community gardening therapy

 

30 individual and collective ways to heal trauma

 

By Tina Phillips, MSW

 

 

Overcoming trauma is a process. Trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be caused by an event or an emotional experience in which a person felt a threat to their life and safety.

PTSD and in the event of chronic or repeated traumas, C-PTSD, can present itself as emotional distress, distrust of others, fear and anxiety, and emotional dysregulation. It can also cause depression, flashbacks, and avoidance.

There are both individual and collective ways to heal trauma. Some individual ways to heal from trauma are self-care, therapy, art, journaling, and using workbooks.

Collective ways to heal trauma may include group support, volunteer work, social support, and even activism. Activism and community advocacy can help us have hope for the future, and empower us to take action now that can improve our own lives and help our communities.

Both individual and collective methods are worthwhile endeavors. No solution is one size fits all, and it can take experimenting with different techniques and coping skills, and combining them to fit each individual. 

 

“Developing an inner refuge where we feel loved and safe enables us to reduce the intensity of traumatic fear when it arises.”  

Tara Brach

Individual methods

pet therapy

 

Individual methods of overcoming trauma can help us to feel our feelings and understand our experiences instead of numbing and avoiding them. These tools can help us embrace and process emotional pain and how it shows up for us in our bodies. Feelings can include shame, negative thinking, flooding and repeated thoughts, and low self-esteem. 

In addition, these methods can foster self-compassion and build a relationship with ourselves, allowing us to get to know ourselves better by opening up buried wounds of the past. Some individual ways to help heal trauma are to get moving and exercise. Don’t isolate, use stress reducing techniques, take care of basic health needs such as getting proper nutrition and sleep, and seek professional help if necessary. 

 

“There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be the balm.”

Dawn Serra

Some stress reducing techniques that heal trauma

 

Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation

Deep breathing helps more oxygen get to your brain and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation. It also connects one to their own body and brings awareness to the rhythmic sound of your breath, bringing centered calmness. In addition, when we tighten a muscle and then release it, it causes deeper relaxation in that muscle. This can promote relaxation in the entire body if done one muscle group at a time. The body is connected to the mind, and thus this causes relaxation in the brain as well.

 

Using soothing scents, sights, sounds, or touch

five senses grounding trauma PTSD

 

Scent can help us relax, via our limbic system, which connects to emotion and memory. Relaxing smells can lower stress levels, promote soothing feelings, and help invoke positive memories.

Pleasing visuals can have a calming effect, helping us to destress and bringing us comfort. This can be as simple as looking at pictures of landscapes, ocean, animals, nature, or going outside and looking at nature.

Listening to music, the ringing of bells, the sound of ocean waves or rain, binaural beats, and guided meditation can all help reduce anxiety, decrease stress, tap into good memories, focus the mind, and promote enjoyment and positive feelings.

Touch can soothe us, make us feel connected, and increase well-being. Touch has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, lower stress, and increase oxytocin. From a hug to a massage, touch comes in so many forms. Even a weighted blanket can help ease our anxiety and help us fall asleep. There are so many ways to bring touch into our lives and collect its benefits.

 

Grounding activities

People with PTSD can dissociate, or have the sense of not being themselves or in their body. In this case, grounding helps bring us back into our body and the present and feel our feelings. It can be as simple as lying on the floor, or anything that slows us down or engages us physically such as meditation, dancing, or going for a walk. When people are experiencing panic attacks or flashbacks, grounding is also used as a tool of distraction, drawing awareness away from anxiety by focusing on a cue which engages the five senses.

 

Mindfulness practice

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness into the present moment. It’s a way we can observe ourselves without judgement and getting overwhelmed. When practicing mindfulness people bring awareness into their bodies, feelings, and thoughts and try to bring them into balance.

Mindfulness is about paying attention. Not to the past or the future, but right here and right now. Mindfulness can promote stress reduction, help anxiety and depression, and quiet the mind so it becomes more focused and calm.

 

Meditation

 

Meditation promotes deep relaxation, focuses attention, reduces stress, increases awareness, reduces negative thoughts, can boost imagination and creativity, and increases tolerance and patience. There are so many different kinds of mediation and various methods – despite popular belief that it looks one way, and that way is hard. Learn more about it and you may find one that is right for you.

 

 

Workbooks

Workbooks are a great way to get the tools that therapy teaches you without the price tag. They range in price, but for around $15, you can get a workbook that will teach you about depression or anxiety and techniques on how to reduce them.

 

Art

Art, for example painting, beading, knitting/crocheting, adult coloring books, drawing, collaging, photography, origami, mosaics, etc., can all be healing.

Art helps us make more connections in the brain and connects our minds to our bodies. It helps us tap into our creativity and get in touch with our feelings, and it can help promote enjoyment, rhythm, and soothing feelings.

art to heal trauma

 

Journaling

journaling to heal trauma

Journaling is a cost effective way to put your traumatic experiences down on paper. Writing is a creative expression that can help our brains process information, reduce stress, and even boost our immune system. Writing can help us tap into the meaning of our experiences and see our own growth from them, as we re-read and reflect on our story. It’s also a great way to vent, without anyone else having to listen to it or react. It’s a way for you to get it all out with privacy.

