Melissa Higgins, LCSW

Trauma - Lost and Found

In any search to understand traumatic experience one will get lost. Real confidence is needed. Real confidence empowers people to listen to their intuition; a kind of trust in one's intuition is required, in one's instinct and ability to withstand the impact of the search. When I talk about intuition, I’m referring to the small, still voice inside each one of us that can tell us the truth about things. While it takes courage to tune into our intuition and then to trust what it’s telling us, the good news is that the more often we do so, the better it can guide us.

If we want to learn to listen and trust our intuition and if we want to learn to let our heart guide us, we have to first learn to be quiet. We have to learn how to silence our mind. We have to get into the habit of thinking less and feeling more. That wise inner voice inside is always communicating with us. The problem is that it can be hard to hear until we learn how to quiet our mental chatter. Once we can learn to quiet the mental chatter, we can access our intuitive intelligence.

Trauma is both a process and a state of being. It is an experience of everything and nothing at once. It defies words, yet demands expression. Survivors of trauma commonly have difficulty recounting the events they have suffered or witnessed. The central dilemma for many survivors of trauma is that they must tell their stories, and yet their stories cannot be told. Traumatic experiences often defy understanding.

Out of the fragmentation and chaos of the losses caused by trauma, new connections must be made. It requires us to take risks that might put us face to face with our limitations and shortcomings. A significant method for self-protection is the act of forgetting, repressing, and/or splitting off memories of traumatic events. Most of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be understood as coping mechanisms for individuals living in an environment (either actual or perceived) of danger, harm, and/or neglect in a world stripped of safety, order, and/or meaning.

The individual pays a high price for the chronic repression of his/her natural impulses and over time his/her range of resiliency narrows, his/her access to his/her sensations and feelings is disturbed, and his/her ability to experience life diminishes. In addition, his/her mental acuity, relational flexibility, innate resiliency, and creative, spontaneous expression are all disrupted. In other words, an individuals life energy is channeled into resisting life, thereby sacrificing his/her natural expansion towards life.

Much of trauma theory revolves around waking up to our denied, repressed, fragmented, dissociated and wounded selves, then we can begin the journey of healing and integration. This is the journey from trauma victim oriented around fear, abuse, helplessness and/or neglect, to trauma survivor oriented around empowerment, hope, courage, and recovery. In not acknowledging our pain and fear, we are narrowing our life experience and isolating ourselves even further from the reality of life all around us. Within us all, there is a wellspring of love, compassion, and creativity that grows in this direction towards life.

Are You Perfect?

Don't worry, nobody is perfect. It's time to stop comparing and despairing. According to Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston "Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. But the quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting."
Even though you're not perfect, you're still a unique and wonderful individual with many strong positive character traits.
Bad things do happen; how you respond to them defines your character and the quality of your life. You can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, or you can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift you have - life itself.
​​Positive character traits are something you can and should develop. Although it may not be a popular pursuit, developing your character is one of the most satisfying, emotionally healthy endeavors you'll ever undertake. There is a core group of character traits that everyone needs to have. Most experts include traits such as love or caring, respect for life, honesty or trustworthiness, responsibility, justice and fairness as the traits you need to have. Some people define character traits in terms of values and also include ideas like freedom and unity. Individual character is the linchpin for a healthy, functioning society. Developing these traits of good character can be difficult to foster and maintain, but they afford so many positive benefits to improve the quality of your life.
Good character attracts the trust and respect of other people and allows you to influence others. It changes your perspective about failure and can sustain you through difficult times. Good character improves your self esteem, self respect and confidence. It creates a foundation for happy and healthy relationships. Good character helps you stay committed to your goals and improves your chances of success.
History has shown that societies tend to self - destruct when their people don't possess a core group of positive character traits. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur, "History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster."
If you suspect that you might have some weak or negative character traits, you probably do, but that's normal. Your weaknesses might actually be hidden strengths. And negative traits, like bad habits, can be changed. Character is shaped by one’s beliefs, and with enough effort and motivation, through a change in perspective, the view of the world can be altered. Cultivating positive character traits, versus negative ones, can yield to greater success in life.
Developing positive character traits isn't something you do totally on your own. Your traits are linked to your conscience, moral convictions, beliefs, personal experiences, upbringing, rights, and responsibilities. Many of your traits will probably coincide with the beliefs and practices of other people you admire and appreciate - people you see as role models. Developing positive character traits means that you respect yourself, others and the world.
Ancient Greek philosophers recognized four main virtues: temperance, justice, courage and wisdom. Aristotle described virtue as a habit, a tendency of character to act in accordance with practical reason toward worthy ends. Socrates, Aristotle and Plato believed that the virtues were connected and you couldn't have one without having them all. Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages added faith, hope and charity. The list of positive traits continues to grow, but most can be grouped into general categories.
Realize that building your character is a life-long endeavor. It is something that is practiced both in the minutiae and the defining moments of your life. There will be times you step up to the character traits you embrace and other times you falter. By remaining committed to personal growth and learning about yourself, your character will naturally improve, even through the failures.

