post traumatic stress disorder

There was a time when the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma disorders would fly under the radar. It is not helpful to place the fault on mental health practitioners for PTSD’s misdiagnoses as different mood disorders or dissociative disorders. Over the past decade, those working in the mental health field have been enlightened by employers, publications, and the accrediting bodies that be, of PTSD’s prevalence as well as the research stating that a holistic approach to diagnosis and treatment in conjunction with psychopharmacological drugs (if needed and with autonomy respected) is an optimal approach.

In 2014, Dutch clinician Bessel van der Kolk published the book The Body Keeps the ScoreBrain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which examines the ways in which trauma “rewires the brain and changes the way people experience the world”. Dr. van der Kolk has been researching trauma since the 1970s after spending time with veterans of the Vietnam War struggling with adjustment to home life and unable to forget the often horrific and visceral memories of wartime. He drew several conclusions during his extensive research which included the use of brain imaging and other advanced scientific methods. Three particularly relevant takeaways by experienced trauma informed therapists follow:

  • The memories associated with trauma are essentially relived and may manifest themselves through sensory/visceral and dissociative experiences.  This means that our brains are wired differently than if we were to experience a seemingly “normal” experience of visiting our uncle to have coffee on a random Tuesday, for instance. We remember waking up, getting dressed, arriving at our uncle’s residence, and engaging in small talk for an hour before going about the rest of our Tuesday. Traumatic experiences create a physiological change producing a heightened state of anxiety and re-experiencing of the trauma which feels real and difficult to separate from reality (dissociation).
  • “Drugs and talk therapy, two of the most popular approaches to mental healthcare, are useful in the treatment of trauma, but have limitations because they do not truly bring the person out of the trauma and into reality.” (The Body Keeps the Score: Key Takeaways, Analysis and Review; 2015) Although these approaches to treatment may offer temporary relief of symptoms such as depression, anxiety or sleeplessness, they do not address the root of the problem which is the re-experiencing of the trauma itself.
  • Holistic approaches accessing the brain, mind and physical body through expressive arts such as yoga, dance, massage, art therapy and singing as well as neurofeedback, somatic therapies and EMDR, which help reorganize and reprocess trauma, are especially effective.

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