Some Thoughts on Trauma

Rev. Kathy Speas

In 2017, Sonoma County was struck by devastating wildfires, which burned 245,000 acres, destroyed 8,900 buildings, and killed 44 people. Even those of us who did not lose homes or loved ones were traumatized. In other parts of the country, people have experienced catastrophic floods, violent tornadoes, or unbearably frigid winters.

And now, each of us and all of us are traumatized by a pandemic virus that is invisible, probably hasn’t affected us directly, but is radically changing our lives, our relationships, our bodies, and our souls. Trauma has both physical and spiritual impacts. Understanding the effect of trauma on the brain, and seeing this in a spiritual perspective, can help us as we begin to heal.

One thing is clear – we are not just going to get past this and get back to normal, not without attention to our individual and collective healing process. And it is just that, a process. When traumatized, the brain’s amygdala registers emotions and sensations, and is the center of “Fight or Flight.” Thank you, amygdala for getting us up at 1 am and grabbing what we grabbed and getting out of the house when the fires started! Our amygdala is reacting to the constant stream of news — deaths in Wuhan! An overwhelmed medical system in Milan! People testing positive after a conference in Boston! 2 cases, no 3, no 6, no 8 cases in little Sonoma County!

But when the amygdala kicks into high gear like that, the hippocampus steps back. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that explains, “We’re just getting a shot, take a deep breath and sit still” when you feel a big needle sticking into your upper arm. Your hippocampus knows that quarantine saves lives. When you flee your home into a world of flames and smoke, or see many neighbors’ homes in ruins, or contemplate how a visit to Safeway could result in unintentional manslaughter, your hippocampus doesn’t know how to put this in context.

The medial pre-frontal cortex, which helps you make decisions and plan things and get them done, also slows down during trauma, which is why you may be having a hard time figuring out what to do. So after the trauma is ostensibly over, your amygdala is still firing like mad (hence the tears, the quick temper, the panic when you hear anything about COVID-19 on the news), the hippocampus is still confused (hence the need to tell your story and process the experience, and the totally surreal feeling of these dream-like weeks), and the difficulty getting back into the swing of things, especially with a new landscape that requires some decisions to be made and some things to be planned (hence the inability to focus or approach those tasks you need to get to). And, in case you hadn’t noticed, all of this is physically taxing (this is why you feel terrible and are tired). So, starting on the material plane, we need nature, music, exercise, calm, beauty, love, dancing, singing, sleep, and gratitude to heal our traumatized brains.

The good news is that with just a little bit of respite from human presence, Mother Nature is healing herself. Dolphins and fish are returning to clear waters in Venice. Levels of air pollution are radically reduced. Nature knows just what to do to heal. Physical healing is also spiritual healing. Trauma can lead us to question long-held spiritual beliefs, or leave us feeling broken, not whole or complete, still ourselves — yet not ourselves. We may have dreams of searching and longing, or dream of grieving a deep loss. In ancient Shamanic societies, it was believed that when the body and the mind split apart (as happens when we are traumatized, and our brains just can’t process what we are going through), it was crucial to restore harmony between ourselves and our world. Ancient people believed that parts of the soul stayed at the scene of the trauma, and needed to be invited back and reassured that they were safe.

A Gratitude practice can help bring you to this moment, away from the trauma of cataclysmic natural events or COVID-19 or the general trauma of keeping up with news, and can ground you in what you are grateful for right here and right now. This is a magnificent time of year to ground yourself in your senses. Look around at the signs of the coming spring, and its inevitable glorious unfolding. What do you see that you are grateful for? Listen for birds, or to the rain falling, or to music that makes your heart sing, or – my favorite healing sound of all – hear children playing. What do you hear that you are grateful for? Smell the daffodils, the rain, the smoke-free air, the dirt in your garden, the aroma of this day as you breathe deeply.

What do you breathe in that you are grateful for? Taste clean water, spring asparagus, Easter candy, catch the rain on your tongue. What do you taste that you are grateful for? Feel relaxed, warm, clean, feel the effects on your body of a deep breath, feel that it is OK to ask for help, feel that your body is OK, and you are safe.

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Rev. Kathy Speas is an ordained minister in the Swedenborgian Church of North America.

Rev. Kathy working with physically and developmentally differently-abled people, as well as being involved at the San Francsico Swedenborgian Church. Her work has centered around justice, contemplative practice, care-giving and peace-making.

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