Trauma and the imagination


Trauma's most devastating effect is the blunting of the imagination. Abuse victims are so often unable to imagine love without pain, because they know nothing else. They wonder why they continue to become involved in abusive relationships, but this has become their only path to fulfillment. They cannot imagine a different outcome.

This observation can be applied to any form of trauma, especially the more severe and complex the trauma is. The central, paralyzing belief is, "If it doesn't hurt, it's not real." I find that when leading my most traumatized clients through simple relaxation exercises, as soon as they begin to feel some degree of comfort, they will become anxious and insert some form of negative belief, memory, or feeling. We are what we know.

On the other hand, individuals with highly resourced childhoods, who experience strong and secure attachments to consistently authoritative parents, and who are exposed to a positive experience of education and the arts (especially reading)--these individuals are highly resistant to trauma in childhood and later in life. They realize that 1) it wasn't their fault, 2) it's over and they are safe, and 3) they have choices, and things can be different. Let me give an illustration of the power of imagination from a highly resourced childhood:

On September 11, 2001, 6-year-old boy was watching out the window of his NYC elementary school classroom when the planes hit the twin towers. With the school locked down, he and his class could see the building burning, and people (often hand in hand) jumping to their deaths to avoid being burned alive. Eventually he went home. A family friend, a psychiatrist, visited the boy and his parents later that day and found the boy drawing. He was reproducing in vivid detail all that he had seen--terrible images of death and paralyzing fear. The psychiatrist noticed an odd detail, however. The boy had drawn a dark circle at the foot of the buildings, and the psychiatrist asked what it was. The boy replied, "It's a trampoline, so that the next time it happens, the people that jump can be safe." The boy, automatically turning to expressive art, essentially acted as his own therapist, to address items 1), 2), and 3), in the above paragraph. (Story taken from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk)

Unfortunately, traumatized parents rarely know how to provide their children with rich childhood experience, and they can't be expected to. That is how trauma skips down the generations, or at least the tendency to be traumatized.

The cycle can be stopped by trauma therapy, especially by EMDR, which targets precisely the brain functions underlying a broken imagination. Some have said as a result that EMDR often involves "reparenting" the traumatized inner child. Resource development, and essential component of EMDR treatment, acts a bridge to the imaginative, healing power of the mind. Essentially, what I can say to anyone experiencing the horrible symptoms of PTSD or any other traumatic stress, is that there is hope, and that healing does not even require that they believe it--how can you describe red to someone colorblind?Healing simply depends on showing up to my office each week. That's all. The inner child can experience healing, and it is my great privilege to sit with my clients as they experience this liberation.

Please view my posts, and click on the link on my webpage, to learn more about trauma and EMDR, or give me a call.