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Brain by dierk schaefer.

“Every man can, of he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”
Santiago Ramon y Cajal

Santiago Ramon y Cajal was a nobel laureate and one of the greatest neurobiologists in history.  His assertion above has been proved more and more true as time has gone on and more elaborate science has been able to affirm the brain’s ability to change.  REMEMBER one of my favorite words for 2010 NEUROPLASTICITY?  I have been, as a trauma therapist, trauma survivor, and passionate advocate for people’s ability to find healing out of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more invigorated by the day with the overwhelming new science proving that my experience and beliefs are more than just hypothesis in the mist.

I went to a lecture last Friday on “Neurobiology & Trauma” presented by the highly esteemed and eloquent Dr. Amanda Evans of Florida Gulf Coast University (and President of Florida’s National Association of Social Work).  I love a good neurobiology and trauma lecture as much as the next person–well, ok I guess I love it probably more than MOST of the people next to me–but I never know what to expect and get nervous for a 101 type generalist discussion.  I was blown away by Dr. Evans workshop–she affirmed all of what I have already learned and threw her own vantage point into the mix in a refreshing way.

One of the things she stressed, and I loved her description (I will paraphrase), was the difference between a traumatic experience, trauma survivor, and a person living with Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  I loved that she made this distinction because as a trauma therapist in a small field with this focus–most mental health professionals don’t specialize in this area–I have found there are so many perpetuated myths and misconceptions about PTSD that often get passed on as truths to clients and other professionals.  Some of the greatest myths I have heard perpetuated by other mental health professionals (well-intentioned but can be so damaging for clients and the perceptions of PTSD as a whole) are:

  • PTSD is a terminal diagnosis–You will have it forever.
  • PTSD is incurable, un-healable and can only be moderated with medication.
  • PTSD exists if you have even one or two of the symptoms and even if they go away if they return (even one symptom) then it means you have had it all along.
  • PTSD happens to anyone who has experienced trauma–if something traumatic happened you have PTSD.
  • PTSD is treated with talk therapy and medication–there are no other treatment approaches that do any good.
  • …I know there are more but these are the biggest.

Dr. Evans, in her eloquence, stated: (paraphrased)

“Having a symptom of PTSD does not make the diagnosis.  A person may have a flashback or intrusive thought at some point triggered by something that happens but that does not mean they have PTSD.  Post traumatic stress disorder is a persistent cluster of symptoms so great and overwhelming that they impact functioning and living life.  They affect a person’s ability to work, have personal relationships, and generally function in the world.  If you are not experiencing these elements in your daily life then you are having a normal response to a traumatic experience if you occasionally are reminded and it brings on a singular nightmare, thought, flashback–that is ok and does not mean that you have a disordered condition.  There is a misrepresentation of the difference between a normative response of a trauma survivor and a disordered way of being.”

Again, this is my paraphrasing of her words but the gist is what she stated.  It is always exciting for me to hear another professional, especially a well-versed specialist in the area of trauma, neurobiology, and diagnosis, describe what I know to be true as well.  Our brains can change.  The very nature of our own capacity for survival–mind,body, and spirit–that help us to SURVIVE are what can entrench that survival instinct and create a disordered response to the world–one that is all survival mode all the time.  This entrenched way of being that becomes a disordered response to the world in all aspects (mind,body, and spirit) are PTSD.  We can chip away at those responses and CHANGE our brain with the same resilience and survival capacity that brought us into a PTSD state in the first place.  The brain and our humanity are complex but also simple–we survive and hopefully through work we can do more than that and begin to THRIVE.  This is true for trauma survivors and everyone overcoming difficulties in life.

This also relates so much to MIND, BODY, and SPIRIT WELLNESS in that it gives hope and the potential for hope and change in ourselves and our lives grounding in reality and science!  Whether you are dealing with traumatic issues, stress, anxiety, or any emotionally distressing experience you can know that there is hope in our world and in our own BRAINS for CHANGE.  Neuroscientists are saying it, therapists are saying it, and the illusions and myths are being dispelled to make way for the truths of hard science and soft science.  I have known my own truth in my life, PTSD, and recovery journey in a visceral way…these new facts only help me to depict this truth concretely for others and be able to be an instiller of hope in my clients lives rather than handing out terminal diagnosis of disorder with no end.

