mdma as a cure for ptsd

 

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy & PTSD: Revising our pasts

MDMA, or ecstasy, is what you take before you go clubbing, right? Or, during your therapy session – which it looks like we may all need after Covid. And by then MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may actually be available.

MDMA isn’t a classic psychedelic like LSD. It doesn’t exactly alter your reality (though it might be able to change your past). The drug, which makes you feel happier, confident, and more empathetic, was synthesized in 1912, but wasn’t used until the 1970s, when it enjoyed a brief therapeutic career. In the 1980s it was sold on the street as a party drug, and was swiftly criminalized in 1985.

On the street, ecstasy is seldom pure MDMA; it’s usually cut with other drugs like amphetamine. It’s true that it’s not as harmless as classic psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin, and overdose or heavy, long-term use can have serious consequences. Its use at raves have earned it a negative reputation in the press, but pure MDMA – when used sparingly – is relatively safe, and less addictive than most illicit drugs.

Anyways, now that psychedelics are becoming more acceptable, the media is changing its mind and shedding light on MDMA’s seemingly magical powers to alleviate – if not cure – PTSD. And these days, there’s more trauma than ever.

The more we talk about PTSD, the more it shows up. One could even say we live in a traumatized society. Around 10% of people in the US are estimated to have PTSD at some point in their lives, and about 3.5% of the population in any given year. But those are the official estimates.

PTSD as a diagnosis was created to describe the symptoms of Vietnam War veterans. However we’re now learning that not only war, but everything from bullying, to living in poverty, to racism, to having Covid can cause PTSD. It’s also common in first responders like paramedics, who have to witness traumatic events on a daily basis. Whether or not we catch the “disease” depends less on the objective event as it does on the person, how they experience it, and the support they receive immediately afterwards.

Oppressed groups such as racial minorities and people in poverty are more likely to experience long-term stress and traumatic events. And those who don’t know they have PTSD are at greater risk of being retraumatized. This can lead to its new, stronger variant, C-PTSD (trauma is also mutating).

The only currently approved treatments for PTSD are SSRIs and psychotherapy, in particular exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, the patient recalls the traumatic event(s) in safe contexts over time. This is supposed to promote “fear extinction”, or an unlearning of the fear response. It turns out patients don’t tend to like remembering their traumas over and over again, and it has high dropout rates. Neither antidepressants nor exposure therapy are very effective in treating PTSD, with only around half of patients responding.

MAPS, an organization founded in 1986 to promote the research of psychedelics, has been at the forefront of MDMA research. MAPS decided early on to focus on MDMA because it’s the drug that best lends itself to therapy, and it had the potential to treat PTSD, which has no strong treatment alternatives. They’ve been trying to conduct research with veterans since 1990, with no luck because of the stigma, despite the huge need; over one million veterans are on disability for PTSD.

“The real motivation, why I’ve kept going for so long, is that humanity as a whole is, I would say, massively mentally ill,” said MAPS founder Rick Doblin in an interview.

 

Towards an understanding of PTSD

More people with anxiety, depression, and even addictions are realizing that these problems are often rooted in trauma. This was the approach of early psychoanalysts, that psychological problems sprang from childhood trauma (though people like Freud created weird theories around it, like “this person is anal retentive because they experienced a trauma during the very scientific phase of potty training”).

Behavioral psychology and medical explanations have dominated since the mid-20th century, because it’s more profitable to treat human beings like lab rats than traumatized subjects. Acknowledging the sources of trauma would also mean addressing the deep inequities in our society. However the popularity of people like the doctor Gabor Maté, who says that all addiction is rooted in trauma, has helped bring trauma theory back.

And now that we now know a lot more about the brain, there’s some biological understanding of how PTSD works (and MDMA, too).