 

 

Get in nature  

Nature can reduce negative feelings such as anger. Nature reduces stress, and promotes positive feelings such as joy. Nature tends to help both body and mind, and has been proven to reduce blood pressure, relax muscles, lower heart rate, and lower stress hormones. Nature can be soothing, help us feel connection, bring us balance and calm, and help us feel more resilient and focused. Nature can even distract us from our pain.

 

Video games 

It may surprise some, but studies show video games can be an effective way to treat trauma. Video games have a mindfulness-like effect, as well as a soothing effect through repetitive tapping and button pushing. They can also provide social connection, be used as a tool of distraction from painful symptoms, and help create meaning. Video games can be affordable and played in the privacy of one’s own home.

 

Get a pet 

It’s been proven that stroking the soft fur of a pet can increase our levels of oxytocin. In addition, having a pet can decrease stress levels, lower blood pressure, lower risk of a heart attack, and help ease depression, anxiety, and stress. A lot of these benefits come from playing with, walking, feeding, and petting a pet. Pets can help us get out of bed because they need us. (The secret is, we need them, too.)

 

ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response)

ASMR can help people relieve bad moods, create soothing feelings, reduces chronic pain, and helps reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. ASMR can also help people to relax, fall asleep, and uplift their mood.

 

Join in person support groups, peer support groups, Facebook support groups, or other online support groups

The great thing about support groups is that you’re surrounded by other people who are going through the same thing you are. It instantly decreases your feeling of being alone or isolated. You are validated by others who confirm your experience and reflect back your own experience. This brings comfort and builds social bonds. Many groups are also easily accessible and affordable or free. Peer support is really a great way to help others as well, and feel like you’re giving back in return for advice and support you received from others.

 

Go to therapy

Therapy helps people process the trauma they have been through. Therapy also teaches a person about trauma and how it could be showing up for a person. Therapy helps a person talk about their traumatic experiences, and helps guide them to express their feelings in healing ways. Therapy can help you develop a narrative which is compassionate and accurate based on how trauma shows up for you and how it affects the brain.

Therapists provide psychoeducation, teach therapeutic techniques and tools, and use therapeutic techniques to treat trauma and reduce symptoms such as depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, or flashbacks. Therapy can help people regain a sense of power, increase self-esteem, help with daily functioning, teach people healthy coping and self-soothing skills, and help them develop resilience. Therapy can also help reduce stress, negative feelings, and self-harm. There are many types of therapy, and some may work better than others for you depending on your situation and needs.

 

Reading or listening to podcasts

reading therapy for PTSD
Ashwagandha for stress and anxiety

Herbs, supplements, & alternative medicine

 

Collective methods to heal from trauma

volunteering

 

Collective methods of healing trauma are also a creative way to channel our feelings and look outside ourselves for connection. Activism can help people share their feelings, empower themselves, receive validation, and create purpose and meaning for those who may feel they have lost their way.

These collective methods focus on helping others and giving back, building community ties, and fostering healthy relationships. These tools can help one process grief and loss, decrease loneliness and isolation, create safety trust, and build resilience. Furthermore these methods can help create positive change, can be transformative for the individual and society, and help a survivor take their power back.  

 
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

Some systemic solutions that help heal trauma

 

Building social support networks

Traumatic experiences can isolate us, or cause us to self-isolate. However human relationships are extremely important for mental health and having a sense of belonging and support. Trauma survivors can help heal by finding social support through support groups, spending time with their friends and family, becoming part of spiritual communities, and building positive relationships  with coworkers.

 

Volunteering

Volunteering is a great way to make social connections, to build community, to help yourself feel positive feelings, and create purpose and meaning. Volunteering can also be fun, be good for building work experience, and helps increase leadership skills.

 

Writing for an audience 

Writing for an audience can help one express deeply held experiences in order to help others feel less alone and isolated. It can also help others to find techniques and ways to improve their own lives. This can be very fulfilling and also healing for the writer, whose lived experience can both be written about and expressed, and also read by many people, helping bring meaning and purpose, resilience, and courage to both the writer and the audience.

 

Advocacy

Advocacy work helps us raise awareness of our own cause. It helps us when we speak up for others who feel voiceless, helps us build resilience and courage and promote these in others, helps us use lived experience to fight for better policies and treatment for others, helps break down stigma, and be effective in promoting better wellbeing for people like us. Advocacy helps us feel less powerless, as we see the benefits of our work demonstrated in tangible outcomes and improved lives. 

 

Join a community garden

community gardening to heal traumaCommunity gardens make cities more beautiful and grean, and provide fresh and healthy food for the communities they’re in. If you already know how to garden, you can start to grow your own food, while meeting and teaching others. And if you don’t know how to garden, you can learn! The other gardeners will give you free tips, and many community gardens even offer classes. Learning, socializing, and eating healthy foods are all ways to nourish your brain and help heal trauma.

