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Terrors of Trauma

Where Past Persists Into Present

It is said that we must learn from the past in order not to repeat it. This refers to avoiding the repetition or continuation of past mistakes. In a sociopolitical sense, this may be prudent wisdom.

The body and mind have their own innate and prudent wisdom. They demand that we must learn from the present and “unlearn” the past. This irony is explicitly represented in the experience, accommodation, and recapitulating effects of traumas. Our bodies and minds store memories of what has happened to us. Many of these memories are cognitive—that is, they are thoughts that can be invoked voluntarily or triggered by some perception or association. Some memories, however—whether or not they are recollected as thoughts—are registered in the body as physiological and emotional events.

Trauma Is Everywhere

Many people suffer shattering traumas: physical or emotional injuries, natural disasters, assaults or attacks, threats, setbacks, illnesses, and losses of all kinds. Even if you’ve not been a victim of catastrophic events, you have likely experienced trauma—although no one (including you) may have recognized it as such. Whether it’s the sudden impact of an emotional or physically traumatic event or the accumulation of life’s disappointments and frustrations chipping away at your hopes, dreams, and coping resources, traumas invariably take their cumulative toll.

The nature of trauma is that the experience becomes “encapsulated” in the brain’s emotional memory. Thus, the traumatized person continues to “replay” or experience the impact of the trauma, though it may have happened long ago. Some people in the throes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have flashbacks, disrupted sleep, or panic attacks that they can consciously associate with a traumatic event. The majority of people, however, experience symptoms that they don’t connect with trauma: anxiety, depression, poor sleep, pain, distractibility, and recurring problems with relationships, work, and so on.

While there are many avenues for symptomatic relief (some healthier than others), healing the trauma that caused the onset of symptoms provides the most thorough and long lasting relief from the agony of acute or chronic symptoms.

In my decades of clinical work as a neuropsychologist, I’ve helped thousands of people overcome their symptoms and the underlying causal factors that are triggering their difficulties. Certain individuals can identify their traumas; others are not aware of them or their causal connection to present distress. Aside from catastrophic events, many routine life experiences such as surgeries, illnesses, food poisoning, rejection, minor altercations and frustrations, and even adverse reactions to medications can automatically generate much suffering.

The good news is that traumas are very responsive—and quickly responsive—to the right treatments.

As you read this article, reflect upon difficult events or periods in your life that may be stored in your brain as unresolved traumas. You need not be a hypochondriac or an identified victim to be suffering from unrecognized and unresolved traumas in order to be a good candidate for rapid and effective healing.

Traumas

A trauma may result from the following:

  1. An injury caused by an extrinsic agent, especially one causing a disturbance in normal functioning.
  2. A psychological shock or severe distress from experiencing a disastrous event outside the range of usual experience. Some examples are: rape, military combat, violent assault, suffering an environmental catastrophe, such as fire, flood, etc.
  3. A psychological shock or severe distress from experiencing an attack, loss, a manipulation, or abuse taking advantage of one’s vulnerability (e.g., being held hostage, being abused, molested, bullied, extorted, threatened, blackmailed, etc.).
  4. A disordered psychological or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury (e.g., prolonged stress from dysfunctional relationships, exploitation, discrimination or social/legal injustice, workplace harassment or overload, trauma from accidents or physical injuries, prolonged chronic pain, etc.).
  5. A violation or a perceived violation of a person’s familiar ideas about the world and their rights (e.g., unjust treatment, feeling rejected, worthless, or unwanted, being or feeling deprived of what is due or expected).

The traditional concept of trauma is predicated on an assumption of a catastrophic event outside the range of usual experience. However, trauma encompasses a much broader spectrum of contributing situations and is a very common occurrence. Traumas are universal, and they occur intermittently in everyone’s life. Recovering from traumas is necessary for basic physical functioning and mental and emotional health, and can be accomplished routinely by most people (given the right tools, training, and support).

In order to understand these points, you must start with the assumption that we all have vulnerabilities.

Vulnerabilities make us physically and psychologically more susceptible to experience physical and/or emotional symptoms and injury from life’s everyday events and upsets, as well as from major stressors.

