Everything that happens affects us. Most we process and forget about. It’s life! Things happen! But nothing significant, no encounter, surprise or change is ever completely deleted. It is filed away amid the folders of our life and not recovered until something happens that reminds of it. In time those experiences become incorporated into the database of who we are. But it is not the experience that makes us, it is how we respond to those experiences that influences our choices and decisions and adjusts the course of our lives.
Just think back. What situations have changed your life? No doubt you will recall the time you got married, went to college, moved house, had children – mainly happy events – but there would also be unhappy relationships, accidents, illnesses, bereavements. These may be difficult to access because they still have the power to upset you and make you sad (or ill). More traumatic incidents, shut away in a padlocked safe with a combination nobody knows and buried in the garden, may, like radioactivity, still have the power to influence your life. Three out of every five people have been traumatised before the age of 18. I am not sure where those figures come from. It depends of the definition of trauma. What constitutes trauma for an individual is not what actually happens, it is what it means and how we react to it and that depends on our past experience.
Trauma is our emotional response to what happens and as such is stored visually and viscerally in the limbic system and right frontal cortex of our brain as images and feelings that may be impossible to put into words at the time, but nevertheless affect how we perceive things and how our body reacts. It is only with experience and the passage of time that we may be able to incorporate what happened into the context of our lives, relinquish the memory and get on with the rest of our lives.
But for some people, what happens is so serious that it alters the wiring of our autobiographical brain. The people they encounter, the places they go to, even the food they eat, and anything that is at all out of the ordinary carries a threat. These are highly sensitive people. They are hypersensitive to change and their guts are hypersensitive to food, but but since whatever has happened cannot be acknowledged, it is the food, the infection or an unknown disease that has to be cause of the illness.
Twenty years ago, I was trained in the dark arts of psychoanalysis and included those into my work as a gastroenterologist and nutritionist looking after people with IBS. Psychoanalysis, the talking cure, works to resolve trauma by making what is buried away in the unconscious mind, conscious. For me it has been a humbling voyage of discovery. Everybody I listened to had a story to tell. Just a few simple questions like, tell me what was going on around the time your IBS first started? or what is it that brings on the attacks of IBS? revealed events that seemed so aptly represented by the metaphor of their symptoms.
This process made sense from a perspective of contemporary neuroscience. I was trying to construct a narrative bridge between the visual and visceral right side of the brain and the cognitive left brain so that whatever happened could be shared and talked about. All human life was there; nothing ever seems that shocking if it can be put into words and shared in a safe environment. Psychotherapy for IBS took time, but it worked; IBS symptoms often disappeared as we began dealing with the stuff that was buried underneath, though taking people back to the site of their trauma carried the risk they could be traumatised all over again.
It is a struggle to let go of what has happened and grow as a person. Not everybody has the time, the money or the inclination to spill their guts to a psychotherapist every week. Most want a quicker fix. At The IBS Network, we developed our IBS Self Care Plan to provide the insight and tools that would help people with IBS to understand and manage their own condition and gain the help they needed from health care professionals. Advice on diet, medications and stress management helped people treat their symptoms and provided insight into why they occurred, but could not replicate the in depth conversations between a psychotherapist and patient.
But there is always another way. In a workshop I attended last week on ‘Post-traumatic Growth: from heartache to hope’, Lisa Ferentz explained how working with the body using dance, movement, yoga, exercise, massage, tapping on acupressure points, eye movements (EMDR) could free up the mind to process whatever has happened.
There are too many calls on our time, too much rush, too many things to consider – all at the same time. Women are supposed to be better at multitasking than men, but this facility comes at a cost of not having enough time to process the upsetting things that happen. Repetitive activity, running, swimming, dancing, knitting, painting, playing an instrument are excellent routes to mindfulness. So instead of worrying about what has happened or pressured by too many obligations or deadlines, we can allow our mind to go into a more free floating thoughtful mode that can process and update where we are in our world. But there is no single route to mindful healing. Each of us has to find the way that is right for them. .