Dysregulation are two of the most serious effects of trauma and in the case of trauma the brain’s circuitry is seriously disrupted by the Autonomic Nervous System flooding the brain regulatory functions. Though the solution sounds simple, it requires a great deal of practice and some inconvenience. We would have to disconnect from all the electronic appendages to which we are now wired and stop our worlds and pay attention to an inner world.  And, sit quietly.

This amazing and revolutionary concept goes back thousands of years but has been found   metaphorically to be like doing brain surgery on ourselves, sans scalpel.  Zen calls this experience Satori—enlightenment-awakening.  This amazingly old and yet revolutionary concept  fills whole libraries. Yet, when applied systematically it results in powerful changes.

When I began to apply these simple, powerful ideas my life has undergone a transformation.  I woke up.  I began to focus my attention by tuning in to my inner life.  I now do this by sitting quietly, breathing deeply, relaxing, and paying attention to my life.  My new regime:  exercise, a sensible diet, working with my Bonsai, and meditation.  It also involves paying attention to my relationships with friends and family. Mindfulness requires a lot of practice.  It takes time to break automatic thought patterns, tone down my type A personality, relax my hyper-vigilant- reflexive stress responses, (trying to control every variable in my life), different social interactions, work habits, and emotional responses (my infamous impatience and anger).  In essence the four dimensions of my life needed to be brought into harmony: body, emotions, relationships and mind.  This creates what Allan Schore calls interactional synchronicity.  Defined as “The manner in which person-environment transactions shape neural circuits that determine the structure and functional aspects of the brain and behavior through the life span.  This is accomplished through awareness.  Alan Watts explained the Buddhist sense of awareness as the feeling of transience and simplicity of life.  It is the awareness of change and that nothing can be held onto. I simply call it being in Sync.

Awareness, then, is the gateway to change.  It allows us to make sense of our life narrative.  Awareness is essential for well-being and is a tool of healing and movement toward integration.  Awareness fosters the cultivation of compassion and empathy, the cornerstones of mindfulness and is instrumental in the cultivation of the third cornerstone of mindfulness—the unifying experience of being at one with ourselves, others and the cultures that are our foundation of being.

Awareness can be awakened through knowledge and skill building to change the way information flows through our brains.

From a relational point of view, awareness permits people to transform the way interactions are unfolding as new modes of sharing information alter old, engrained patterns.  Inside the brain the experience of awareness permits the energy and information flow through the nervous system in new ways-enabling non-integrated states to move toward integration.  For all of the above reasons, awareness is the core of every form of psychotherapy.

This awareness is like the attunement practiced by a mother who is aware of every wiggle, squeak, cry, coo and utterance of her child.  She decodes these messages and responds effectively to restore balance and soothe her child.  If we are that attuned to our inner life as well as our relationships we will be more sensitive; the result, harmony, serenity, and integration through the practice of mindfulness. Once thought of as the practices of Eastern Holy men and their devotee’s mindfulness practices are being brought into the mainstream of trauma therapy.  Stop, Look, and Listen takes on a whole new meaning in this context.

This kind of awareness is empowering in that it allows choice and the ability to change from our robotic automatic mode to new modes of acting and engaging the world.  Awareness is the art of knowing something and know that we know it— awakened consciousness.

Practice mindfulness, pay attention, turn your focus inward, tune in to what is really happening inside, practice this consistently with empathy and compassion and you will not only be surprised but perhaps even transformed by not only rewiring your brain but your relationships with the world.  This is very different from the Western mode of being connected, where people walk around with their left hand to their ear while carrying on a conversation. I often find myself amused when I am at the gym and encounter someone sitting on a machine rapidly and intensely texting instead of exercising.  There is a metaphor here somewhere.

In conclusion, Trauma is a powerful disruptive force in human life often leaving a path of devastation, a cone of trauma in its wake.  The practice of mindful awareness can be a powerful means of healing by bringing about integration, harmony, compassion, empathy and a sense of unity to our lives.  And in this way the awakened life becomes a life on a pathway of healing. It may even rewire our brains in the process.


1 Comment
  1. As a psychotherapist in training, this blog has enlightened much of my theories and beliefs. I view the mind and the brain as beings, with so much untold and mysterious powers…amazing.

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