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By Mike Fisher

In order to best appreciate and understand the effects of trauma on people it is crucial to recognise the role played by different elements of our being and especially the relationship between them. The key elements could be summarised as follows:

  1. The role of the brain as the communication and control centre of the body. The complex structure of the brain controls organs and glands, holds our capacity to function, think, move, feel, react and undertake a myriad of tasks and activities. The brain is instrumental in the formation of memory, speech and language and in organising all the activities required for our survival. In crisis situations the more established (and more primitive) parts of the brain takeover and override the later (but more developed) parts of the brain. In trauma these can become the default positions.
  2. The nervous system is the communication network in the body. It has some pre-programmed (autonomic) parts of the system that are automatically triggered into action at the signals of danger.
  3. The neurotransmission system is a range of both simple and complex chemical messages that move between the brain, nervous system and body. Some of these neurotransmitters, steroids, hormones and peptides are responsible for very powerful reactions within us. Whilst there is often a feedback loop to stop us being flooded with unnecessary amounts of these chemicals these do not always work, especially if we have overwhelming experiences like trauma.
  4. The body is the container within which all our living activity takes place. It is not only made up of muscle and bone but also a range of life supporting organs and is covered with skin. The body plays a key role in registering and recording our experiences and in holding cellular memories within the millions of nerve cells that are present in every part of it. The body is therefore very significant in registering our experiences of trauma, containing the unresolved effects it has on us and in providing the sensations and movements that enable us to resolve and recover from traumatic stress.
  5. Our thoughts, consciousness, spirit and being all have a significant part to play in resourcing, resolving and recovering from trauma.

The world of therapy is still straddled between the dualistic thinking that dominated western approaches to understanding since the writings of Descartes and to incorporating the rapidly escalating insights and knowledge made available through brain imaging and neurobiology. Dualism is still widely reflected in the many "singular" modalities within the therapeutic world that put an emphasis upon "Cognition", "Behaviour" or "Emotions" as the prime focuses for change, with little recognition of the role of the "body" in the process or any regard to the role of the "spirit". It is without a doubt that nearly all modalities have something to offer the process of recovery, but until more holistic overviews are achieved, and more integrated approaches adopted, the potential of full recovery may not be realised or progress may be slower than necessary.

There might be even greater danger in some Christian inspired counselling approaches that put a very strong emphasis upon Descartes' belief in the dominance of "thought, reason and the will" as that which makes us human, at the cost of understanding "what" may be happening for some people. This may well account for the number of survivors who emerge from those religious settings that have sought to help them, only to experience re-traumatisation. It is important to realise that it is not the intentions that were wrong only the understanding and interpretation of what was happening that was in error.

Hopefully with greater and increased awareness in both clinical and pastoral settings distress and re-traumatisation will be less common. We all need to have a commitment to continued professional development (CPD), have an open and enquiring mind, and to realise that what we understand or believe now may be different in a year or two's time as greater understanding emerges with new insights and knowledge.

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