"We Are the Medicine" in Trauma Recovery

“We are the Medicine”

Each person who witnessed George Floyd begging for his breath, and dying, experienced a life threatening event. The nervous system, wired to survive, was activated as if you were there. The nervous system does not know the difference, as we witness a man begging for his breath, helpless to either fight back or run away. We experienced helplessness, witnessing a man dying on the plethora of media outlets and social platforms.

Helplessness in the midst of chaos and confusion leads to feelings of overwhelm. A nervous system in overwhelm shuts down. Bearing witness comes with a cost. Overwhelmed you are no longer present, no longer seeing and feeling.

Yet, the discharged energy from an activated nervous system and firing of the brain is not resolved, and may remain frozen in the hormonal and sensory systems of our body. As I learned from caring for our country’s Veterans at the end of life, possibly for more than 60 years.

Having our breath taken away is death.

With my personal experience of domestic violence, witnessing the death of George Floyd triggered the trauma memories in my body, memories of hands around my neck, choking me so that I could not breathe. Listening to George Floyd’s voice, “I can’t breathe”, triggered symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My experience of domestic violence was in 1981. At that time, a Registered Nurse, five years out of school, I knew nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which became a formal mental health diagnosis in 1980, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Sharing my experience of what was happening at home with my nursing department manager and director, they themselves appeared to dissociate. Stories of trauma are difficult to hear. Many do not hear, as they are no longer present, no longer able to bear witness to the trauma story. Bearing witness to the trauma is experiencing the trauma as if it is happening to the one who is listening. This is not always easy, and is actually very complex. Unless one is fully connected to their feeling self, they can not be fully present for the suffering of another. Bearing witness does come with a cost.

The opportunity and privilege of caring for our country’s Veterans receiving hospice care, began my journey of acknowledging, and healing from PTSD, thirty years later. I wonder how many of those participating in the protests erupting after George Floyd’s death, either physically, verbally, or emotionally, have had similar experiences. I wonder how many healthcare professionals, nurses, and physicians, on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, have had similar traumatic experiences. Trauma causes separation, flight through disconnection, feelings of fighting alone, and fatigue. Relationship and connection are necessary for trauma recovery. Trauma recovery increases one’s capacity to understand and serve others. Trauma recovery increases one’s courage to care, with compassion. Compassion is always energizing, never fatiguing.

** June is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. **

This blog has been in process for a month, editing and rewriting, with the feedback of mentor and coach. This is a sensitive topic, evoking strong emotions and reactions, on a personal and public scale. We live in a fragmented world which is currently being revealed, as unhealed collective trauma wounds, thought to be invisible, are becoming painfully visible.

PTSD was identified as a formal mental health diagnosis in 1980, at the end of the Vietnam War. The phenomenon is not new and has been known in past wars as Vietnam stress, combat fatigue, shell shock, and soldier’s heart. To establish criteria for Mental Health Providers to determine a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), symptoms are identified and grouped into clusters. Clusters of symptoms originating in an activated sympathetic nervous system and brain, are hyper-vigilance, dissociation, negative thinking, and over-stimulation, which are frequent and persisting for over a month.

Forty years later, much more is known about how the body experiences trauma. Trauma experts, based on evidence based research, are dropping the “D”, with a new understanding that Post Traumatic Stress is not a disorder, but a normal response, a healthy response, to a terrifying, life threatening experience.

Trauma recovery now includes integrating the trauma imprints through the nervous system and rewiring the brain with mind body practices, such as a breath practice, yoga and meditation, enhancing the traditional treatments of psychotherapy and medication. Trauma Recovery Coaching is a process where a sacred space is held and a coherent field is co-created with the client, taking the deep dive into the unconscious where trauma imprints may have been frozen for a very long time.

Then, “we are the medicine”, holding space and bearing witness for the trauma story of our patients/clients, neighbors, and communities.

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