 

Restorative and Transformative Justice programs or circles 

Transformative Justice is a framework communities can use to address violence and abuse outside of the criminal justice system. It’s an approach that seeks to create accountability, safety, and healing within communities harmed by trauma, without perpetuating violent reactions or behaviors.

 

Movementand community building

Some people’s experiences of mental health treatment has itself been traumatic. This can be because of the stigmatization that comes with some mental health diagnoses, misdiagnosis, or experiences of forced institutionalization or dehumanization in psychiatric care. There are networks and communities of mental health survivors that critique the mental health system and advocate for it to be more patient-led. Joining one can give survivors a voice and be a source of social support, especially for those who have been traumatized by psychiatric institutions.

 

Join a union

Economic disempowerment is a major contributor to mental health problems. Unions are a way to address disempowerment at the workplace and declining wages. Unions can build a community of solidarity at your work, uniting workers to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. A union will also support you if you’re being harassed on the job, and educate you as to your rights at the workplace.

unions for PTSD

 

Join or start a coop

Coops are a way to bring power back into our own hands and the hands of our communities. There are several different kinds of coops (and collectives). Worker coops are businesses that are owned and operated by the people who work there, so they tend to have better working conditions and serve the needs of their communities more than traditional hierarchical businesses. Consumer coops, like many local grocery stores, are owned by the people who shop there, and often have gathering spaces or offer events and services to the community. Having strong communities and socializing is good for our mental health, and can help us build support networks and overcome isolation and trauma.

 

We are working through trauma and towards healing both as individuals and as a collective. It takes many shapes and forms.  It’s up to us to design the toolkit that works best for us throughout our journey. Hopefully this has inspired you as a jumping off point to do some healing work of your own. 

Eleusinian Mysteries Kykeon

Psyche, Jung, LSD, & transformation

 

Psyche (or Psyke) is the goddess of the soul. The word psyche also means soul in Greek, as well as butterfly. 

The butterfly emerges from its dead shell as a new being. Perhaps our souls do when we part from this world, or when we undergo a transformation.

Psyche the mortal

Like the butterfly, the myth of Psyche is transformational. She was a princess, and so beautiful that some began to worship her instead of Aphrodite. Jealous, Aphrodite sent her son Eros (Cupid), to sabotage Psyche.

Eros, the god of love, can make anyone fall in love with his arrows, and Aphrodite instructed him to shoot Psyche with one to make her fall in love with a hideous beast. Instead, he accidentally scratches himself with his own arrow, falls deeply in love with Psyche, and disobeys his mother.

Meanwhile, Psyche has had no luck finding  love or a husband. So her father goes to consult the god Apollo, who condemns her to marry a violent dragon. She jumps from a cliff to meet (or escape) her fate, but is instead safely carried by a wind spirit to a beautiful palace.

Psyche is met by a lover at night, but he won’t let her see him. Convinced he’s a monster, she eventually confronts him with a lamp. She’s startled upon seeing Eros, and brushes against one of his arrows, instantly falling in love with him. In her surprise she drops her oil lamp on Eros. Injured, he wakes up and flees. Psyche goes after him. 

In her search, Psyche runs into Pan and Demeter, but they cannot help her against a goddess. She realizes that she must go to see Aphrodite, who subjects her to torture and impossible tests. However nature conspires to help her; an army of ants spontaneously lends her their aid, and Zeus himself intervenes in the form of an eagle to save her. Finally, Psyche is told to go to the underworld to retrieve a gift from Persephone for Aphrodite. She again tries to commit suicide, when the very tower she would jump from speaks to her, giving her instructions for safe passage to the underworld and back.

 

Psyche, the goddess of the soul

Upon her return from the underworld, Psyche is reunited with Eros. Zeus gives her ambrosia, turning her into a goddess, and she becomes the goddess of the soul. Zeus then presides over the sacred marriage of Psyche and Eros, the union between soul and love. Their story is known as Metamorphoses.

At every turn, just as Psyche is about to die, nature saves her. Why does nature favor her? 

We are left to think of Psyche as somehow virtuous and blessed. She is motivated in her journey by her love for Eros. Her suicide attempts show her despair at her forbidden love, and that she is more willing to shed her mortal skin than suffer under Aphrodite’s despotism or risk her soul in the underworld. She is in this sense pure; true to herself.

Nature recognizes and supports goodness, sometimes even cosmically intervening in our own folly. Her journey and her visit to the underworld are also metaphors for how traumatic experiences and going to dark places are often a part of our transformation. By trusting nature and valuing her soul, instead of dying, Psyche is transformed into a goddess.

 

The soul, butterflies, and neuroscience?

 

The modern father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal took up the symbolism of the soul and butterflies two millenia later to describe neurons. He was especially intrigued by interneurons, which are more abundant in humans than animals. His work drawing neurons and  interneurons won him more fame and recognition. 

“I felt at that time the most lively curiosity, somehow romantic, for the enigmatic organization of the organ of the soul. Humans, I said to myself, reign over Nature through the architectural perfection of their brains…To know the brain, I told myself in my idealistic enthusiasm, is equivalent to discovering the material course of thought and will…Like the entomologist hunting for brightly colored butterflies, my attention was drawn to the flower garden of the grey matter, which contained cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday (who knows?) clarify the secret of mental life…”

Santiago Ramon y Cajal was right; thought is created by brain activity. Neurotransmitters activate synapses, which then relay a message through a small electrical signal that travels along the neuron’s axon, activating a cascade of downstream synapses, producing thoughts. These thoughts then shape how we see ourselves and the world. 

the brain by santiago ramon y cajal
               Butterflies in the brain, part of a drawing of neurons by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

We’re discovering how the mind works, and this is opening our psyches up to new possibilities. Ideas flitter like serotonin at a synapse, or like brightly colored butterflies; catch them.

Since science is useful in explaining and predicting physical phenomena, we’ve been conditioned to accept it as universal truth. However it isn’t the only way of knowing the world.

Antiquity may have understood the world differently, but many myths survive because they continue to offer insight. Neuroscience is exciting to understand, if tricky and even dangerous to manipulate. And the 20th century offers us yet another perennial understanding of ourselves.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung distinguished the psyche from the soul, which he understood as the expression of personality. He defined the psyche as “the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious.”

Jung was very critical of the growing materialist, “scientific” trends in psychology. While Santiago Ramón y Cajal was busy searching for it, Jung insisted that even though it couldn’t be seen, the psyche is the most amazing and important thing in the world, saying:

“I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life. Indeed, it is the mother of all human facts, of civilization and its destroyer, war.”

Transformation is a recurrent theme throughout Jung’s works. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious he devotes a chapter to rebirth, describing a few scenarios in which it can take place: transmigration and reincarnation (there’s a subtle difference), transmutation (becoming something else entirely, as when Psyche went from mortal to goddess), and psychological renewal and rebirth (the most common form).

However, change needn’t always be positive. In Greek mythology, beautiful women are transformed into monsters as well as goddesses. Jung refers to a South American tradition in which depression is described as a “loss of soul”. Similarly, he describes the anxiety following shock or trauma as “abaissement”, in which the personality “shrinks”. The descriptions feel apt. This is contrasted with the positive transformation we seek, which he calls an “enlargement of personality”.

“Rebirth… suggests the idea of renovatio, renewal, or even of improvement brought about by magical means. Rebirth may be a renewal without any change of being, inasmuch as the personality which is renewed is not changed in its essential nature, but… parts of the personality, are subjected to healing, strengthening, or improvement. Thus even bodily ills may be healed through rebirth ceremonies.”

Jung elaborates on the different means by which a transformation or “rebirth” may occur. 

Rituals as common as communion at Catholic mass can give rise to renewal, he says, though he theorizes that crowds diminish the power of rituals in accordance with their magnitude, and that this is why they must be repeated for their effects to be sustained. Techniques such as meditation or yoga may be used to induce transformation, and visionary or transcendental experiences can also provoke transformation.

 

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Among the examples of transformation he provides, Jung alludes to are the Eleusinian Mysteries, which connects perfectly to some of the new (yet old) experimental treatments we’re exploring in this journal. 

An ancient psychedelic cult of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and grain, revealed to its initiates the secrets of life, death, and immortality. The guest list reads like a who’s who of Ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero all are said to have participated in this rite, which took place annually over the course of 2,000 years.

The initiates would journey to Eleusis, where Demeter was offered comfort while looking for her daughter, Persephone, after she had disappeared to the underworld, reenacting Demeter’s search. Persephone’s eventual return marks the beginning of Spring, symbolizing immortality as the eternal continuity of life through generations.

Upon arriving in Eleusis, initiates drank a psychoactive brew made of barley and mint called kykeon, and were said to come away with special knowledge of life after death.

Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, would go on to write a book purporting that the Eleusinians had, in fact, been ingesting LSD (or a very similar alkaloid). The theory is logical: Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and grain, and LSD is derived from ergot, a fungus that grows on barley and rye. Though ergot is usually quite poisonous when accidentally ingested, apparently its entheogenic properties are water-soluble whereas its most toxic ones are not. So it’s possible that the priests of Eleusis had discovered how to prepare a beverage with ergot in just the right way, as Hofmann happened upon LSD some four thousand years later. 

The symbol of the Eleusinian Mysteries was an ear of grain, and traces of ergot were found at ruins of temples of Demeter and Persephone in Catalonia. These findings appear to confirm the theory that these ancient Greek philosophers were essentially taking acid (and that this tradition had spread to Greek colonies across the Mediterranean).

Initiates were sworn to secrecy about their experiences, but some secrets escaped. And some, perhaps, were disguised as myth. Plato’s Republic concludes with “The Myth of Er”, which tells the tale of a man who returns from the afterlife to share his knowledge with the living. 

Er has seen the celestial planes of heaven, those returning from sentences in the underworld (where they must endure 10x the suffering they’ve inflicted upon others in their previous lives before being released), and how the newly dead choose their next lives as animals, good people, or powerful tyrants. Previous lives are forgotten with a drink from a river, and old souls go on to embark on new lives. 

The Delphic priest and philosopher Plutarch described the revelations of the Eleusinian Mysteries in fewer words:

“Because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries… we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly.”

 

Transformation through love

Love is another way we can be transformed. Themes of rebirth and immortality are also prominent in Plato’s Symposium, where the intellectuals of Athens gather at a dinner party, each one delivering a speech on the god Eros, or the nature of love.

The most prominent account is that of a woman philosopher, Diotima. Though she isn’t at the party, Socrates credits her with teaching him the nature of love and recounts their conversation at the agora. 

Diotima says love moves towards the beautiful, which is synonymous with the good. Moved by love, people are filled with the desire to give birth to more beauty, through reproduction or the creation of art, philosophy, and virtuous acts. The concept of immortality through reproduction mirrors that of the Eleusinian Mysteries. However Diotima widens the possibilitie: driven by love, one can also give birth to actions, ideas, and laws for the benefit of society.

Eros, or love, represents longing, and begins with a sense of incompleteness in the self. Through love of the other, the incomplete, needy lover is redirected towards the world and inspired to create. Their vulnerability transforms them from an insecure being into a conduit for creativity. Love begets possibilities for creation and immortality in the form of children, works of art, noble acts, and wisdom and discourse, or, philosophy. Love generates change and creation, transforming both the creator and the world.

For Diotima, love is a process of becoming that is also generative, giving birth to new people, things, and ideas along the way. The final step in this transformation, however, is completely distinct from the process. It culminates in the knowledge and contemplation of beauty itself. Once a person has seen true beauty and is fully transformed by love, they lose interest in the mundane, and lack the inner restlessness that drives creation, she says. They’ve had a transcendental experience that persists, and are then complete, and content to contemplate the eternal beauty of the world in a state of ecstasy. Full metamorphosis, they become their own creation.

 

Journeying through madness

Socrates describes love in yet another way in the Symposium, which is also in a sense transformational:

“The madness of a man who, on seeing beauty here on earth, and being reminded of true beauty, becomes winged, and fluttering with eagerness to fly upwards, but unable to leave the ground, looks upwards like a bird, and takes no heed of things below—and that is what causes him to be regarded as mad.”

Here we’re reminded that transformation can also take us through or resemble madness, and that our transformations aren’t always accepted by others. It’s possible that we could become detached, or find ourselves emerging with a new identity or perspective not understood or shared by those around us. 

Jung also recognizes the transformative power of madness – which is comforting to hear, now that we’ve all gone mad. Likening it to our shadow – or that part of ourselves which we reject, and therefore remains unconscious and unintegrated – he urges us to embrace it:

“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life…If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature… Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.” 

Jung keeps circling back to Ancient Greece. It’s ironic that he makes reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries, because they hint at how nature may aid us again by allowing ordinary people to experience the sacred. Hofmann’s LSD theory of the Mysteries hadn’t yet been formulated, however psychedelics were just starting to be experimented with in the last decade of Jung’s life. In a letter, Jung expressed that he didn’t think regular people should take psychedelics. He believed that normal people wouldn’t be able to psychologically integrate such intense experiences, or that they wouldn’t be ready to receive the responsibility that would come with the knowledge they offered. However he elsewhere wrote that we are only able to know or become what we’re ready to receive or be.

Perhaps psychedelics aren’t for everyone. There are other means of transforming ourselves. And just like traumatic or psychedelic experiences, or Jung’s embraced madness, they often have to be integrated into our psyches, whether through ritual, conversations, journaling, or daily practices like yoga or meditation. 

However we’re transformed – through experience, ritual, yoga, drugs, psychedelics, a vision or an epiphany – experience belongs to people, not the elite whether they be philosophers or millionaires. Individual experiences must also drive cultural transformations.

 

The collective unconscious

For Jung, individuals were never – are never – islands. Equally if not more important than our individual psyches is his concept of the collective unconscious; that part of our psyches that is unconscious and shared by all of us – humanity as a species.

The collective unconscious according to Jung is visual, and composed of archetypes that have recurred throughout the thousands of generations of our species. It’s humanity’s common memory, evoking how the Eleusinians saw eternity in the fresh green fields of spring.

Archetypes are symbols. Many correspond to the roles we play in the course of our lives as humans. These archetypes are seen in Greek gods and goddesses and their stories, which individuals across time and cultures can relate to, and structure our understanding of the world.

Jung regards the collective unconscious as inherited, like instincts. Some instincts are ancient, though more recent ones may have reached us through epigenetics. For instance, trauma can leave markers on the genes of their offspring, and be passed down to the next generation, creating transgenerational trauma. Similarly, Jung theorizes that certain patterns and characters are repeated throughout humanity’s history and marked on our genes or stored in our cerebellum in the collective unconscious, which finds expression in stories and religious mythology.

Jung roots much modern neuroses in the absence of religious and mythological forces that express these archetypes, and condemns the efforts of psychiatry to individualize mental health problems:

“In numerous cases of neurosis the cause of the disturbance lies in the very fact that the psychic life of the patient lacks the co-operation of these motive forces. Nevertheless a purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its level best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. I consider this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically.”

He continues:

“Since neuroses are in most cases not just private concerns, but social phenomena, we must assume that archetypes are constellated in these cases too.”

 

The individualization of mental health

Jung was right to be skeptical of a psychology that reduces everything to personal causes. Most neuroses are social phenomena.

As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, in a society where wealth equals power, we are necessarily disempowered. These symptoms are then pathologized and collectively called “mental illness”. As if it’s our fault for not being richer, and we all could be if we just tried hard enough. When we are threatened with eviction, underpaid, overworked, or undervalued because of our relative poverty, not only are our livelihoods under threat, but there is a very clear message being handed down: that we do not matter. This is a crucial, overlooked aspect of our collective mental health crisis.

At the same time, through the media, the very wealthy proclaim themselves our archetypal gods.

Similarly, a first step in overcoming the inferiority complexes transmitted to us by the media and a culture controlled by the wealthy is simply to reject these cultural values. We can start with a healthy disrespect. Don’t accept their measures of success, or who other people tell you who you are.

While we need large-scale changes and solutions, one way of overcoming the precarity of our economic system and its associated stresses is by getting to know and organizing with people in our communities. This could be by creating neighborhood support networks, community gardens, child care cooperatives, or unions. Or dinner parties with speeches, and elaborate rituals involving psychedelics. Possibilities will arise.

 

Smartphones & fossil fuels, or LSD & dinner parties?

Technological progress at some point became synonymous with progress itself. So it’s common for us in the 21st century to think of ourselves as somehow more advanced than those that came before. However this is just semantic confusion disguised as common sense.

In American society we’ve not been able to create a culture, having been disconnected from each other by a confluence of structural factors. There’s the media, which controls what we know and what we value. Work culture, which is precarious, competitive, and often sucks out of us the very life force which we might otherwise use to create good in the world. Then there is the physical structure of society, of cars and suburban homes that isolate us, and screens that are supposed to replace the need for human connection. We are not expected to create culture, but consume it. And we’ve been increasingly fed a culture of bad movies, endless news cycles, and social media. In the end, it is less culture than propaganda.

A life with more storytelling, rituals, ceremonies, initiations, mythology, dinner parties, philosophy, and nature begins to sound like a really good deal in exchange for my smartphone and Google. After 11 months of quarantine, I want to tell stories with my neighbors, invite my friends to dinner to give speeches about love, and share my thoughts with them. I don’t want to Google my doubts or read another Wikipedia article. I want to ask my family, my friends, or my neighbor what they think. 

I’m partial to Diotima’s vision of love: that we’re transformed through collective creation. Ceremonies, rites of passage, celebrations, secret rituals, and dinner parties. These – along with an equitable society where basic needs are guaranteed in a system of mutually owned production – are the foundations of a good human society.

Since our culture is lacking in ritual, we must create it for ourselves. Whether it’s dinner parties, hiking trips, brewing kykeon, searching for artefacts among ruins or sitting in the square contemplating eternal life with our neighbors, who are also philosophers, or have the potential to be.

Let the people be the philosophers, and the millionaires, and the psychonauts. Let us all be philosophers and millionaires. It’s your experience, choose. Like a good trip, this task – of being who you are and pursuing what you want, of determining your own experience, of self and collective transformation – is at once very heavy and very light.

And if the economy plays a huge role in our mental health, the environment plays an unseen one. Like Jung’s collective unconscious, nature is visual, and it’s constantly at the back of our minds.

If these butterflies escape us, if our transformation eludes us, so may eternal life escape humanity. Though Demeter’s grass may still turn green, where will the souls go? What will they eat? And what if the river’s water has turned to poison?

What is trauma? Recognizing the causes, signs, and symptoms of PTSD & C-PTSD

By Tina Phillips, MSW 

 

“Vulnerability is our susceptibility to be wounded. This fragility is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so vast or unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function.”

~ Dr. Gabor Maté

When Alyssa came out of an abusive relationship, she was relieved, and thought things would get better. But she didn’t feel like herself; just because it was over, it didn’t mean she was okay. Like many who have been in abusive relationships, she had become isolated from friends and family. She even moved away so her abuser couldn’t find her, but still, everything put her on alert. She didn’t understand her feelings or recognize the symptoms of PTSD; after all, it was over, wasn’t it?