PTSD changes our brain structure. As we revisit the memory or it’s cued in our environment by a “trigger”, our bodies secrete stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to respond to the threat, and our bodies reactivate the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. Our hippocampus measures and regulates cortisol, but too much wears it down, and so it shrinks. Meanwhile, cortisol continues to signal the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, which grows as we maintain a state of hypervigilance. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking and can rationally tell your amygdala to calm down, also shrinks as the amygdala grows. So people with PTSD have a smaller pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus, which translates to deficits in thinking, learning, and memory, and a larger amygdala, making them more sensitive to fear. 

Of course this hypervigilant state was meant to respond to real threats in our environment, but PTSD is usually maladaptive, playing traumatic memories or their reminders and fear responses on loop.

It’s worth noting that memories aren’t only visual. As a study of traumatic experience notes:

“Episodic memory can present itself in parts… [it] might appear as an inner vision, a sound, or just a hint – a brief sensation in the belly or a strong pain in the chest.”

 

MDMA-assisted therapy offers hope

“We know from brain scans of PTSD patients that PTSD changes people’s brains, and MDMA can change it back in almost the exact same way,” said Doblin. 

“So, where PTSD increases activity in the amygdala (the fear processing part of the brain), MDMA decreases activity in the amygdala. PTSD decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex (where we think logically), MDMA increases activity in the prefrontal cortex. PTSD makes people feel isolated, alone, mistrustful, but MDMA builds trust and connection.”

MDMA increases the availability of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, while releasing hormones including oxytocin, cortisol, prolactin, and vasopressin.

This neurobiological cocktail puts subjects in an ideal therapeutic state. It provokes a sense of peace and safety, makes them more introspective and open, and more trusting in their relationship with their therapists.

And in combination with psychotherapy, it appears that MDMA heals trauma in about two-thirds of cases.

It wasn’t with veterans, but MAPS was finally able to conduct their first study in 2008. It was such a success that the FDA granted MDMA-assisted psychotherapy Breakthrough Therapy Designation in 2017, fast-tracking the research. 

In 2020, MAPS aggregated the follow-up data for six phase 2 trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. All of the trials were conducted similarly, with participants undergoing eight psychotherapy sessions, two of which lasted eight hours and involved MDMA. 

At treatment exit, 56% of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD. However in the one year follow-up this number had increased, and 67% of participants no longer met the criteria, while over 90% had a clinically significant reduction in symptoms. These are magical numbers. A follow up of an older study is even more promising, suggesting that the benefits of MDMA treatment for PTSD canlast at least 3.5 years.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is now in phase 3 trials, which are expected to be completed in 2022, and the therapy could be approved by the FDA as soon as 2023.

In case the government wasn’t sold on the benefits, MAPS produced a separate study estimating that making MDMA-assisted psychotherapy available to just 1,000 patients with PTSD would reduce general and mental health care costs by $103.2 million over 30 years. So for a million veterans, it would save $103.2 billion.

 

Positively changing our memories

MDMA & PTSD

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is thought to treat PTSD through memory reconsolidation. It increases the connectivity between the hippocampus and amygdala, which may indicate a heightened capacity to emotionally process fear-related memories.

It turns out that when we recall memories, they become malleable. There’s a small window in which they “reconsolidate”, and we can modify and update them. The events themselves may not change, but the way we remember them, and especially the feelings we have associated with them, do.

We do this all the time. For example if you once looked back on a fun experience with a partner fondly, but then found out that partner cheated on you, you might remember that same experience differently – perhaps with sadness, anger, or a sense of betrayal.

When we recall trauma memories and our adrenal receptors in the amygdala are activated, those memories are reinforced from a place of fear. Continually recalling the same memories with the same emotions may be what underlies the long-term nature of PTSD.

MDMA therapy is like the opposite of that. The key is reconsolidating memories in a positive state. First you enter a safe, happy state of mind, and only then do you recall memories with your therapist, process them, and reconsolidate them.

MDMA allows us to visit the ghosts from our pasts from a place of empathy or compassion. Without fear, we can see through them and give them new meanings. We can make peace with them, and lay them to rest.

Can you use MDMA to treat yourself? You can try, but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll need the psychotherapy help you to integrate your experience and process your trauma, but to pick up the pieces of your life that trauma has left in its wake.

Doblin says the end goal of the MAPS project is “mass mental health”. If phase 3 trials are successful and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is approved by the FDA, MAPS will focus on researching group therapy for PTSD, as well as other indications for MDMA.

Because MDMA is thought to stimulate prosocial behavior, MAPS is also studying MDMA-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for social anxiety in autistic adults. It’s also being investigated for couples therapy and addiction.

 

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. 

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.

 

Silence in the deserts of the heart

 

Spectres of post-colonial Algeria

Hauntology & silence in the deserts of the heart

By McBond

 

« Il fallait quelqu’un pour exprimer ce silence, lui faire rendre tout ce qu’elle contenait de tristesse, pour ainsi dire la faire chanter. »

“Someone had to express this silence, make it give back everything it contained in sadness, so to speak and make it sing.”

– Marguerite Yourcenar, Alexis, ou le Vain Combat.

 

Three squirrels skipped across a sodden lawn bilious-green under a grey Saturday sky in Lanarkshire. The house of the Society of Missionaries of the Venerable Geronimo seemed hunched down on top of a hill beneath the Cathkin Braes.

Twenty-six years earlier Bartholomew McCorquodale had been ordained in a nearby Catholic parish, in July 1993.

The bishop was lucid for the occasion, and theres a picture of McCorquodale in the habit of the Society of Missionaries of the Venerable Geronimo going into St Finbarr’s church hall. Boxy 1990s cars in the background. He was trussed up like aspahi in a borrowed burnous.

The cardinal who founded the Society in 1868 must have seen the locally recruited spahis of the French colonial army in Algeria: did this inspire his choice for the habit of the Missionaries of St Geronimo? McCorquodale’s own military experience was limited to the Glasgow University Officers’ Training Corps — mornings on drizzly ranges firing off a few desultory rounds from the Sterling submachine gun and the Belgian-designed SLR — but he would later encounter clerics who had served in the French army, and who had retained something of a martial snap.

McCorquodale had recently heard of a now-deceased French priest who returned to Algeria after independence in 1962 to atone for his misdeeds as a French paratrooper during the Algerian independence struggle of the 1950s.

A few weeks prior to his ordination he had some cards printed in Toulouse — where he had completed his seminary studies — with a reproduction of a fourth-century Ravenna mosaic of the prophet Jonah being vomited out of the whale. The card was presently in one of his notebooks at an art gallery in Carthage, so he was recalling its details from memory.

 

Algiers, still a site of war

 

Just over two months later — September 1993 — he arrived in Algiers via Toulouse with little idea of the gravity of the situation. The conflict between the Algerian state and Islamist extremists had been background noise in the French media since early 1992. Two French surveyors had been assassinated in September 1993. He did not recall receiving any particular words of caution or guidance from the Missionaries of the Venerable Geronimo about the situation in Algeria.

In his Journal d’Algérie (2003) the photographer Michael von Graffenried mentions a figure of 700 Islamists killed between summer 1992 and October 1993, 400 members of the security forces, while 10,000 political activists were held in detention camps. Graffenried gives a figure of 140 “random” murders over the same period.

A Swiss confrère had attended McCorquodale’s ordination in July, and seemed more concerned about the need for lines of demarcation between his future activities and those of a pugnacious French member — let’s call him “the Duke’’– of the Saharan community for which he was destined. The Algerian embassy in London dealt with McCorquodale’s tourist visa application by post, no questions asked.

In his Journal d’Algérie (2003) the photographer Michael von Graffenried mentions a figure of 700 Islamists killed between summer 1992 and October 1993, as well as 400 members of the security forces, while 10,000 political activists were held in detention camps. Graffenried gives a figure of 140 “random” murders over the same period.

The Society’s regional house in Algiers was in the Rue des Fusillés in the Belcourt area of Algiers, not far from Albert Camus’s birthplace. A large colonial-era street map of Algiers hung on the wall near the refectory, its wooden frame seeking to corral an unruly reality.

The same map, printed in the 1950s, appears from time to time in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers. French military officers in the film use the map to plan their campaign against the FLN in 1957. There’s a similar map in Julien Duvivier’s 1937 film Pépé le Moko. The street names on these kinds of maps included those of French military mass murderers of the 1840s and 1850s: Cavaignac, Pelissier, Bugeaud — specialists in organized pillage and asphyxiation (by smoke) of hundreds of indigenous fugitives in the grotto of Kabylia. A haunted haunting map.

The atmosphere in Rue des Fusilles was, however, cordial.

Image for post

 

After some jovial remarks, the then-Regional Miguel Larburu asked if he had drafted his last Will and Testament. Friar Georges Bergantz had the courtly manners of a fencing-master, while the taciturn Friar Saffroy had, McCorquodale would later learn, compiled a chronology of the Touat region of southwest Algeria.

This initial stay in Algiers lasted but a few days and was marked only by a somewhat comical incident in which McCorquodale and his Swiss colleague accidentally drove onto the runway at Algiers airport, passing within 100 metres of a stationary Boeing while retrieving from Air Freight a green tin trunk — similar to those in photographs of missionary “caravans” circa 1890 — containing his baggage sent from Toulouse.

 

Atlantis and the Sahara

 

The term “the South” had a special aura among the Missionaries of the Venerable Geronimo at that time, summoning up images of Saharan sand dunes, camel caravans shimmering in a heat haze, while Charles de Foucauld — soldier turned desert contemplative — meditated in his Tamanrasset fastness. The South was seen as removed from the tensions of northern Algeria, both in the pre-1962 period of French occupation and in the decades thereafter until the 1990s.

 

Desert nights by bisbiswas

 

A few days later they set out in a white Renault 4 for Ghardaïa, 600 kilometres away, heading southwards.

Until the 1960s the Sahara had been a separate territory for the Missionaries of the Venerable Geronimo, with around 50 priests and brothers involved in education and professional training as well as pastoral activities among the French civilian and military population of the Sahara.

The vision of an idealized Saharan landscape had been crafted over a lengthy period. In the late nineteenth century the Touareg nomads were reinvented by French scribes as noble lords of the desert with hazy links to Christianity and northern races.

The lost city of Atlantis was reputedly located in the far Sahara, and gave its name to the main hotel in Gao in northern Mali where McCorquodale had sojourned from 1988-1990. He thought of Atlantis and the eponymous 1919 novel L’Atlantide with its mysterious desert queen Antinea loosely modelled on a fourth century figure of Touareg folklore. While in Namur a few weeks before, he had seen that Antinea was the brand name for a range of lingerie.

 

A landscape of ghosts and silence

 

Moving south towards Ghardaïa there were however traces of a darker past: old French watchtowers from the 1950s in the mountains pressed back into service by the Algerian army, and earlier constructions used as observation or heliographic posts as the French pushed southwards into the Sahara in the mid-nineteenth century. They passed through Laghouat en route to Ghardaïa. Laghouat was the oasis city where the Catholic bishop of the Sahara resided— a restless, rangy Canadian named Michel Gagnon, who had arrived in Algeria in 1958.

McCorquodale and his fellow-missionary were following the route taken by French forces moving southwards from the coastal territories occupied by France in 1830. French forces occupied Laghouat in a particularly violent assault in November 1852. 2,500 people were killed and the year is still remembered as “sanat- al-khlā’”or the “year of desolation”. French military eyewitnesses describe crazed soldiers bayoneting civilians indiscriminately.

The artist Eugène Fromentin travelled through Laghouat in 1853 and hisUn été dans le Sahara (A Summer in the Sahara, 1858) is haunted during its Laghouat passages by phantasms of the slaughter of the previous year.

Bullet-riddled doors, crowds of beggars, and half-buried corpses were tangible traces of carnage by which Fromentin seems psychologically scarred.

At the time, McCorquodale had little awareness of Laghouat’s violent past as an “assassinated city” (to use Fromentin’s expression), and his Swiss colleague preferred to “live in the present”. Other clerics would recount how they had singlehandedly won the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Radio silence generally prevailed on matters surrounding colonial Algeria.

