The Other Side of Reason – The Body Remembers What the Mind Wants to Forget
Since 2013, recognized author and community leader for mental health, David Gibson, has battled the inner world of PTSD to find some measure of hope within. He uses his writing to explore how his journey as a survivor has enabled him to come to terms with PTSD and the new reality of his life. His 'Reflections from the Other Side of Reason' not only invite the reader into his life, but offers insights on how to grow and build resiliency. By sharing his experiences he takes away any toll for others to walk down the same road.
My body is a canvas of time.
A constant I carry.
And yet a contradiction I do not recognize nor understand within my nightmares.
My body can never be forgotten.
That is the irony of my mind trying to escape and hide – my body won’t let me.
My body becomes a reminder of that autumn day.
A sign-post as if to say …
These mind memories will always come my way.
So long as my body triggers that fateful day.
— Because we are also what we have lost.
…………………from the movie Amores Perros
When you think about it, the human mind is an extraordinary device. Its job is to keep our bodies alive and a large chunk of that involves making sense of our experiences. If we can understand then perhaps we can predict. If we can predict, then we can prevent. If we can prevent, then essentially we can do the one thing that we as humans crave to do so badly, control.
There is comfort in control (or the illusion of control). For many of us, we have gone about our lives with a plan and expectation about how our life is going to be. Just as I expect to leave the office today and drive home safely to my family. Our minds have created, through learning and experiences, an idea about how the world works. Many of us carry with us the ‘Just World Belief’, which is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. After all you make your own best luck in life. Cause and effect. I’ll do everything right and things will turn out okay.
Trauma as I have experienced is a complete disruption of that idea of control.
Trauma is in fact a disruption of what we expected for our lives.
The experience of trauma, what it is, is how the nature of memory is distorted, and that memories are never precise recollections, but that in general, as we move through the world, memories become integrated and transformed into stories that help us make sense of our world. But in the case of traumatic memories, they’re not integrated, and they’re not even really remembered as much as they’re relived.
The nature of a traumatic experience is that the brain doesn’t allow a story to be created. Therein lies an interesting paradox that it is completely normal to distort your memories.
What is so extraordinary about trauma that I have come to understand, is that these images or sounds or physical sensations don’t change over time. So people who have been abused as kids continue to see the colour of the room, or the voice of the person who abused them. So it’s these images, and these sounds that don’t get changed.
I compare this to what happens when people dream. Maybe dreaming is very central here in that it is a natural way for the mind and body to deal with difficult emotions and experiences like a fight or break-up. So we go to sleep and we dream, and the next day we feel better. It’s very striking how we get upset and say things like, “I’m going to move south out of this crazy winter weather, this horrible freezing rain again in Ottawa makes my life a living hell.” And the next morning, you wake up, and you de-ice your car, off you go, and everything’s fine again.
So from my perspective, sleep is a very important way in which we restore ourselves. The process of that restoration that occurs during our REM sleep — dream sleep — is probably an important factor in why traumatic memories do not get integrated.
All of which is to say that trauma is not just a cognitive reaction, but that it’s a body memory as well.
It’s amazing to me what a hard time many people I know have with this distinction. This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with reason, comments like, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or, “You’re not a bad person,” or, “It wasn’t your fault.” And how you responded, “I know that, but I feel that it is.”
I believe essentially our core experience of ourselves is a sensing experience, and that the function of the brain is to take care of the body.
For me, the parts of the brain that help people to see clearly and to observe things clearly really get screwed up with by trauma and the imprint of trauma is in areas of the brain that really have no access to reason. The amygdala, of course, which is the smoke detector, alarm bell system of the brain — that’s where the trauma lands, and trauma makes that part of the brain hypersensitive or renders it totally insensitive.
This is something that almost everybody has experienced. You get really upset with your partner or your kid, suddenly you take leave of your senses and you say horrible things to that person. And afterwards, you say, “Oh, I didn’t mean to say that.”
The reason why we say things like this is because there is an area of the brain, which helps you to say reasonable things and to understand things and articulate them. But with traumatic experiences this part of the brain shuts down. So when people really become very upset, that whole capacity to put things into words in an articulate way disappears. And for me, this is a very important ah ha moment because it helped me to realize that, if people need to overcome the trauma, we need to also find methods to bypass how language actually limits and dictates the reality we perceive through trauma.
The trauma is not about being reasonable or to be verbal or to be articulate.
It’s not just that we have memories and that we process them in different ways, but also that we are constantly rationalizing those memories to make sense of them in our lives. But then when people are traumatized, they also have this impulse to rationalize the memory of the trauma and then become unable to grasp the irrelevance of that memory and that feeling to the present moment. The notion of the world not being a safe place because of the traumatic experience is not necessarily a rationale or reasonable way to react when in fact you are safe.
So you feel things in your body. And then it becomes painfully obvious that, if people are in a constant state of anxiety or depression, they do everything to shut down those feelings to their body.
One way of doing it is by taking drugs and alcohol, and the other thing is that you can just shut down your emotional awareness of your body. Part of the recovery process is to feel safe feeling the sensations in our bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of your body memory.
The fact remains that human memory is a sensory experience we need to connect to. Part of recovery is finding ways to link your body memory to your mind memory.
I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other or live through, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival. And in some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the beauty of life unless you also know the dark side of life.
Until next time.