Most of us can vividly remember the images of people racing away from the burning NY Twin Towers on that horrible September day in 2001, creating thetrau catastrophe that killed so many people in a matter of minutes.
At the Bessel van der Kolk conference I recently attended, Dr. van der Kolk posted a now-famous picture of people running desperately away from the burning towers. He asked us why none of these people would experience PTSD despite the terror of the moment. The answer: they could run from what was terrifying to them. In those moments, they had a way to take action, to escape. Significant trauma that can lead to PTSD involves experiencing overwhelming terror in a situation that is inescapable. It is not the trauma itself that is the problem, but the body’s response and how it stores or is able to release all the traumatic energy created in those moments of overwhelming fear.
In August I wrote a blog about the importance of being able to release traumatic energy. Or for more information about releasing traumatic energy check out Peter Levine’s approach, called Somatic Experiencing.
Instead, I want to invite readers to consider situations children can experience in which they are terrified, in inescapable situations. We need to appreciate how that might have long-lasting consequences, such as PTSD. Whether during a frightening medical procedure, or experiencing physical, sexual or mental abuse, traumatic energy becomes stored in the body and remains there, unable to be released. This is often an explanation for children who are highly dis-regulated and constantly acting out. Consider that that this dysregulation and acting out may be attempts to release traumatic energy. Unfortunately acting out often leads to more punishment, abandonment and confinement, which in turn adds to the traumatic energy. Release from the traumatic energy does not occur unless it is a guided process of appreciating whatever the traumatic experience was and then mindfully letting the energy flow out of the body.
In Dr. Levine’s book Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, he tells the story of a child who, at the age of around two, had to be restrained in an emergency room to have stitches in his forehead due to a fall from his high chair. His parents had been very attentive to him after the procedure, took him out for ice cream and told him how brave he was. Months later they noticed marked changes in his behaviors. He became aggressive, angry, constantly acting out. They shared with Dr. Levine what they were observing. Dr. Levine then proposed a reenactment of what happened using the child’s toy Pooh bear. They placed the bear in a high chair and then had it fall out. Upon seeing this, the child ran screaming out of the house. They coaxed him back inside and reassured him that the Pooh bear was okay.
They did this several times, and each time they not only reassured the child that Pooh was okay, but they acknowledged how scared the bear must have been. The child ran away each time but not going as far and eventually was able to tolerate watching it. He then eventually was able to rescue Pooh himself and provide the calming messages that the bear was going to be okay.
The parents reported that after going through this process, their child no longer exhibited the acting out behaviors they had seen. Dr. Levine concluded that this was a process that allowed this child to expel the traumatic energy the original hospital experience had generated through repeating in a play situation a similar experience, but ultimately giving the child the power to calm the bear, which of course represented him.
Being creative about ways a child or an adult can release traumatic energy may be challenging. Yet once we understand the importance of finding an effective way to allow that to happen, those who want to become more trauma-informed can be detectives and discover ways to help a child gently and in a titrated way, (experiencing the stress of remembering in short increments) pull up some aspects of the traumatic event and then be guided through a process that releases energy around that event.
There is great power in appreciating what can cause traumatic energy to be stored in the body and how important it is to know how to effectively release it. This can help us give kids in terrifying situations their power, to know they can escape. And for all of us, finding our power to escape those things that are frightening can be one way to prevent experiencing the negative consequences of traumatic energy.
It is comforting to know that the people who were running away from the Twin Towers that day in New York were able to not only escape the danger of the towers coming down, but also could escape the experience of PTSD that results when traumatic energy overwhelms the body.
Invitation to Reflect
- To what extent is it now clearer that our focus needs to be on the aftermath of traumatic events, and less on the actual traumatic events themselves and that PTSD results when a person has no way of escape? How does knowing this influence your understanding of the nature of trauma?
- How does this information clarify experiences children have that probably cause them to store traumatic energy, resulting in inappropriate behaviors?
- Can you recall experiences you have had where you were traumatized with the lethal combination of terror and the inability to escape? If so, does this information help you better understand why you might continue to have flashbacks, be easily triggered, or perhaps feel overwhelmed by sensations of terror?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute