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An Alternate Approach
During the past several years, we've traveled throughout the world to help populations experiencing mass traumatization following natural disasters and violent social unrest. We've provided disaster relief in China following the Sichuan Earthquake of May 2008, worked in Rwanda with genocide survivors, and in Kenya with displaced persons after the postelection violence of 2007. Currently, we're working in Haiti with survivors of the January 2010 earthquake.
Our goal the first time we responded to a disaster—after the tsunami in Thailand—was to offer support and assistance to individual trauma sufferers, but we've seen repeatedly that teaching simple, self-regulating, stabilization skills can help people learn to rebalance their own nervous systems and create communities whose members learn to help each other. As individual self-stabilization skills become community-wellness practices—often delivered by peers, chaplains, community activists, and teachers, rather than by mental health professionals—this process of community healing can create a social ecosystem that fosters wellness and repairs shattered lives.
Our method, the Trauma Resiliency Model for Communities (TRM-C), is a biologically based approach, which primarily focuses on expanding sensory self-awareness, although emotion and meaning are incorporated as they emerge naturally from the sensory-oriented work. The focus is to help traumatized people reset the natural balance of their nervous system. Unlike talk therapy, which requires the trauma story to be told in words, TRM pays more attention to the story told by the body. It focuses on the client's posture and gestures, facial coloration, muscle-tension patterns, breathing, and heart rate—indicators of how the traumatic event is stored in the nervous system. TRM emphasizes educating clients about their nervous system, and then teaching them alternately to track sensations connected to the traumatic event and sensations connected to calmness or, at least, less distress.
When attention is turned inward in this way, awareness is expanded beyond that which is painful and frightening, often resulting in a renewed inner sense of balance, well-being, and self-management, even when one has faced unimaginable losses. Naturally, expressions of grief, sadness, or terror emerge as a traumatic event is remembered; however, shifting a person's attention to sense-resource states within the body can have the dramatic effect of making the body an ally in healing, rather than an enemy.
TRM begins by front-loading the nervous system with memories of survival and resilience. When our trainees begin their work with peers, whether in an internally displaced persons camp or a peer-to-peer program, they start by asking questions like, "What or who helped you get through this?" or "Do you remember the moment you knew you were going to survive, or that it was over?" or "Who else lived?" This method doesn't require repeated exposure to traumatic details or bad memories, nor does the client even have to tell the "trauma story," if he or she would rather not—though we always take into account the meaning, emotion, and importance of bearing witness to their suffering.
As the TRM practitioner helps the client understand his or her nervous system and learn to track sensations connected to the traumatic event and sensations connected to resiliency, the nervous system begins to return to its normal balance or rhythm. Humans are neurologically programmed for this balance. Cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and physical symptoms often begin to change and even remit as the individual's natural resiliency is restored.