As we accumulate experiences and get to know ourselves, we can ideally identify and often protect ourselves against many of our own vulnerabilities. But there are also certain vulnerabilities that are genetically coded and specific. These susceptibilities are the weak links that allow us to become ill or dysfunctional in a myriad of ways. For example, it is well known scientifically that particular diseases tend to run in families. A family history of heart disease, diabetes, depression, etc. doesn’t determine absolutely that you will be afflicted with these conditions, but it does increase the odds that put you at greater statistical risk.

Trauma occurs when we are caught in an “attack” on one of our “weak links,” whether the attack is intentional, random, or even imagined. The essence of trauma is that it penetrates defenses, seizes upon vulnerability, and leaves us feeling hurt, defenseless, and usually causes us to “relive” in some way the embedded traumatic experience. Common sense observation and your own experiences will confirm this cause and effect link.

After a vehicle accident or near-accident, many people habitually tend to tense up when reminders or even vaguely similar conditions present themselves, as if girding up for another accident. For example, suppose you were in an auto accident that really rattled you, perhaps even injured you. For a long time afterward, you might become anxious when approaching the scene of that accident. Or, say the police were pursuing a speeding car that blew through a red light and almost hit your car. Subsequently, you might panic whenever you hear in the distance the sound of a police siren while you are driving. This reaction evokes both physiological (fight-or-flight) and psychological / mental / emotional responses. The set of defensive responses to an anticipated offending event (in the absence of its presence or direct evidence that it will necessarily occur) is called perseveration: responding to an event that is no longer present.

There are many forms of trauma that occur when people are subjected to harsh conditions, abuse, overwhelming negativity, rejection, racism, isolation, poverty, and so forth. For many people, however, it is overwhelming enough just having to cope with the more mundane traumas that result from the daily interactions, demands, and conflicts typically associated with ordinary life. Add intense trauma to the equation, and the coping mechanisms are at risk for becoming dysfunctional.

When your spouse, boss, friend, child, relative, partner, teammate, peer does not react in the way you want or expect, it can be emotionally traumatic. You need not be oversensitive or even know that you are at the effect of trauma. You can, however, tell by the after effects. Remember: the nature of trauma is that it causes us to relive or anticipate an event or reaction that previously left us hurt, shocked, exposed, or defenseless. So, when you find yourself (or your relationship partner) re-visiting the same conflicts, scripts, and quickly accelerated emotional responses to the faintest of cues, you will know that a trauma has been incited and activated.

For these traumas, you don’t need to access an emergency room or avail yourself of years of therapy. What you do need is the realization that you are probably reacting to some provocation that stimulates a less than conscious, unresolved emotional vulnerability that initiated a trauma. Such awareness will enable you to see your inner responses and your outward behavior as reactions to a trauma that you may perceive viscerally as necessary, but which are neither a function of choice and clear thinking, nor conducive to planning, keen observation, evaluation, and problem-solving.

The Nature of Trauma

Not all loss is traumatic; much that we lose can be taken in stride. Many losses, however, are traumatic, and trauma has unique characteristics. It tends to paralyze our coping mechanisms and keep us stuck emotionally. We re-live the traumatic event in emotional memory, and thoughts about the event become fused with the startling and debilitating emotions surrounding the trauma. As with many setbacks, the ancillary effects of trauma usually diminish over time. But the core of trauma, often lives within the body and mind unless deliberate and effective steps are taken to offset and even eliminate the trauma’s devastating impact.

We can lose things without necessarily being traumatized. Conversely, however, trauma itself always involves loss. Whether or not the loss is material, there is inevitably a shocking loss of control. To be traumatized is to lose the sense of being in charge, the sense or order, predictability, and justice. Trauma brings a fearful loss of protection, an exposure and vulnerability previously and conveniently forgotten.