Moving and starting a new job with undiagnosed PTSD led to chronic stress. The only way she knew to deal with her hyperarousal, episodes of panic, and depression was by drinking. It was only after a breakdown that she received medical attention, connected with a network of survivors, and began to recover. Even though the traumatic event was over, Alyssa was still in survival mode. Recovering from trauma can be an ordeal in itself. It takes time to heal, and it’s hard to do it alone.

 

What is trauma?

Trauma is a natural emotional response to an event or an emotional experience by a person that felt a threat to their life or safety. Examples of such events can range from childhood abuse and neglect, to military combat, to sexual assault, or even poverty and chronic stress. These experiences can be jarring for a person’s brain, stress hormones, and create a feeling of being overwhelmed and not in control. These events can be a one time experience or could be over a period of time, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)orComplex PTSD (C-PTSD).

 

Symptoms of PTSD & C-PTSD

PTSD can present itself as emotional distress, distrust of others, fear and anxiety, and emotional dysregulation. Childhood is one of the worst times to experience trauma, and can affect a person life-long and have consequences on overall healthlater in life.  Repeated or long-term trauma, especially during childhood, is more likely to cause C-PTSD.

C-PTSD manifests with most of the same symptoms of PTSD, but usually in greater severity. People with C-PTSD are more likely to experience prolonged feelings of low self-esteem, shame, isolation, emotional dysregulation, difficulty in relationships, and sometimes feelings of intense anger or shame. They’re also more likely to be revictimized. 


Emotional dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation can throw a person off from interacting with the world around them. The “inability of a person to control or regulate their emotional responses to” input around them, causing exaggerated or inappropriate emotional reactions, especially when triggered. This can cause trouble with relationships, create barriers for daily functioning, and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Barriers in daily functioning could mean one is distracted by intrusive thoughts, bombarded by reliving their trauma or being reminded of it when stressed or emotionally hurt by others, paralyzed by anxiety and fear, overwhelmed from demands in their life, and unable to properly care for themselves. This may mean the struggle to keep themselves well fed, get enough sleep, shower, go to work or school, do chores, maintain relationships, or seek help.

Triggers 

Triggers are when things happen to us that remind us of our trauma. It can send us into an emotional shut down. It can be anything that elicits our symptoms. Furthermore, during emotional dysregulation people often become hypervigilant, experience hyperarousal, and can disassociate. Some also have flashbacks and nightmares, where they relive their trauma. 

Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance causes people to be on guard and scan their environment looking for danger, that may not really be there. It’s an exaggerated response by the nervous system that has been hurt by trauma.

Hyperarousal 

Hyperarousal is when the central nervous system is firing and keeping one awake and alert to be prepared for an impending attack. Often there is no real danger, but our minds and bodies are tricking us into thinking there is. 

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”

~ Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Dissociation

Dissociation is when you lose touch with yourself and anything around you. It’s almost like daydreaming, except it’s often more like a fog you get lost in that shuts down the world outside your inner reality. This is our brain’s way of coping with overwhelming stress, and is a defense mechanism. 

Somatization

Somatization is when a psychological stressor manifests itself in physical symptoms. Examples include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle aches and weakness, and fatigue. 

“The bodies of traumatized people portray ‘snapshots’ of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word- they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances.”

~ Peter A. Levine

 

Stress response as an evolutionary adaptation 

There is an evolutionary function for the trauma response causing intense bouts of stress. This response is the body’s natural reaction to perceived threats of harm. Back in the savannah days our ancestors did have very real threats to their lives, such as large, predatory animals. Later, warfare or raiding was a reality between some tribes and villages. Though violent attacks are no longer imminent threats for most of us, now we have a leftover stress response that can be out of proportion to our everyday modern life. “[If you’re] a normal mammal, you had better turn on the stress response or else you’re dead. But if you get chronically, psychologically stressed, like a Westernized human, then you are more at risk for heart disease and some of the other leading causes of death in Westernized life,” says  Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. In fact when we are under stress our bodies secrete hormones such as cortisol, and blood rushes to our vital organs to keep us alive in case of an attack, causing physical symptoms we associate with anxiety– tight chest, tingling/cold hands, sweat, dry throat, gastro-intestinal upset, back and headaches, and rapid heartbeat. But now instead of real physical threats to our lives, most of us have everyday stressors and trauma throughout our lives that can come back to torment us over and over.

Furthermore, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental conditions that come about in part due to stress and trauma, end up being risk factors for real physical diseases. We may be susceptible to certain conditions biologically, but it’s our social environment that elicits those traits to be expressed. The social environment is that which we live in, and can involve social interactions, family structure, schooling, political and cultural factors, a community in which a person grew up, relationships a person has, and any abuse or trauma they endured throughout their life, particularly in childhood. The reason childhood is such a large factor is because the human brain is still developing at this time and the trauma will shape the brain, causing patterns a child learned in order to survive their abuse into potentially life-long conditions, both physical and mental. 

