While a severe accident or natural disaster comes to mind for many people when they think of trauma, health care professionals say that trauma comes not just from cataclysmic events. It comes also from prolonged exposure to extreme stress, living in an abusive relationship or being bullied at school, for example, as well as from an emotional crisis such as being fired or going through a divorce.
When someone is traumatized, whether from a physical or emotional cause, the effects can linger, experts say, and can create physical and emotional havoc for years, without the person even understanding why.
To offer a window into treatment options for people affected by trauma, the Vashon Community Wellness Project will present the Wellness Forum, Freedom from Trauma, tomorrow evening. Four health care providers will present treatment information from their practices and perspectives. They are Karen Hain, acupuncturist and craniosacral therapist; Dennis Levin, acupuncturist; Hannah Albert, homeopath, and Remony Henry, therapist.
When a person is traumatized, according to Hain, his or her body will portray a snapshot of the attempt to defend against the threat. Sometimes people get frozen in that place, Hain said, and the snapshot is of the effects of the body’s fight or flight response — the automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to fight or flee from perceived danger. This snapshot varies from individual to individual, Hain said.
“In the face of a threat, the central nervous system sends signals to the musculature and viscera (organs) to prepare and mobilize. If someone remains in this state, the musculature will stay tensed, and the viscera will continue in their state, which will send signals back to the central nervous system that danger is still present, although it is not,” Hain said.
In addition to acupuncture, Hain has come to rely on other hands-on healing therapies, including myofascial techniques, visceral manipulation and craniosacral therapy, all of which fall into the broad category of therapeutic bodywork. These therapies help release the trauma at the muscular, visceral and peripheral nervous systems levels and decrease the feedback to the central nervous system that danger is still present, Hain said.
Acupuncture has become well known for treating pain — whiplash from a car accident, for example. It is also useful for treating a wide range of physical and emotional problems, including those stemming from trauma, Levin said, noting that one treatment principle in Chinese medicine is to calm the spirit.
In his private practice and his work as the staff acupuncturist at Fairfax, a psychiatric hospital, he sees many trauma survivors, he said. In working with people, he observes physical symptoms as well as emotional ones and determines which organ systems are affected according to Chinese medicine.
“I rebalance the affected organs,” he said. “And when it is done properly, physical and emotional symptoms get resolved at the same time.”
Naturopathic physician Hannah Albert practices homeopathy, which is based on the principle that like cures like. The belief is that natural substances that produce similar symptoms in a healthy person can cure those same symptoms in an ill person. Homeopathic physicians prescribe remedies — usually tiny pellets that contain extreme dilutions of substances from plants, animals and minerals — based on a person’s constitution.
In her work, Albert sees that how people respond to trauma has to do with what type of constitution they have.
“Some people come into the world with wounds that need to be healed,” she said, talking about people with one
type of constitution, noting that a trauma would exacerbate their needs. People of a different constitutional type would fight back against a trauma and be more on the offensive than others. And people with a third constitutional type would take a more questioning role when faced with a trauma and try to create a structure in their minds to understand and cope with it.
Each constitutional type would be affected differently, even if the people had experienced the same event, and each would require a different remedy, according to homeopathic principles.
“It is amazing,” Albert said. “Once you have the right remedy and the appropriate support such as bodywork and counseling, the trauma can completely resolve.”
In her work with trauma survivors, Island therapist Remony Henry found that although supportive talk therapy was helpful, patients would reach a plateau in their recovery. She later learned that this plateau occurred because talk therapy accesses the brain’s frontal lobes, and traumatic memories are stored in a different, more primitive area of the brain — the limbic system, she said. Accessing that area, according to Henry, proves extremely helpful to trauma survivors.
How she does this in her practice is through a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, a therapeutic approach frequently used to treat people, including combat veterans, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
In an EMDR session, according to Henry, a client will think about a disturbing issue or event and what kind of negative beliefs he or she holds about that event. Then, most commonly, the therapist will have the patient look at a light bar with flashing moving lights while the person thinks of the negative material and notices whatever comes to mind. Sets of eye movements continue until the memory becomes less disturbing and the negative thoughts become replaced by more positive ones.
As with many other therapies, exactly how the process works on a biological level is not known, but it seems to have a direct effect on how the brain processes information, according to Henry, and most people report a great reduction in their level of disturbance after going through a series of EMDR treatments.
Henry has seen it work repeatedly in her practice and noted that all of the modalities discussed would work well together and that they are all therapies that involve the body, not just the mind.
“Talk therapy can help people cope,” she said. “But it cannot help people access the traumatic memories. That can only be done through the body.”
Freedom from Trauma will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Land Trust Building. It is a fundraiser for the Vashon Community Wellness Project, which enables people with low incomes to volunteer in exchange for discounts on health-related goods and services. All the providers speaking that evening participate in the project. The suggested donation is $10, but no one will be turned away for lack of ability to pay.
For more information on the wellness project or the forum, call Kim Curry at 463-3227.