These are some of the pertinent characteristics of trauma:

  • The originating event gets re-stimulated by many potential associations
  • The trauma may be in conscious awareness and/or it may be activated by subconscious connections
  • Traumatic thoughts and feelings are often intrusive—that is, they invade and beset the person randomly or intermittently and are resistant to conscious efforts to rid them
  • Traumatic memories are emotional, physiological, and neurological (not cognitive, analytical, or logical)
  • The implicit threat of traumatic memories is continuously perceived by the nervous system, although the actual event and/or danger is no longer present in the tangible world
  • Trauma activates the brain and nervous system into fight-or-flight mode; hence, a continual state of vigilance persists
  • The body expresses traumatic hurt through somatic feelings and complaints
  • Essentially, trauma launches fear and anxiety mechanisms, which are useful for survival, but which persist in a maladaptive manner (when the danger is no longer actual)
  • Flexibility and trust are inhibited
  • Motivation is diminished and often thwarted
  • Traumatic influence obstructs healing and recovery in general
  • Trauma invokes psychological reversal limiting or preventing healing and recovery
  • Symptoms are perseverated (continued in present experience, even after the stimulus event is absent)
  • Trauma reverts the nervous system into survival mode timelessly (behaving physiologically as though the threat is imminent)
  • Traumatic experiences are encapsulated—memories are bonded with emotional and physiological coding (like chemical compounds)
  • There is a collective aspect to traumas: they can be sensed and passed on between people who are in relationship or closely identified
  • Traumas are cumulative: each traumatic event compounds the impact of previous traumas and lowers the vulnerability threshold for succumbing to future traumas

Effective Trauma Treatment

Because traumas are encapsulated and neurological, they are impervious to logic and reason. Thus, “talk therapy” and its variants, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are largely ineffective at reducing the impact of traumatic encoding. Typical and traditional treatments for trauma are based on the (false) idea that that teaching someone to think differently about or reframe the emotional event will lessen the emotional impact of the trauma. This turns out not to be the case, based on scientific and empirical reality: encapsulated emotional memories are resistant to logic and cognitive modification! Exposure therapy, or systematic desensitization—the favored treatment for decades—is also quite ineffective. This treatment gradually “exposes” the patient to the traumatic event (either in person, such as visiting the scene, or in guided memory and images) based on the theory that repeated exposure paired with a “safer state” will somehow influence or reprogram the emotional impact of the trauma. This approach is not only ineffective, but I would argue that it is ridiculous and painful. It simply doesn’t work.

Trauma reduction is not a gradual or a step-by-step process, nor does it require “reprocessing.” Effective treatment is transformational and quick. You don’t remove a splinter gradually—you simply remove it, while protecting the patient from pain and collateral side effects.

Traumas may have many layers, but dissolving the core that holds them in place is rapid indeed, when the right techniques are applied. Traumas are highly responsive to “reprogramming” by natural methods that rewrite the codes by which the brain and body encapsulate the memories and emotional impact.

I use a two-pronged approach to eliminating trauma (yes, eliminating—that means no residual symptoms!): Voice Technology and EEG neurofeedback.

Voice Technology

Voice Technology, the most advanced form of Thought Field Therapy (TFT) quickly eliminates any negative emotion. Because negative emotions are tied to physiological states (which are the cause of unpleasant emotions and thoughts), accessing the codes that keep these problems situated at a cellular level allows for the collapsing of the scaffold that encapsulates the negative emotions, including traumas. Using the right technology, we can determine through the projections of the human voice where these codes are stored and what is necessary to collapse or reprogram the perturbations (information disturbances) that cause the symptoms. (A perturbation is a disturbance in the encoding of information that connects a thought with a feeling. TFT acts upon these perturbations to collapse them and render them inactive.)

In this procedure, I test the person’s voice and, using the revealed information, prescribe tapping sequences that the person self-administers on his own body. The procedure involves variable iterations of the tapping (according to the encoded perturbations). However, it is precise and rapid. In a matter of minutes, the negative feelings disappear! This procedure works 97% of the time and can be done over the phone. Concurrently, many physical symptoms disappear, ranging from situational discomfort (such as headaches, stomach distress, or body tension) to longer-term recalcitrant pain that’s held in place by the body’s memory of the accident or traumatic insult.

