Myths of “Survival” in Trauma

Survival is a complicated word, a noun or adjective. Some definitions talk about our lack of control in “survival”, or an instinct that we are programmed with. As an adjective, it’s more a wanting, or a fight. In phrases like “survival of the fittest”, it’s an idea that the strongest succeed. Human beings have been mostly successful in reducing the threat to life, increasing our awareness to alertness, but with natural disasters such as our world now can show how vulnerable we really are. The reality also is that when our pasts are traumatic, when we have had a traumatic event or something we may not have a conscious memory about, survival has adverse circumstances. It can feel impossible with expectations, symptoms and triggers leaving us without the tools we need to confront our own survival let alone helping our family or loved ones deal with theirs.

In being ready to hear someones story, there must be caution in looking back with a client. Regardless of whether I know or not, have read a file or not, or symptoms are active, I consider each client has had a trauma. This term is referred to Trauma Informed Practice. This means I understand the impact and consequences for those who experience trauma and respond with my knowledge and training in trauma work. There are six core principles in informed practice:

  1. Acknowledgement
  2. Safety
  3. Trustworthiness
  4. Choice and control
  5. Relational and collaborative approaches
  6. Strengths-based empowerment modalities

I know that so many of the young people I work with present as sad, disinterested in life, and don’t appear to be motivated to do much. There may be an increased use of electronics, withdrawal from people, and failure to manage the struggles of daily life. Often they are misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety. The issues become difficult to treat, leaving the therapist and the client perplexed, discouraged and doubtful as it unravels again and again. Trauma lives in these symptoms and others. Trauma damages processes like emotional regulation and trusting others. At-risk behaviours often grow from undiagnosed and untreated trauma. Quite frequently, someone who has experienced a trauma actually loses the memory. The trauma may never get said or heard, but stays within the body.

Counselling, takes time as often the words take time, and maybe there are no words. When there has been fear, there is a stress response – fighting, freezing, or fleeing. This survival system depends on our appraisal of the situation. When the threat is over, the system should calm down after a few hours, days, weeks or it can become post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is when the system can’t reset to normal, keeps a person hyperalert waiting for danger to happen again.

Over the years, I have worked with individuals and groups and created programs, providing crisis and transitional services to people who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing violence and abuse. When traditional talk therapy isn’t effective or when a client is looking for broader solutions, creative means are very effective. In using a sensorimotor approach with music and movement, we can modulate low arousal levels and lift the client in fully engaging in their life. Providing the tools to self-regulate affect, moving out the fight, flight or freeze response into a mode of clearer thinking and appropriate responses. When you can bring postures, empowering movements, vocal and verbal strength and delivery, the procedural memories that were once disempowering and immobilizing become assertive, empowering and mindful. Music Therapy provides the opportunities for our clients to express themselves and in turn they grow confidence and use creative ways to express emotions which can be the means to facing painful memories and anxiety. This new self then grows into their relationships and families.

Music supports mental health in breaking isolation and creating new opportunities to express and interact. When you help increase resources to ‘at-risk families’ you reduce isolation and assist in reducing stress and anxiety in their daily lives. Ensuring some positive contact with families is proactive in assisting with difficult circumstances before they become a crisis situation.

The opportunity to offer something which is a safe, approachable and accessible addresses the concerns of trauma treatment.  Unfortunately it may not be feasible privately or in a collaborative mental health setting. Additionally now the social distance is adding more strain. Governments and Communities need to pull together and create the help to those who are struggling. I am hopeful the serious issues which are surfacing in the news will be on the forefront to access funding and sustainable solutions. I look forward to brighter days ahead and having the ability to focus treatment activities and improve the circumstances with my clients, their families, as well as the relationship with me. We all need to know there are people on our own team.