While silence had often been characteristic of clerical life in McCorquodale’s experience, there were, he thought, particular reasons for postcolonial opacity among the mainly French clerics in 1990s Algeria.

A small number may have been unable to “process” episodes from the Algerian War (1954–1962). Were individual missionaries as enthusiastic for the Algerian national cause as later missionary historians would claim? How divided were communities over the course of events as Algeria moved to independence in 1962?

McCorquodale’s studies in Toulouse had alerted him to scholarly work on colonial history and memory by figures such as Benjamin Stora, although this was still in an incipient phase. He recalled films such as Indochine, where colonialism was seen through the lenses of romance and glamour.

 

Hauntology and the mysteries of Algiers

 

The Algerian-born philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) would introduce his concept in 1994 of hantologie, a “puncept” coined to make a play between things that can be said to exist and things that cannot, but nonetheless appear, haunting reminders of lingering trouble.

One can be haunted backwards by things that no longer exist but still have impact, the ghosts of history — the map in Rue des Fusillés, for example — as well as by ghosts of an unrealised future, such as a soon-to-be demolished Brutalist structure from the 1980s. Perhaps the missionaries McCorquodale encountered were themselves haunted by the cancelled future of the optimistic nation building of the 1960s and 1970s, with which they and the wider Catholic community had been in solidarity.

Journey through the Algerian desert

The tin-can Renault rattled southwards beneath blue skies and a rocky salmon-pink landscape. They could not have foreseen how events would spiral out of control in a landscape haunted by memories of past violence. McCorquodale recalled that he had with him a copy of Robert Irwin’s novel The Mysteries of Algiers.

The novel begins in the Sahara during the Algerian war of independence. Philippe Roussel, a French intelligence officer, veteran of Indochina and prisoner of the Vietminh, has transferred his loyalties to Communism and is working as an anti-French agent. Unmasked in the Saharan post of Fort Tiberias, Roussel takes flight, eliminating anyone who stands in his way, passing through Laghouat on his mayhem-strewn progress towards Algiers.

Robert Irwin is a specialist in the Arabian Nights, and The Mysteries of Algiers is peopled by deranged genies. McCorquodale recalled later meeting a Catholic monk in Algiers coincidentally called Philippe — an ex-officer in the French army who revealed that his father had fought on the Eastern Front in the Second World War in the Legion of anti-Bolshevik Volunteers alongside the Germans. Irwin’s novel describes with particular relish the “Children of Vercingetorix”, a right-wing activist group of murderous tendencies who invoke the “God of the Franks”.

The sounding of the gong for lunch interrupted McCorquodale’s reminiscences. The mist was lifting over the Cathkin Braes. The Mysteries of Algiers had taught McCorquodale that things are not always what they seem.

Not a bad way, he thought of engaging with the opacity and silence of what W.H. Auden calls the deserts of the heart.

24/11/19

 

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

W.H. Auden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“God is gathering us out of all regions till he can make resurrection of our own hearts from the very earth, and teach us that we are all of one substance, and members of one another. For the one who loves his neighbor loves God, and the one who loves God, loves his own soul.” 

– St. Anthony of the Desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The person who abides in solitude and quiet is delivered from fighting three battles: hearing, speech, and sight. Then there remains one battle to fight-the battle of the heart.”

 

– St. Anthony of the Desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Learn to love humility, for it will cover all your sins.  All sins are repulsive before God, but the most repulsive of all is pride of the heart.  Do not consider yourself learned and wise; otherwise, all your efforts will be destroyed, and your boat will reach the harbor empty.  If you have great authority, do not threaten anyone with death.  Know that, according to nature, you too are susceptible to death, and that every soul sheds its body as its final garment.

– St. Anthony of the Desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'”

– St. Anthony of the Desert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It is interesting too that, in all the religious traditions, deserts and places where there is a minimum of sensory stimulation have always been regarded in an ambivalent way, first of all as the places where God is nearest and secondly as the place where devils abound.”

– Aldous Huxley