Because traumatic encapsulation and memory is timeless, the length of suffering and historical separation between the trauma and the treatment are not relevant factors in the success of treatment. I’ve successfully treated thousands of people whose traumas date back decades. Latency doesn’t matter: the trauma is released and no longer afflicts the person. A notable anecdotal record for me was my treatment of an elderly gentleman whose trauma dated back 55 years to an event he could remember from his childhood on a different continent! This had plagued him for half a century. In minutes, he was free!

EEG Neurofeedback

We are “wired” with the capacity to be flexible: to learn, adapt, change, and benefit from experience. Compared to other life forms, each of us has a highly advanced cortex, prepared to acquire and use knowledge, memories, and concepts, and to convert these experiences into survival-oriented problem-solving.

You may have heard the term brain plasticity. This refers to our brain’s biological predisposition to adapt and compensate, not only cognitively, but with functional neurological networking. Our brains are designed for regulation and order. However, many genetic, environmental, and circumstantial influences can and do derail the natural rhythms of brain self-regulation. Traumas are among the random influences that contribute to dysfunction. Thankfully, much of this can be fixed.

The last few decades have seen a rise in and proliferation of techniques to restore and enhance brain function. Among the best of these is EEG neurofeedback, a method of training the brain (actually the neural networks through the brainwaves) to establish and refine brain communication, stability, state management, and specific functional capacities.

Our brains can establish and rewrite connections. Through brief and efficient training, each of us can overcome early deprivation, traumatic events, and the debilitating effects of stressors. EEG training is a scientifically proven method of making the brain more fit—stronger, more flexible, more durable, and with a higher resistance to traumatic and injurious influences.

Through the transformation of neurophysiology, traumas can be healed. Better internal balance can develop. More stable and functional connections within the brain reflect in more productive and compassionate connections with the environment and its inhabitants. Relating well to the world and contributing to it require much more than overresponding or withdrawing because previous experiences have burned or bitten into the psyche casting a shadow of fear and response based on previous and persisting traumatic experiences.

Each of us is built to become. And we can stave off deterioration for a long time, especially when the right information and nourishment are supplied to our brain.

Much has been written about this marvelous EEG neurofeedback technique. You can read my articles and books (marksteinberg.com) and the articulate explanations and research by others in this field (also, visit EEGinfo.com). My colleagues and I have administered many millions of EEG neurofeedback sessions with reliable and pervasively successful results for decades.

Yet, we are only now scratching the surface for the potential of this treatment to lead the brain out of the darkness and terror that trauma can elicit.

Trauma Healing Results

The benefits and liberation that result from relieving and healing trauma are often dramatic and operate on multiple levels. Since traumatic effects and symptoms are striking and typically persevere, sufferers cannot help but take notice when the burden is lifted. Since the shift after treatment is often immediate and transformational, many patients often incredulously and gleefully exclaim that their symptoms are completely gone! Using Voice Technology, this transformation typically happens within a few minutes. Though it may seem hard to believe, this result is routine in my treatment of patients. (I have a better than 95% success rate, which means that I have been effectual in totally eliminating the trauma symptoms in virtually every patient I have treated.)

EEG neurofeedback also heals traumas. Although neurofeedback works more gradually, and its effects are broad-based. Neurofeedback training over a period of months regulates and resets the brain and nervous system. As a person regulates his/her neurological states more efficiently and with greater stability, traumas resolve and fade into memories that can be summoned or elicited without emotional distress or fight-or-flight sensitivity. The thoughts and memories of traumatic events are holistically integrated, and the cognizance of the past trauma or traumas is no longer intrusive or obsessive. This happens as a by-product of developing greater brain stability, self-regulation, and increased neurological self-control.

There is a unique and more advanced type of neurofeedback called alphatheta training. Whereas the basic neurofeedback training—where every patient begins the EEG training with a diagnostically appropriate protocol—develops physiological brain stability and self-regulation, advanced alphatheta training has more far-reaching psychological effects. Once the foundation for self-regulation is established by a rudimentary neurofeedback regimen, alphatheta sessions rapidly allow a person’s subconscious to “reconfigure” or “rescript” the interpretation and integration of past events beneath the level of conscious awareness. Alphatheta training is a powerful tool in helping obsessions and compulsions resolve themselves, and it greatly facilitates the process of “letting go.”

