If you want to understand trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTS), you’ve got to see this video The New Traumatology & The Trauma Spectrum: A Conversation between Dr. Robert Scaer and cultural animator Anthony ‘Twig’ Wheeler Part 1 and Part 2. Dr. Robert Scaer* is a practicing neurologist, the Medical Director of Rehabilitation Services at the Mapleton Center in Boulder, Colorado and the author of several books about trauma.
The amount of depthful information offered in this interview is overwhelmingly profound, so I’ll focus on one area of understanding I gained. He discusses procedural memory in great detail. Learning to ride a bicycle is an example of procedural memory, which has to do with acquiring skills. I think of it as muscle memory, but he does not refer to it as such. When a person undergoes a trauma, procedural memory is interrupted. You were running away from a predator, for example, but you were captured mid-stride. Your body goes into freeze mode since you failed to fight successfully or flee. The freeze is an autonomic nervous system response to threat, as an animal playing dead–an important survival strategy. If the threat is withdrawn, one escapes. But if you don’t ‘shake off’ the trauma, the trauma remains.
According to Dr. Louis Tinnin, a psychiatrist and trauma expert, in a freeze “the person’s awareness and perceived location of consciousness may shift to deep in the body or somewhere outside the body. The body now may behave like a mesmerized slave in automatic obedience. The person’s detached perception may temporarily be protected from the pains of the body, but these unverbalized experiences may later become unspeakable body memories” (Tinnin and Gantt, Instinctual Trauma Response & Dual-Brain Dynamics, 19). And so when a traumatized person who has not healed from the trauma confronts a similar threat or is reminded of it, he or she may feel frightened and anxious even there is no real threat present, hence post-traumatic stress is experienced.
Animals know how to rid themselves of the freeze that results from trauma. Check out this video of a polar bear shaking off the trauma of having been shot with a sedative in order to be tagged (a bit disturbing to watch). He undergoes a seizure-like shaking as he wakes up. Dr. Scaer says that the bear is completing the act of escape, thus “extinguish[ing] all those procedural memories.” If the bear hadn’t ‘seized’ in this way, the interruption in his escape would have been “stored as a ‘false message’ and activated every time an event similar to the threat occurs.” In other words, he would have post-traumatic stress disorder.
In post-traumatic stress, hyperarousal is one of the symptoms–life interrupted by flashbacks and nightmares. Again, Dr. Scaer: “In trauma, when a person has these unconscious procedural memories still there, they’re perceived–if there’s a cue–as being in the present moment. They keep interrupting that process of moving on consciously in life.” The more one is interrupted, the more stuck one gets.
The key to life is resilience, according to the interview. Dr. Scaer believes we can all locate ourselves on a “spectrum of trauma.” He discusses some of the strategies for healing and shows how one can re-train the brain to defuse these post-traumatic stress symptoms. More on this in another post. Just be sure to get a pen and paper or an electronic notepad of some sort ready when you click this video on. There’s so much you’ll want to remember.
*Dr. Robert Scaer “received his B.A. in Psychology, and his M.D. degree at the University of Rochester. He is Board Certified in Neurology, and has been in practice for 39 years, twenty of those as Medical Director of Rehabilitation Services at the Mapleton Center in Boulder, CO. His primary areas of interest and expertise have been in the fields of brain injury and chronic pain, and more recently in the study of traumatic stress and its role in all mental illness, as well as in physical symptoms and many chronic diseases” (biography, www.traumasoma.com).