Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.
Every day, wild animals undergo traumatic experiences. For instance, herbivores have to be alert at all times to avoid predators’ attack. Encountering life and death situations daily is a part of their lives.
Though living under highly stressful conditions, wild animals do not exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Medically, the post-traumatic stress disorder appears as insomnia, depression, temper tantrums, forgetfulness, anxiety, shyness, inability to concentrate, behavioral and emotional stiffness, controlling and restricting others. While these symptoms may appear many years after the incident of a trauma. The trauma could be caused by accidents, natural disasters (e.g., Earthquake), serious illnesses, war, violence, surgery. Often these traumas cannot be remembered by the person.
There are many methods of treating trauma in Psychology. One of them mentioned here is discovered by observing wild animals. Psychologist Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. spent a lifetime studying the recovery process from traumatic experiences. Most of the patients under his counsel suffer from traumatic response of accidents and surgeries, while a minority suffers from wars or violence. His inspiration came from observing carnivores animals devouring their prey. For instance, when a leopard chases after a deer, just before the deer is caught, it would faint from extreme fright, appearing to be dead. This phenomenon of ‘fake death’ is frequently, a means of self-preservation. Normally, carnivores do not feed on dead meat, hence may leave the ‘dead’ animal alone or drag it to one side. The ‘dead’ animal may wake up without being noticed and escape when it has the opportunity. During its unconsciousness, the nervous system and body of the prey would become highly agitated. Upon waking up, its body would tremble for a while before it could regain normal consciousness. When a bear is shot with tranquilizers while being chased, upon waking up, its body would tremble for one hour. Trembling is a means to release stress. Man’s emotion and thoughts are complicated. After a traumatic experience, his emotions and thoughts may affect the process of releasing stress, hence building up the many post trauma symptoms described earlier. If the stress is not properly released, it may affect the person’ lifetime.
When faced with danger, the ability to respond comes from the brain as for all animals and insects. The nervous system and entire body undergoes a highly agitated state, responding by flight, fight or fainting. In the event the response of flight, fight or fainting, is incomplete and consciousness cannot return to normal but is stuck at the state of escaping in the form of extreme fear and helplessness or stuck at the state of fighting in the form of easily angered or stuck at the state of fainting in the form of forgetfulness or inability to concentrate. Victims of accidents often respond by fainting. Upon waking up, they cannot remember what they said or did.
Anesthesia used in surgeries are chemically induced “spirit leaving the body”. Though without consciousness, the cut is still experienced by the physical body. Hence, if the body does not release the stress after surgery, there could be post-traumatic stress. Young children are especially susceptible to trauma and parents have to pay special attention. Peter A. Levine had a case whereby the patient’s source of trauma came from the anesthetics used in an operation during her childhood. Her symptoms only surfaced when she was in an examination to enter a research institute and suddenly exhibited intense panic attack for no apparent reason. Her condition was so serious that she could not leave her house alone. Under the treatment of Peter A. Levine, while she relaxed herself, she suddenly went into a full-blown anxiety attack, unable to breathe and her body paralyzed. Peter A. Levine had a sudden inspiration – he asked the patient to imagine a tiger running to her and that she should run atop the tree for safety. The patient let out a bloodcurdling scream, followed by her legs trembling in running movements. Her entire body trembled, shake for one hour. At the same time, she remembered her terrifying experience from the anesthesia during her operation at 3 years old. This trauma laid hidden for 20 years before exhibiting its traumatic effect. After the counseling, she could return to her research institute to continue her studies.
Medical operations and extracting of tooth are common to our modern lives. However, the effects of anesthesia on our body and mind goes beyond our imagination. During one recent course to remove the remains of anesthetics effects, I asked students to recall their feelings before they underwent anesthesia, and the feeling after waking up from the anesthesia. One student immediately cried, and another had difficulty breathing, experiencing pain in the chest and stomach. I asked her to focus her breath at areas where she felt the discomfort (focusing her attention on the areas of discomfort, inhaling and exhaling from those areas). This process continued for over 10 minutes before her discomfort subsided. 30 years ago, she underwent a major operation and complete anesthesia. For 20 years, the pain remained, and she has difficulty breathing upon waking up in the morning.
She never realized the lasting effects of anesthetics had on her. After this session of clearing the effects of anesthesia, she no longer had difficulty breathing upon waking the next morning and her body and mind improved over the next 1 month.
In order to understand healing from trauma, we need to realize that consciousness does not depend on the brain. There are some examples in medical history whereby during unconsciousness or under anesthesia, the patient after waking up could recall the surrounding environment such as the doctors’ and nurses’ conversation. Experiment have shown that after removing the mice’ brain, their memories still remained. Only when the body’s survival is threatened that the memory is disturbed. Some people under special circumstances could remember the time they were born or their experiences in their mother’s womb.
A person’s conscious mind may exist outside the physical body. What Chinese described as the spirit leaving the body from fear came from experiences, recovery and prevention of post-fear effects and the need to unite the conscious mind and the body.
Peter A. Levine suggested that while saving the body from a frightening experience, we should also help the victim recover his normal consciousness. The following are important points:
- Keep the patient warm, quiet, do not let the patient move about.
- If not seriously injured, encourage the patient to feel the bodily sensations. If he shivers, tell him that it is a normal reaction. Normally, after shivering, the limbs would feel warm and breathing becomes easy.
This process may take 15-20 minutes.
- After rescue efforts or after discharge from hospital, the patient should rest for a few days, keep warm and quiet. This includes accident victims with slight injuries. Emotional response such as extreme fear, anger, sadness and regret would appear.
- At the same time, the patient should deliberately recall the time before the accident, giving abundant time to recollect his bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts and impression then. Thereafter fully experience the feelings during the accident, releasing all negative energy.
Young children are especially susceptible to fearful experiences. For instance, a fall while playing or from injections when visiting doctors.
Adults should first stay calm, stabilize emotions before attending to the child. First, keep the body warm, quiet just as in adults. Then ask in a light tone if the child feels any discomfort or how the discomfort is felt (pain, tired or numb). Should the child exhibit loud cries or shiver this is directly releasing the stress of frightful trauma. Do not restrain the child when he exhibits fright, cries loudly, or shiver. Otherwise stress from the frightful trauma may surface again after 20 years later.
After the accident, use a play to re-enact the conditions during the accident, to test if the emotional or bodily stress have been fully released. If the child avoids the issue or cries, it signals that the stress is not fully discharged and requires patience in helping the child release the stress over numerous occasions.
After a child undergoes a frightful experience, especially after receiving anesthesia, and if he persistently behaves differently, it signals that the stress is not released.
Other symptoms are:
- Persistently directing others
- Reverting to earlier behavior, e.g., Thumb-sucking
- Tantrums, uncontrollable rage attacks
- Easily frightened
- Nightmares, thrashing while asleep
- Unable to concentrate in school, forgetful
- Over belligerence or shyness, or fearful
- Overly clingy to parents
- Stomachache, headache or unexplainable ailments
To release the stress in adults, the patient has to focus his attention on his body sensations, or use showers with vibrational effects, or bath with cold water on various parts of the body, concentrating attention on the body parts in contact with water.
When emotions or memories arise, ignore them, concentrating only on the body sensations. The preparation step of Wai Dan Gong (a form of Qigong), a trembling movement of the whole body, helps one to release the energy stored from trauma.
Human being has the ability to self-heal. By allowing one to react naturally, one can recover from trauma.