Grief and Loss in Children & Adolescents

We live in a death-phobic society. It teaches us to avoid all thoughts of dying. Even though movies and video games are filled with images of death, there is still a lack of authentic conversation about death. There is little tolerance for grief over time. People are often encouraged to move around grief instead of through grief. The result is that many people either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means.
Often, there is no time to grieve or mourn; rather children and adolescents hear such messages as "carry on", "keep your chin up", "she is in a better place", "be a brave little soldier" or "you just need to let go". With little recognition of the normal pain of grief, people may begin to think their thoughts and feelings are abnormal.
In a society where people average only three days off from work to mourn a relative, how can we expect children and adolescents to work through their losses? Also, if topics as important as death are off-limits, then "minor losses" such as a breakup or a move to a different town will be treated as unimportant or insignificant. These "minor losses", however, can be a source of pain for our children and adolescents.
The idea that children and adolescents cannot grieve or understand death and loss is simply not true. Children do feel grief and experience loss in profound ways. Research even indicates that a child's core personality is affected by any loss during the early months of life. Children understand death but not in the way that adults do. For example, children can handle strong emotions for only short amounts of time, and then they will put their grief aside. They may be very upset yet soon afterward play with toys as though nothing was wrong. This can be confusing to parents and may lead them to think their children are doing just fine, when they are not.
I have repeatedly heard adults say to children "don't feel bad". It's unreasonable to think that someone telling you not to feel bad would actually alter the way you feel. Imagine what it is like for a child to trust the adults and tell the truth about their feelings, only to be told not to feel that way.
Our initial reaction as adults is often to want to eliminate the pain that children are experiencing. But at the same time that adults are telling children not to feel bad, they may add to their confusion by also sending the message that they are supposed to feel bad. There are certain expected responses to grief in our society. One is that a person should feel sad after experiencing a loss, when in reality a person may feel nothing after experiencing a loss. Very often children need reassurance that it is okay to feel nothing, it is okay to not feel bad.
Often, one of the adults' strategies in responding to loss felt by their children is to try to replace the lost object. The most common example is the parent who responds to the death of a pet by immediately buying their child another pet. This strategy is flawed - it doesn't allow the child to take in and understand the loss and go through the morning process. Losing a pet is a learning experience for kids. It lets them come to the understanding that all things die, and it allows us to model healthy grief. Also this strategy minimizes the child's experience by assuming the object or pet is replaceable.
Therapists have an opportunity to play an important role in assisting parents and other adults in understanding the way grief and loss are manifested in children and adolescents, helping them provide comfort and support to their children. At times of loss, parents do not have to handle all of their children’s needs on their own. There is help available. Because parents are often dealing with their own powerful grief, it’s especially important for families to reach out for support.