The value of having access to a protocol that systematically allows the “processing,” “integration,” and “resolution” of trauma (i.e., experiencing and welcoming the new self) is unassailable. Alphatheta training in tandem with EEG neurofeedback is another tool that in the hands of a skilled clinician can play an instrumental role in allowing people to completely and finally lay to rest the destructive and emotionally debilitating influences of their encapsulated traumas.

In summary, the results from healing traumas include the following beneficial effects:

  • The negative affect (painful emotional charge) is removed from thoughts and memories. This enables the memory of the event to remain intact, but without the recurring distress or physiological disturbances, and without the obsessive need to dwell on the past event.
  • When trauma is healed, the former persistent pain (both emotional and physical) diminishes and is usually eliminated. Unless there are extenuating circumstances that keep stimulating the pain (such as physical nerve damage, debilitating organic disease, sustained orthopedic injury, or a continuing pattern of abuse), the pain either goes away or stays “under the radar”—that is, although it may be sensed with deliberate thought, it no longer forces itself center stage to interfere with the quality of life and the flexibility to be unconcerned with residual pain.
  • We cannot undo what has happened. Traumas leave scars; but when they are properly healed, the scars are surface and cosmetic: reminders of strength, robustness, and survival. The deep and soul-flinching damage is gone.
  • Though usually not the primary symptom or focus in the agony of trauma, once healed, the former victim’s motivation, resiliency, and enthusiasm are restored and expanded.
  • The psychological liberation and freedom from pain and inhibition pave the way for new growth.
  • Those hallmarks of trauma—fear and anxiety—give way to renewed trust and confidence.
  • Preoccupation with oneself and personal anguish fades in favor of an outlook that is more interested in the needs of others.

Sociopolitical and Collective Trauma Effects

Trauma brings individual and very personal nightmares and suffering. Trauma also has compounded and collective effects. I believe that elements of trauma are transmitted through a collective unconscious—that is, the traumatic sufferings of individuals and groups with whom one identifies are communicated, modeled, assimilated, and experienced on multiple tangible and seemingly intangible levels of awareness. This effect is sometimes referred to as resonance.

This phenomenon has theoretical underpinnings and empirical evidence. When you watch the news, hear about the tragic losses and sufferings of innocent victims, or become aware that someone you know has experienced tragedy, it’s only natural to feel compassion. Often, this sensitivity is compounded by one’s own anguish, hurt, and confusion. When trauma strikes neighbors, each of us can become terrified. The fire next door, the shooting nearby, or a friend’s devastating illness can easily bring to the fore our own vulnerability. As the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Witnessed traumas—even through media coverage—tend to trigger our own buried and unresolved traumas and hurts. We are intertwined with other beings on so many levels: genetically, socially, emotionally, and environmentally. Whereas these identifications and connections establish bonds for love, security, family, and community, they also leave us susceptible to the effects of devastations and perpetrations upon others. We become empathetic to the tragic events that befall others. For example, we feel compassion for their pathos and pain when they are hungry, when their homes are destroyed by war, tornados, or floods, when their well-being is threatened by epidemics or drug addiction, when their safety is threatened by gangs, terrorists, or dictators.

Physical violence and sexual assaults are not only individual and personal. They affect and damage groups of people by proximity, emotional connection, identification, and social standards. As described previously, most people identify with, feel compassion for, and resonate with people who fall victim to traumas, whether random or deliberate. The woman who is raped while walking is symbolic of the vulnerability of all women to such predatory behavior.

Racism and hateful or exclusionary acts sensitize individuals and polarize communities and generations—the traumas of one’s clan may burrow deep into the soul and subconscious, infiltrating the mind’s perceptions and the nervous system’s automatic reactions. The overt segregation that existed in the South, the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II, the insidious anti-Semitism, the immigration sanctions and deportations that grip Hispanics and Muslims in fear and peril persist currently recapitulate the resonance effect that ripples trauma collectively.

