Trauma's Double Bind

Lately I’ve been pondering the “double bind” that trauma creates. One of the tragedies of trauma is that it puts us in an untenable position: one must share one’s story, but the story is simply too terrible to tell. I remember one of my college professors once speculating, “Perhaps shame is the mechanism that creates the double bind.” Shame keeps us locked into a tricky place. It makes us afraid to share with others, yet isolating and moving through these issues alone may only serve to make us feel more alone and unworthy -- thus increasing our sense of shame. Without appropriate intervention, shame has the capacity to create a vicious downward spiral.

In our American society that fetishizes strength and independence through John Wayne movies, Marlboro Man posters, and common phrases such as “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” and “Go it alone!”, how do we internalize that telling our traumatic story is not an act of weakness, but actually an act of strength? Even further, how do we internalize that we are not to blame for a traumatic act happening in the first place? On some level, we may believe in our own culpability – we should have changed something, we should have done something different. Even if the traumatic event was entirely out of our hands, it is still frightening to admit that we were genuinely powerless in that moment. Perhaps the weight of that powerlessness is simply too much for some of us to bear – we would prefer to believe in our own independence, omnipotence, and strength at all costs -- even if it forces us to believe that we had a hand in our own trauma.

So I wonder, what is the role of the therapist? Certainly a key role would be in challenging the validity of shame. I am curious to know the ways in which my clients may hold themselves accountable for their trauma. Do they think they could have done something different? Do they time travel and play “what if” games with themselves? Do they think, deep down, that they deserved this?

As someone who works somatically, I am also curious to know how shame is perpetuated and held in the body. I have often seen it manifest as rounded shoulders and a collapsed heart, like a turtle retreating into its shell. However, the head is often thrust forward, a constant reminder that one has to stay vigilant and be prepared for an attack. If these physical patterns are unwound, I wonder what kind of grief lurks underneath that armor.

When it all comes down to it, I feel that, as a therapist, a large part of trauma work is the having the capacity to contain grief. Huge, overwhelming, unbelievable grief. Can we simply be with a client when they want to shake their fists and the sky and scream, “WHY?” Can we create a container for the safe expression of grief, as well as simultaneously hold hope for our client to get better? While there are many tools to help one move through trauma - cognitively, emotionally, somatically – I believe that at the baseline, a client must feel our care and hope for them. Softening into the nurturance of a caring therapist may be the counterbalance to the cultural insistence on strength and autonomy, and give us the one of the things that all human beings need – hope.


Working with the Hidden Messages in Dreams

     Dreams are a fundamental part of the human experience. From ancient Egypt to modern times, people have long been fascinated by their dreams, and have tried to understand their hidden messages and symbols.

     Dream exploration offers a unique way for a therapist and client to work together. While both clients and therapists may have a tendency to fall into familiar left-brained approaches that favor a well-worn autobiographical narrative, unpacking dreams can open up a new reality of symbols, metaphors, hopes, and fears. This more private, intuitive, right-brain-to-right-brain approach may enable a deepening of trust and insight between a therapist and client. Just as Einstein reported that he found his best ideas while walking, perhaps a therapist and client may arrive at new understandings when they shift into a more creative and non-linear mode together. 

     Though the inner workings of dreams can seem mysterious, their function seems clearer – dreaming helps us make connections. When we dream, we try to solve our problems, and we cast a wider net for solutions than we might while we are awake. When we are free from our daily grind, we can explore multiple perspectives, resulting in a beautiful sense of connectivity. Exploring the connections that come out of dreams may be a key to help us manage emotions or find solutions to old problems.

     When a client remembers a dream, I am curious about which strong emotions surfaced, and what those emotions could say about the individual’s current situation. How is the individual looking to find safety, self-esteem, harmony, or continuity? In the dream, what are the blocks to these desired states? What can the dream tell us about using the past to move forward into a healthier future? Dreams give voice to something that is often voiceless in our wakeful state. As a therapist, I try provide a safe space for my client to give voice to their deeper desires that have become clear in dreams.



Stressed Out? Connect with Your Breath.

Though many of us give little thought to our breath throughout the day, the act of breathing is indeed profound. Breath links us to the deepest parts of ourselves, and is the foundation of our life. As we leave the comfort of our mother’s womb, the doctor’s slap on the back forces us to take our first gasp of breath – a single breath that has enough force to reverse our blood flow and start us down our path in the unknown, outside world.

One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination too far to see how our breathing affects us in daily life. If you think back to a time in which you were shocked, you may have found that you held your breath -- or maybe when anxious, your breath became shallow and rapid. If we are depressed we often sigh aloud, trying to release the oppressive energy within us. Breath is the seat of our emotion. 

When we are under stress and our emotions run amok, it often creates the “fight or flight” response in the body, firing up our sympathetic nervous system. We produce adrenaline, our hormones go haywire – essentially we gear up for a fight. The problem is, many of us walk around in this state of anxiety and tension all day – without ever letting go of “the fight”. Long, deep breathing can shift us back into balance. A simple long, deep breath can do wonders – stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or what is known as the “relaxation response” in the body. Learning how to control the breath is key in stress relief.

The next time you find yourself stressed or anxious, try one of these simple breathing techniques: 

Left nostril breathing: Sit comfortably. Block off your right nostril with your thumb and breathe long and deep through your left nostril for 1-3 minutes. This helps to slow down the mind and body, and is also great for insomnia. 

Anti-anxiety breathing: Sit comfortably or lie down on your back. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through a rounded mouth. Then inhale through a rounded mouth (as though you are sipping through a straw) and exhale through your nose. Continue for 3 minutes. 

Try to become very mindful of your breath as you practice these two exercises. As you become more attuned to the subtleties in your breath, you can see how you can affect both your physical and mental well being with your breath.