APRIL is the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness month and in the honor of that I wanted to discuss the exciting world of hope in recovery and healing from traumatic experience.  I hope more people can believe in themselves, their brains, their spirits, their bodies and the ability to find healing from a variety of sources!  I discovered yoga as an avenue to my own wellness and found, through neurobiology and the roots of trauma and trouble with speech in trauma, that movement can often be a great outlet for emotional pain when talk cannot.  I hope everyone, trauma survivor, and just those surviving their own issues of life, takes the time to search for their own avenues to wellness!  What do you love? What brings you comfort? Start there and reach out for professional help if you need it–there are ways to healing and there are people who can help!

All my thoughts and blessings to those suffering from emotional pains today and every day.


 
“A horse loves freedom, and the weariest old work horse will roll on the ground or break into a lumbering gallop when he is turned loose into the open.”
 
 Gerald Raferty
 
 
Monday mornings at work are always a swirl of mystery, magic, and surprises.  I suppose this is bound to be the case in beginning my work week at a Therapeutic Riding Center.  The facility I run my Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy group out of is a quiet nook of the world on a sandy dirt road edging a canal ravine.  I don’t know if anyone else does this on this particular stretch of street but I find myself glancing down at the murky green waters waiting to see round, black alligator eyes peering up at me.  The center itself is vast acreage lined with white wooden fences and a crisp white barn that houses 16 or so horses.  Monday mornings are reserved just for my group and the cleaning crew, inmates from a local prison facility.  It is an interesting mix of life–horses in stables, convicts driving small tractors, and my little group of trauma survivors working with their equine counterparts.  In its surreality it is quite freeing and outside of social norms and constructs.  We are dancing a dance that is part magic, part illusion, and yet more real than most that life has to offer.  Something in horses brings real to the surface and pushes out all the tedium and strife that are found outside stable gates.  Horses, like yoga, strip life away to its naked essence and allow for us to breathe in the moment and leave everything else behind. 
 
 
This particular Monday morning I was absurdly alert and reflective, still lingering on my 5am wake up, 6am meditation and the lack of television, radio, and all superfluous noise in my life.  My mind was paradoxically more quiet and more active than it normally is on any given Monday.  In that I mean that my brain had omitted a lot of the white noise from conscious thought and in its place was an awakened clarity and sharpness that I guess is the result of having been up for hours and having meditated to start my day.
 
 
Suddenly, I heard a loud thunk and vocal commotion and turned around the side of the barn to see a white mare galloping off through the back of the stalls.  I see a correctional officer, the guardian of the inmates, standing baffled and amused holding the chain latch of the horse’s stall.  “I can’t believe it, she chewed through the damn thing again.  That is the second time she has done that,” he said and kept repeating it as if he could not imagine such tenaciousness in a horse.  An older inmate standing next to me, and dressed in his working blue cotton uniform, looked in my eyes and said, “She just wants that freedom, you can see it in how she’s running.”  He stared after her, mesmerized, as the last bit of her white mane disappeared around the corner and I looked over at him wondering if he knew how profoundly metaphoric his statement had just been.
 
 
Here stood a man who was living in a world that was predominantly caged and in the one place in his week where he was given freedom, space, clean country air, and equine surroundings.  And as he watched this white mare’s dedicated effort to break free of her cage I could feel, in my proximity to him, his understanding of her yearning.  And in them both I saw a moment of magic–connection between human and horse and metaphor from the stables into the world.  It was one of those moments you want to bottle both miraculous, soulful, joyful, and sorrowful.  The smile on the inmate’s face lingered as he turned from the horse and went back to his shovel, back to his work, and back into the mind of a man who understood the yearning to be free. 
 
 
In that moment I shared with both of them, before the white mare was brought back to her stall, I saw a sliver of that man and a glimmer of that horse, and both of their natural longing to be free in the world–the way they once were.  Some days, especially lately, juggling worlds upon worlds, I feel like maybe I am overloaded and completely insane in my juggling efforts.  On days like Monday I am grateful for the world I live in, the life I have, and the honor I feel in being able to work in a way that facilitates moments like these–spontaneous and amazing. 
 
June 2020
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