Even when these tragedies and sorrows descend upon others, they saturate the environments and the nervous systems that inhabit them with threat and loss. “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” morphs into “There go I… perhaps next.”

When someone close or symbolically meaningful to you is molested, discriminated against, excluded, bullied, shunned, demeaned, or hurt, it can easily seep into your psyche and soul and have a deleterious impact on your perceptions and emotions.

Social Responsibility and Geopolitical Climate Change

Life experiences that include traumas also provide the foundations for beliefs and deep convictions. Lives worth living develop cause and purpose, along with the dedication to overcoming the negative past and building a better future, ultimately for others.

People have different talents and gifts. We answer different callings and make differing contributions. I’ve been called to help people develop better lives by developing better brains. When I started out in the field of psychology, I had no idea that neuroscience and brain healing would be my mission.

I’ve worked with patients whose previous abuse prevents them from experiencing the intimacy they need and crave; with minorities who become thin-skinned and easily triggered by offenses and insults that the mainstream culture cannot even perceive; with children who know, but cannot adequately express, that they are not truly valued or wanted; with angry, growling “mainstream” people who feel and believe that their rights, ownership, and entitlements are being eroded and stolen; with brain injured individuals whose struggles warn that any of us can be but an accident away from loss of familiar self and independence; and with sociopaths, whose early neurological neglect has left them with brittle brains that are rigidly self-serving, self-protective, and maniacal, rendering them at the selfish and blind control of hyped up nervous systems always in fight-or-flight survival mode.

All of these variants and social manifestations are rooted in trauma and exacerbated by stilted life experiences that reinforce belief systems in slavery to the terrors of persisting traumatic effects. Dictators and geopolitical tyrants are generally not “crazy” (it requires, among other qualities, mental organization, intelligence, and common sense to tap into the needs and frustrations of a populace and to attract, lead, and even brainwash citizens); but they are clearly acting out of personal and deeply entrenched unmitigated traumas.

It’s not sufficient, or even relevant to “understand” psychoanalytically the pathologies of perpetrators and oppressive social institutions. We must engage all people—and most emphatically the ones who act out hurtfully and oppressively—with the opportunity, accessibility, and affordability of ridding them of the traumas that sponsor inner pain and its interpersonal, social, political extensions into projected heinous and oppressive actions. And we must develop societal and institutional practices that implement these opportunities early in people’s lives so that troubled people who would become “active shooters,” terrorists, or oppressive tyrants can be intercepted and given life- and brain-changing experiences to divert and reprogram the development of destructive personalities.

Is this naïve, “pie-in-the-sky” optimism? Do I imagine asking Stalin or bin Laden if they’re available for an EEG neurofeedback session on Monday at 4:00? Ideally, they would. Realistically, they would probably schedule my execution instead. Believe me, my compassion is challenged by the horror and revulsion I feel about such people and their despicable acts.

At a more pedestrian level, let’s imagine how many marriages could be saved, how many families could provide better parenting, and the millions of children who could grow into a world where they experience themselves as capable, important, needed, and worthy—if only they could get past the traumas that haunt, terrorize, and limit them. Might we rescue addictions with more effective self-regulatory treatments? Should we not collude as a society to reduce psychopathology and sociopathy by healing brain and emotional trauma instead of anesthetizing nervous systems with harmful medicines? Shouldn’t we teach people that they can control themselves from their inside cores? Human brains are capable of leaving past traumas and failures behind, and opening up to compassion, trust, and new successes.

Behold, there are brains and bodies whose hurt and trauma have transformed into excellence, compassion, leadership, and hope. There are Albert Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, and others.

Martin Luther King announced, “I have a dream…”

Well, I have a dream, too—many of them, regularly, in fact. Explicitly, I have these dreams in states of theta and delta brainwaves; when I awake and naturally transition to the higher EEG frequencies commensurate with implementing daily action and problem-solving, I translate these dreams and ideas into the concepts and written exposition that can help people. My dreams project a world in which traumas become boo-boos covered by Band-Aids and soon long forgotten, rather than ravaging concussions that persist and derail healthy, productive lives.

I savor the opportunity to turn these dreams into realties and the blessing to carry out this work, one brain at a time.