Trauma: The Shaking Of A Soul
Gudrun Zomerland, MFT
Trauma is shattering. However, sometimes I think the
term "trauma" is rather clinical and does not truly reflect what happens
to a person going through it. This can create difficulties in either
under-reporting or over-reporting of traumatic experiences. I have the
fortune of being bilingual, using a practical language with one part of
my mind -- namely English -- and using a romantic or poetic language with
another part of my mind -- German.
For some time now I have been mulling over the strength
and power of the German word for trauma: Seelenerschütterung. The first
part "Seele" means soul; "ershütterung" comes from the verb "schütteln"
and means to shake. "Erschütterung" is something that shakes us out of
the ordinary flow of life and out of our usual sense of time into an
extraordinary state. Often we don't even remember the moment of impact;
at other times we see everything unfolding in slow motion, and in yet
other momentous situations we watch everything from a place above,
unattached and usually -- as people have reported -- with quite a sense of
equanimity. Pain or despair set in later, when our survival is secured
and when we know we are still on this planet, still having to deal with
the effect of the trauma on our soul.
Is the Word Trauma Overused?
Seelenerschütterung or true trauma shakes the very
foundation of our being. It affects the way we walk in this world;
nothing is the same as before the traumatic event, not our various
relationships (including our relationship with food), not our work, and
most of all not our sense of self. For me, the English word trauma does
not do justice to what really happens to a person who fears for his or
her existence or physical survival or the survival of someone close by.
Hence, I believe the word is much overused these days. Everybody seems
to be experiencing trauma all the time.
Trauma versus Challenges
It is my opinion that many things that people describe
these days as traumatic are really challenges. These challenges may
even lead to heart ache, but an aching heart is not the same as a
shaking soul. When one day I will lose my cat because she is sick or
old (I am assuming that she will go before me), I will be in deep pain
because I love her very much. If my husband should die before me from
some kind of illness, I will be in even deeper pain and for longer
because the bond with him is like no other bond I have had in my life.
But neither of these two hypothetical experiences are traumatic. They
are part of an ordinary life.
Why some people withstand trauma better than others
Even events that for many of us would be soul-shattering
are not so for everybody. Many years ago a friend of mine expressed
impatience with the Vietnam war veterans who could not find their way
back into society but seemed to be consumed by their combat experiences.
He was looking to those who apparently had overcome what they lived
through and wondered why not all of them could do so. I pointed out
that it depends on who the person was before he went to war. If his
soul had been shaken before he went to war, his inner being would not be
able to tolerate more atrocious experiences. The fears of survival and
the horrors of watching human-made slaughter would sink through the
cracks of the already shattered soul to an even deeper sense that life
cannot be lived, that it is intolerable.
The earlier in life we experience trauma, the more
difficult it is for us later to adapt to life in a meaningful way.
Childhood trauma could present itself as some sudden unforeseen accident
affecting the family or even hunger, poverty or war but more often it is
an ongoing chipping away at the soundness of the soul through emotional
and/or physical neglect, and the myriad forms of abuse. A child's soul
that has to fend for itself remains shaken, cracked or unstable. The
resulting symptomatology can be varied but most likely includes complex
Therapy as an Act of Confidence
My experience is that trauma can shake up a soul to such
an extent that the person feels he or she needs to hide permanently.
Sometimes souls simply do not unfold, not unlike flower buds which, due
to environmental conditions, do not blossom. I think, most people who
find their way into therapy want to blossom. The very act of coming to
a therapist or healer is an act of confidence in that direction.
Trauma and Empathy
Most of all such a person needs safety and attention.
In this cocoon a person with a shaken soul can tell his or her story and
experience the power of finally having a witness to their terrible
experiences, especially one with a sound soul. Neuroscience research
has found a particular kind of neuron called mirror neuron
. In simplistic terms it
means that the emotional states and actions of one person can influence
the emotional and learning states of another. A calm soul has healing
power; empathy has healing power.
Trauma, Emotions and the Hero's Journey
It takes enormous courage to embark on a therapeutic
journey that attempts to uncover the shaking soul. Human beings are
resourceful and most people who have been traumatized adapt and manage
life quite well. I, like many of my colleagues, prepare my clients to
the possibility that first they might feel worse rather than better. A
book that I found enormously helpful for this part of the journey, as
well as for any time we are struggling with uncomfortable emotions, is
James Hollis' "Swamplands of the Soul"
(published 1996). Hollis stresses
the need for us to embrace the most difficult emotional states as
pathfinders to the soul.
Other Therapeutic Models to Address Trauma
We have come a long way in treating trauma, from
hypnotherapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), EFT
(Emotional Freedom Technique), and other somatic therapies to long-term
therapy. However, it is my experience both as therapist and client,
that unless the therapist or healer can look from deep within his or her
own vulnerability to the vulnerability of another soul, no true healing
Healing Trauma Takes Its Own Time
The soul is unmeasurable and the healing of a soul
cannot be dictated by certain goals that need to get accomplished. The
healing is accomplished through direct listening to the deep, deep voice
within. Given a safe environment, the shaking soul knows all too well
what needs to happen at any given time. With the right nourishment the
flower will unfold in its own season.