The Legacy of Trauma Is Long and Wide and Deep

Each person must define traumatic experience for him or herself. It is a deeply subjective assessment. It depends on how threatened and helpless we feel in reaction to an event. We respond to experiences differently. What causes trauma is overstimulation beyond the capacity of our endurance, and endurance capacity varies. Trauma is cumulative and as it builds up makes us vulnerable to further crises. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious or destructive.

We don't "get over" trauma; we bear it for a lifetime, finding ways, or not, to integrate the experience into our life. Trauma changes us. And for people who just want life to return to "the way it was", this can be difficult to accept. We are not defined by trauma, but we are certainly marked by it. Trauma is not easy to define. It can be described as the freezing of past and present into a single frozen moment. Traumatic experiences often defy understanding.

Trauma is both a process and a state of being. It is an experience of everything and nothing at once. It defies words, yet demands expression, over and over. It both demands representation and refuses to be represented. The intensity of trauma seems to make it impossible to remember or forget. This intensity which makes forgetting impossible also makes any form of recollection seem inadequate. Often the traumatic event is too horrible for words; too horrifying to be integrated into how we make sense of the world. The intensity of a trauma is what defies understanding and so a description that someone else understands seems to indicate that the trauma wasn't as intense as it seemed to be. Description seems impossible.

If we ignore the trauma, we seem to have neglected an obligation to come to terms with the horror and pain. If we understand the trauma by putting it in relation to other events, we seem to be forgetting the intensity. The dilemma is that we must tell our stories, and yet our stories cannot be told. The traumatic experience is in a sense, timeless. Trauma exists in the forever present. In order to capture the heart of the experience, we must risk another journey back to the trauma. We are both back there and here at the same time; and we are able to distinguish between the two. We remember what happened then without losing a sense of existing and acting now.

We struggle to put our experiences into words. But there are some things that cannot be said. Words seem too inadequate. And yet, it is not okay to state that the horrors of the trauma are too terrible for words and therefore must be left unsaid and unheard. Many emerge from trauma wanting to wanting to talk about what they describe as "unsayable". Despite the content of what is said, what is crucial is that it is said. The significance of sharing a trauma lies not in what is said, but simply that something is said.

Letting Go

To be upset about something insignificant is probably indicative of a larger problem. Insignificant like when someone forgets to say 'thank you' or disagrees with your choice of movies, or when there's no milk for your cereal, or someone cuts you off when driving on Route 1, or when you can't get your earring into the hole. or your sock slipping off inside your shoe, or when someone asks you to do something differently.

I feel so upset with myself when I look back at all the times I have reacted negatively to small things, but I know that doesn't help me move forward. Regretting my past decisions is living in the past which can't possibly help me.

Sometimes the smallest things can unhinge us, even when we are doing our best to improve ourselves and our lives. I know I'm not alone. I see it in my co-workers, family, friends and clients. Sometimes we're so busy trying to be right, that we don't let things go. We let thoughts take over our hearts and minds.

It may take courage to listen to your heart because what it suggests often seems too easy. It might say "Just let it go" or "It's no big deal" and you may be afraid you're going to let someone get away with something. When you tune into your heart, often your attitude adjusts and you find responses that are more satisfying to you.

How can I be calm? How can I let things go that cause inner turmoil?

I have to tell you that I have been crazy and I have been calm and calm is better. Life is often said to be a journey of letting go and realizing that one is already whole and complete. Inner conflict is when you're battling with yourself. To escape inner conflict, troubling thoughts must be put to rest. I can let things go and accept them for what they were.

We need to step back and ask ourselves, "Are the thoughts going through my head actually true or did I create them to be something else?"

I know the true self is not concerned with small things. The heart is where the true self resides. But without practice, it's hard to hear your heart.

I know telling myself "these thoughts are not me" can help me find calm. I know I am not my thoughts. Another way to let go is to ask myself if this will matter in an hour? A day? A week? Usually it won't matter.