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Applying the Brakes

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Applying the Brakes

In Trama Treatment, Safety is Essential

by Babette Rothschild

Much as we don't like to admit it publicly, it's an open secret among therapists that the road to recovery from trauma can be fraught with clinical missteps. In the past few years, I've frequently been consulted by highly competent colleagues who were dumbfounded by the speedy decline of clients contending with traumatic memories.

Eight of these clients included a nurse, a businesswoman, a salesman, a therapist, and other men and women who'd functioned relatively well prior to therapy. Yet after attempts to address their traumatic pasts (including rape, mugging, childhood abuse, and household fire), three were hospitalized, two went on disability, and the rest endured debilitating flashbacks, panic attacks, or other symptoms of dysfunction.

All the therapists involved were experienced and well trained. Each one favored a different, theoretically sound, therapeutic modality (psychodynamic psychotherapy, EMDR, body psychotherapy, and cognitive-behavioral). None was irresponsible. So what exactly went wrong?

In each instance, I eventually discovered, traumatic material was addressed before the client was equipped to manage it. These therapists were proceeding in a manner consistent with the usual aim of psychotherapy: helping a client open up. They knew very well how to call the genie of traumatic experience out of the bottle, but as is all too common, they didn't know how to get the genie back in.

My approach to trauma work, which is more cautious, is rooted in an experience I had in college. A friend asked me to teach her to drive--in a new car my father had just given me. Sitting in the passenger seat next to her as she prepared to turn on the ignition, I suddenly panicked. I quickly realized that before I taught her how to make that powerful machine go, I had to make sure that she knew how to put on the brakes.

I apply the same principle to therapy, especially trauma therapy. I never help clients call forth traumatic memories unless I and my clients are confident that the flow of their anxiety, emotion, memories, and body sensations can be contained at will. I never teach a client to hit the accelerator, in other words, before I know that he can find the brake.

Following this principle not only makes trauma therapy safer and easier to control, it also gives clients more courage as they approach this daunting material. Once they know they're in the driver's seat and can stop the flow of distress at any time, they can dare to go deeper. Developing "trauma brakes" makes it possible for clients, often for the first time, to have control over their traumatic memories, rather than feeling controlled by them.

My client Paula, for instance, first came to see me for problems in her marriage. She was in her mid-thirties and had three children under the age of 10. When she was a child, her mother had sometimes harshly beaten her. Paula still lived in fear of her mother's aggression, although now it took the form of yelling and criticism, rather than physical violence.

One morning, Paula came into her session pale, with her head bowed. Hardly looking up at me, she moved to her chair and crouched in it, shaking. I'd later learn that she'd just finished a searing telephone conversation with her mother.

Asking Paula about the source of her distress first thing would have let the genie of her traumatic past out of the bottle, increasing her distress. First I needed to help her calm down, to put her in charge of her somatic and emotional responses.

"You're really shaking, aren't you?" I said, drawing her attention to her body sensations. Sometimes this type of intervention is enough to help a client calm down, though for Paula it wasn't. "Y-y-ye-s," she replied with difficulty. "I s-sometimes s- shake a lot." A few seconds later, she was no longer able to speak and could only show me how fast her heart was beating by a rapid movement of her hand.

Paula was exhibiting symptoms of what neuroscientists call hyperarousal--a flood of adrenaline and other stress hormones that made her feel threatened and confused. The brain structures most involved in rational thought and memory were, practically speaking, out of commission. In neurophysiological terms, her sympathetic nervous system (which responds to situations of danger, threat, and stress) was in overdrive, giving her a pounding heart, a dry mouth, and muscle tremors.

To help a client when she comes as unglued as Paula was that day, it's useful to understand what's currently known about how the brain handles danger and emotion, especially in the limbic system and two of its major structures: the hippocampus and the amygdala.

The limbic system is survival central, the area of the mid-brain that initiates fight, flight, or freeze responses in the face of threat. (Paula was on the verge of freezing.) The amygdala and the hippocampus, part of the limbic system, are also deeply involved in responding to traumatic events.

The cortex, the more rational, outermost layer of the brain, is the seat of our thinking capacity and our ability to judge, deliberate, contrast, and compare. It's where most memory--traumatic and otherwise--is stored. The cool, rational cortex is in constant communication with the amygdala and the hippocampus.

The Early-Warning System

The amygdala is our early-warning system. It processes emotion before the cortex even gets the message that something has happened. When you smile at the sight or sound of someone you love even before you consciously recognize her, for instance, the amygdala is at work. Here's what happens: the sound of the loved one's voice is communicated to the amygdala via exteroceptive auditory nerves in the sensory nervous system. The amygdala then generates an emotional response to that information (pleasure or happiness, in this example) by releasing hormones that stimulate the visceral muscles of the autonomic nervous system and can be felt as pleasant sensations in the stomach and elsewhere. Lastly, the amygdala sets in motion an accompanying somatic nervous system (skeletal-muscle) response, in this case, tensing muscles at the sides of the mouth into a smile.

A similar process occurs with other types of stimuli, including trauma. When someone is threatened, the amygdala perceives danger through the exteroceptive senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and/or smell) and sets in motion the series of hormone releases and other somatic reactions that quickly lead to the defensive responses of fight, flight, and freeze. Adrenaline stops digestive processes (hence the dry mouth) and increases heart rate and respiration to quickly increase oxygenation of the muscles necessary to meet the demands of self-defense.

The amygdala is immune to the effect of stress hormones and may even continue to sound an alarm inappropriately. In fact, that could be said to be the core of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--the amygdala's perpetuating alarms even after the actual danger has ceased. Unimpeded, the amygdala stimulates the same hormonal release as during actual threat, which leads to the same responses: preparation for fight, flight, or--as with Paula--freeze. In PTSD, this happens regularly, despite outward evidence that these responses are no longer needed. In sum, PTSD could be said to be a healthy survival response gone amok.

Why does the amygdala continue to perceive danger? What makes it possible for the whole body to repeatedly respond as if there is danger, when in fact the danger is past?

The Rational System

The hippocampus helps to process information and lends time and spatial context to memories of events. How well it functions determines the difference between normal and dysfunctional responses to trauma and normal versus traumatic memory. An example will help to explain.

In his book The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux explains the survival response involved when encountering an object that looks like a snake. Naturally, the amygdala signals an alarm message, which sets in motion a series of reactions that culminate in the footstep halting in midair. The amygdala's communication travels at lightning speed. There's a second communication pathway that takes longer, eventually getting the message around to the cortex, where rational thought takes place. When the information "It's a snake!" reaches the cortex, it's then possible to evaluate the accuracy of the amygdala's perception. If the message was accurate and it is a snake, the halted step will freeze until the danger is passed, i.e., the snake slithers away. If, however, there's a discrepancy and what was thought to be a snake is discerned by the cortex to be a bent piece of wood, the cortex sends a new message to the amygdala, "Hey, it's only a stick," to stop the alarm immediately.

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