 

Capitalism causes trauma 

“It is the economic and political system under which we live—capitalism—which is responsible for the enormously high levels of mental-health problems which we see in the world today.” 

~Iain Ferguson

It has been demonstrated and bared out in data that existing in a capitalist society doesn’t help most people psychologically. In fact, “research since at least the 1930s has consistently documented that mental illnesses are more common among those with lower levels of income, education, and occupational prestige.” 

The economic system we live under is exploitative, oppressive, and leads to stratification, political and cultural polarization, and isolation. There are a lot of “have-nots” these days. Millions can’t pay their rent, and are being threatened with losing their homes. When the stock market goes up, it just means that CEOs get more money, while income inequality and costs rise, and wages stay flat. So many young adults are now saddled with student loan debt, but don’t have high paying jobs and suffer without affordable housing, healthcare, or other social safety nets.

Some work themselves to the bone, yet they just aren’t making it, and are forced to live with their parents or several roommates, and delay starting families. For others, job insecurity means housing or food insecurity, and can in itself be a source of enormous stress, leading to states of hyperarousal similar to that in PTSD. People with less control over their jobs have higher rates of mental health issues like depression, especially when the jobs are also demanding. We too often don’t have enough time off or benefits to adequately take care of our mental or physical health, and many people have to work more than one job to survive.

People can’t wait until the weekend, but when the weekend hits it’s all chores, errands, caring for loved ones, and catching up on sleep. When Monday hits it starts all over again, leading to burnout and for many, mental distress. It is soul crushing. If we’re in poverty because we’re unemployed or can’t find a job that pays enough we’re more vulnerable to further traumatic events; we’re more likely to suffer from violence and abuse, not to mention extremely stressful situations such as homelessness or incarceration. All of these situations can be traumatizing, and the ways people may try to cope can lead to more problems, such as when people try to self-medicate and become addicted to substances. #ba6db5

Too many of us find ourselves where we’re overworked, in poverty, or both. Businesses seek to maximize their profits at our expense, and then discard us when the toll on our health leads to a crisis. Our economic system isn’t working for most people, causing more problems than it solves, and in many cases causing mental health issues, which we’re made to feel inadequate for. In so many ways, capitalism is just plain bad for our mental health. In this sense, trauma is often systemic.

 

Racism, oppression, and trauma

Furthermore, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression intersect with capitalism, and America has a long history of exploiting people to extract wealth such as through slavery, imperialist occupation, wars, policing, and colonization. There is also historical trauma. For example, Black people may experience Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (however there is also criticism of this theory, as some argue it presents Black culture as dysfunctional, instead of locating problems in continued institutional and everyday racism, as well as an economic system which denies people their basic needs). The point is that the legacy of slavery and racism may cause intergenerational, even epigenetic trauma, that causes both mental and physical health issues to be passed down to the next generation. Low-income Black people in the US have a rate of PTSD higher than combat veterans; some studies have estimated that 20-30% of people in these communities meet the criteria for PTSD. Given this we have every incentive to fight for a better world and do away with white supremacy, racism, and capitalism, which is a root cause of trauma.

 

Trauma isn’t always obvious

Though they may not pose direct threats to our lives, experiences of psychological abuse, such as bullying, neglect, isolation, exclusion, harassment, mistreatment in the workplace, racism, and other forms of oppression are responded to by our brains in a similar way to physical pain, and when acute or chronic, can result in PTSD or C-PTSD. Emotional abuse that takes place in childhood, repeatedly, or over time is more likely to cause PTSD, and factors such as having a support network play a role. While victims of violent situations may understand they’ve undergone trauma, in these less obvious circumstances, trauma may go unnoticed or misdiagnosed. 

People can experience PTSD or C-PTSD for months, years, or even decades if left untreated. Since symptoms can look like depression, anxiety, or Borderline Personality Disorder, and because some people block out certain traumatic events from their pasts, many go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. Recognizing PTSD and the source of trauma can help survivors and those around them to better understand their thoughts and behavior, seek support and treatment, and begin to recover.

 

What can we do?

“The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce in the way a developing child will continue to interpret the world and her situation in it. All too often these ill-conditioned implicit beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. We create meanings from our unconscious interpretation of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meaning we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past…Mindful awareness can bring into consciousness those hidden, past-based perspectives so that they no longer frame our worldview.”   ~ Dr. Gabor Maté 

Given how common and frequent trauma is in our society, how overwhelming it can be and difficult to overcome, what can we do about it? There are individual solutions and systemic solutions. Both are needed, and both have potential to aid mental health and help heal trauma. Individual solutions may be more immediate in relieving symptoms of trauma, while systemic solutions may take longer, but have longer-lasting impacts for society as a whole.

Now that we’ve looked at how to recognize trauma, it’s causes and it’s symptoms, it’s time to look towards solutions. There are so many ways to heal ourselves, be there for others, and transform our society. I go into some detail on them in 30 individual and collective ways to heal from trauma.