Cheryl Eckl

Cheryl Eckl

A Beautiful Grief

Heal the Trauma, Then the Grief

Why we can't talk our way out of grief.

Posted Aug 27, 2011

sad girl

Overwhelmed by Traumatic Loss

We live in a stressful world. I know of no one who would dispute that point. What is not sufficiently acknowledged is that we also live in a traumatic world. And it is this failure to appreciate the pervasiveness of trauma—especially in grief—that leads to countless "walking wounded" in our midst. These are people who cannot even begin to heal the grief that arises from life's sudden and dramatic osses because they are stuck in the deep, somatic (body centered) wounds of trauma.

As I have experienced it, trauma is the un-discharged energy that gets trapped in the body as a result of a shocking and/or life-threatening event in which the victim is unable to either fight back or flee the situation. In other words, our ability to respond is overwhelmed and something in us shuts down.

As trauma expert Peter A. Levine demonstrates in his seminal book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997), we can learn much about trauma from observing animals in the wild. This is because we are a lot like them.

triune brain

Triune Brain

We and our mammalian friends share a common brain structure: the reptilian brain—the instinctive part of the brain whose job it is to keep us alive. Its responses are automatic, immediate, physiological, and capable of supplanting our more sophisticated mental functions of emotion and analysis. This means that our responses to life and death situations are likely to be similar to our four-footed cousins.

The benefit of being a human (as opposed to a gazelle) is that we also have a neo-cortex. This thinking brain allows us to formulate plans and fabricate tools that keep us out of the predator's lunchroom. However, the underlying principles of "eat or be eaten" still apply.

Depending on where you fall in nature's food chain, you will be either faster or slower, stronger or weaker than your neighbor. If you are a speedy prey animal—but the slow one in your herd—the likelihood of your being eaten by the local carnivore is very high. Except that you have another coping mechanism that may save your life: You can freeze as if dead, which makes you less appealing to your captor.

A struggling animal triggers the "Yum, let's eat now!" response in a carnivore. A limp gazelle is less appetizing, in which case the predator may drag it home to snack on later. If the big cat leaves, the gazelle comes back to life, shakes violently, and then runs away. Herds of prey animals can be observed going through similar mini-cycles of tension, trembling, and relaxation each time they are activated by a sense of danger that then abates. This can happen hundreds of times a day. To them, it is perfectly natural. They may be tired at the end of a day on heightened alert, but they are not traumatized.


Watchful Gazelles

Humans are both predator and prey. Our superior intelligence makes us the hunter, but our comparative physical weakness makes us the hunted. When we are shocked by a life-threatening or emotionally overwhelming event, if we have neither the tools to defend, the strength to fight back, nor the speed to get away, we may freeze. This is especially true if the initial shock is accompanied by fear.

The tragedy for frozen, traumatized humans is that the instinct to violently shake and discharge the trapped fight-flight-or-freeze energy often gets aborted, leaving us stuck in a memory we cannot resolve. Our thinking brains may interfere with the instinctual shaking response or, even worse, well-meaning physicians may proscribe drugs devised to block the natural energy discharge.

If the trauma occurred when we were tiny children, the record may be so deep that we have no conscious recollection of the event. If we were traumatized on a battlefield, we may be haunted by the recurring images of the mindless horrors we experienced. If our trauma results from the sudden loss of a loved one, we may be stuck for years in the sense of overwhelm that was our first response to news so incomprehensible that our minds just shut down.

cheetah and gazelle

This Time I'll Get Away

The result of these deep traumas may be that our life becomes a never-ending psychodrama in which we unconsciously create or attract similar situations—trying to undo the negative outcome. The unspoken hope is: "This time, I'll fight back. This time, I'll get away. This time, I'll have a better defense strategy."

Unfortunately, the energy we need to succeed is still trapped in our bodies. So we end up failing over and over again, solidifying the destructive pattern of defeat. As Levine says, "Trauma begets trauma." It is possible for humans to spend decades unable to thaw their inner, frozen gazelle.

A real frozen gazelle does not come out of its trauma by mentally willing itself to "get over it and get on with life." It doesn't hire a local gorilla (bigger brain) for an hour a week to talk about its last memory just before the attacker's jaw clamped down on its neck. No, the fortunate gazelle, unburdened by a thinking brain, simply gets up, shakes off the trauma energy, and runs away. End of story.

Humans need a therapist who is trained in somatic techniques that can trigger the inner carnivore (hence, "waking the tiger") who is faster and stronger than the slower, weaker part of us that got overwhelmed by the traumatic event. Healing only seems to happen when we can energetically complete the unfinished defense or escape.

Talk therapy will no doubt follow to provide context and meaning. But we didn't talk ourselves into the trauma, so we probably won't succeed in talking ourselves out of it either. Tackle the trauma first and the grief becomes a lot more manageable. I've been there; I know.

More Posts