Dr. Ardeshir Mehran

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CURIOUS ABOUT TRAUMA? READ THIS.

TRAUMA IS A LIFE’S STORY

 

With a relaxed face and faint smile, my client whispered, “I feel like I am reclaiming the young girl who was somehow lost years ago. I am coming home again. But to a new and better home.”

That’s how my recent client expressed her trauma-healing sentiments at the end of our fifth therapy session. The emotions of coming home, finding oneself, becoming whole, or falling in love with the person who had been there all along are some of the typical ways healing one’s trauma feels like. A stirring, enriching, and sacred journey. I know firsthand, as I have traveled the same journey myself.

In this post, I have distilled information behind the surge in trauma science, the leading pioneers, and the top-10 trauma research findings.

I had not planned to become a trauma therapist; this work found me. I vividly remember my foray into the field. It was twelve years ago during a therapy session when my therapist asked me an unexpected question. She leaned forward and, in a caring way, asked “Ardeshir, did things happen to you in your childhood? You might be dealing with childhood trauma. Were you hurt, abused, or assaulted?”

What an odd question, I thought. “Nope, nothing like that happened to me,” I replied with a lump in my throat. That episode jolted me. No one had ever asked me such a question so bluntly before.

At the time, the elements of my work around The Bill of Emotional Rights were coming together. I had reservations about the prevailing talk therapies—took long, were costly, and yielded mixed results at best.

That brief exchange about my trauma awakened me and redirected my pursuit for a better therapeutic science. I went all in.

But what is trauma really?

Social Context

Trauma is a derivative of a Greek word that means wound or piercing. Think of trauma as an “emotional wound.”

The science of trauma surged into mainstream conversation beginning in the 1960’s-70’s. Many soldiers from the recent U.S. wars had returned home with severe psychological struggles, trauma, and PTSD and were not sufficiently treated. Reported incidents of child abuse, sexual abuse, mass violence, and suicides had become more frequent. Contemporary talk therapy and psychiatric and psychopharmacology treatments yielded limited resolution to the suffering and pain of so many. Things felt stuck. People were searching and experimenting for better approaches.

Four Pioneers

Many thought leaders have advanced the field of the modern science of trauma. Four contemporary scientists/clinicians have made the greatest contributions. They all started by broadening their focus from analyzing the brain, mind, and personality traits to looking at the “whole” person, mind, body, and spirit when treating patients with trauma. They saw different patterns and began experimenting. The four pioneers are (the order is arbitrary):

Bessel van der Kolk, MD, the author of the best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score. Trauma deforms normal development, and cognitive, physical, behavioral, and bodily functions. Trauma memories are stored at the cellular level throughout the body. Trauma is healed best through somatic practices.

Stephen Porges, PhD, a researcher of the human brain and vagus nervous system. He showed the effect of trauma on the cognitive processes and the entire body’s functions–digestion, heart, and bloodstream, hormonal, and immune systems.

Gabor Mate, MD, research shows the link between early childhood trauma and subsequent mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, and addiction, as well as physical ailments such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular and gastrointestinal complications.

Peter Levine, PhD, the developer of Somatic Experiencing therapy. He researched what happens in situations of trauma when one is unable to satisfactorily cope with trauma.

In my clinical practice, I apply practices from all these experts, particularly Peter Levine’s.

Top 10 Trauma Science Discoveries

(Based on Ardeshir’s meta-analysis and clinical work)

“Your issues are in your tissues.” —Peter Levine, PhD

  1. Three Must-haves. For optimal well-being, all humans seek fulfillment in three experiences: presence (sensory openness, feeling grounded, in here and now, authentic, hopeful), agency (sense of control, energized, alert, impactful, playful), connection (feeling social, seen, appreciated, engaged, curious, compassion).
  1. Wholeness. The brain and body are interlocked in perceiving and responding to our internal and external experiences—both are 100% engaged in everything, all the time.
  1. Inner Dialogue. The body feels the feelings. The brain perceives the feelings. The brain does not feel. The language of the brain is information—thoughts, concepts,memory, labeling, analysis, planning, and judgment. The language of the body is sensation—temperature changes, tightness, openness, expansion, settling, shaking, heaviness, lightness, as well as pain and illnesses.
  2. Body Primacy. The brain follows the body in perceiving and responding to the world, not the other way around, as commonly believed. The body lives here & now. The brain has an expansive sense of time. We perceive the world within the limits of our senses of presence, agency, and connection.
  3. Rupture. Trauma is an experience of being “overwhelmed” when our innate capability for presence, agency, and connection is disrupted (see point #1 above). The overwhelm occurs when: there is too much too soon, there is too much for too long, there is not enough for too long, or when one is subjugated, violated, abandoned, or held back. Traumatized people habitually feel unsafe in their bodies, feel isolated, and unsure of their capacities. These disruptions could last and turn into learned patterns and be passed on to generations if not reversed.
  4. Trauma Types. There are two types of traumas. The first involves outright disruptions—child abuse, assault, accidents, illnesses, tragedies, war, crime, racism, poverty, or oppression. The second trauma type is harder to discern but equally hurtful and almost universal—shaming, ridicule, neglect, judgment, abandonment, hurt, humiliation, isolation. Prolonged trauma distorts development and life trajectories and could happen at any point in life. 
  5. Coping. Four ways to deal with trauma. 1) Pushing back (fight), acting out, confronting, arguing, acting silly, showing defiance, yelling, and screaming. 2) Getting away (flight), disengaging, daydreaming, avoiding, hiding, or wandering. 3) Giving up (fawn), playing small, pleasing, and appeasing. 4) Immobilizing (freeze), numbing, shutting down, having a flat affect, and delaying gratification. Freeze is the most consequential trauma response. It signals stuck energy, emotions, and behaviors, frozen in time. This stuck energy creates havoc on our mind-body-spirit, as if a car all revved up but is in neutral gear.
  6. Signals. Traumatic reactions may look different for different people in different situations. For some, it feels like a lingering sense of dread, hollowness, or brain fog. Others may experience trauma as being constantly on guard (hypervigilance), intrusive imagery or flashbacks, extreme sensitivity, disassociation, impulsiveness (hyperactivity), compulsive talking, mood swings, temper tantrums, toxic shame, over-controlling, nightmares, lingering pain, churning gut, prolonged body tightening and constriction.
  7. Unfreezing. Unfreezing is the core of trauma healing. It is about releasing the blocked energy of being overwhelmed, and restoring the healthy balance of practices of areas 1 through 4 mentioned above. According to Peter Levine, “Trauma is caused when we are unable to release blocked energies, to fully move through the physical or emotional reactions to hurtful experiences. Healing is to be found in the body since trauma is something that also happens in the body, in addition to the mind. Talking cures that engage the intellect or even the emotions do not reach deep enough.”
  8. Restoring. Trauma healing happens when we restore healthier inner presence, agency, and connection experiences, a homecoming. Trauma is best healed when a therapist operates as an attuned witness. Attunement is about fostering spaces for the client to claim their body presence, connection, and personal agency, and goes beyond empathy. Again, according to Peter Levine, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”

 

Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts.

I welcome an introductory Ask Me Anything Call with you.

With love and gratitude,

Dr. ARDESHIR MEHRAN

Human Work Studio

hello@ardeshirmehran.com