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  • Esther Ruth Friedman

Film Recommendation: The Wisdom of Trauma

I started this blog to provide Gentle Souls with concrete tools for protection against predatory people. It's equally important--maybe more important--to understand trauma; especially early-childhood trauma.

Medical professionals, neuroscientists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals are continually learning about lifelong impacts from trauma. So, The Wisdom of Trauma, is making the rounds. It centers on retired doctor, Gabor Mate. whose 30-year career led him to conclude: "...the common template for all illness is, in fact, trauma."

Mate knows trauma. Before he turned 2, Nazis overtook Hungary, murdered his grandparents in Auschwitz & sent his father to a labor camp. His mother handed him to strangers who snuck him to relatives outside the country while she devised an escape plan. They were separated for 6 weeks. She did escape.

He believes that, "Working through trauma can reveal the beauty of our existence." He calls our current mental health struggles and addictions an epidemic. I agree.

When I watched the film, these quotes & ideas jumped out:

  • Dr. Mate, "Trauma is not the bad things that happen to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you." What happens? We disconnect from our emotions, so ourselves. The ultimate trauma becomes self abandonment -- it becomes too painful to be ourselves. We alienate from self and are then alienated from each other. And, as Mate says, "It also means that when I have gut feelings, I don't follow them. So I create situations of risk for myself." Dr. Mate says,"When you disconnect from yourself, you no longer have yourself." My interpretation, you lose touch with your internal moral compass. Lost, you seek direction. This makes you vulnerable. Predatory people and groups leverage uncertainty. Uncertain people - disconnected from self, emotions, gut instincts & seeking guidance outside - are easier targets. Survival requires self trust. Trauma strips us of this tool.

  • Traumatized parents pass on emotional disconnect to the next generation. We abandon our children. Babies need parents who can help them regulate overwhelming emotions. Parents who haven't developed self-regulating tools cut off emotionally from themselves, thus their children. By default those children learn to disconnect as well. They grow up, have their own kids and pass emotional disconnect to the next generation: Mate says, "Children don't get traumatized because they get hurt. Children get traumatized because they are alone with their hurt."

  • Trauma damages brain development. When fear overtakes cognitive abilities, survival mechanisms carve neural pathways that channel energy and focus into escaping, or fighting, or fawning our way through danger; when our brain's emergency center, the amygdala, floods the brain with inner sirens screaming danger, all resources get funneled into survival. The energy that would otherwise focus on learning, planning, organizing & understanding is hijacked. Our executive suite, the pre-frontal cortex, shuts down. When your house is on fire your emergency instincts save your life. But when the fire is long gone, and your overly-activated amygdala is still on high alert, it starts to work against you, devouring the resources you need to develop self-hood. You need a fully functioning executive suite to manifest your full potential.

  • As a society, we need to reconfigure & recalibrate our idea of prison. In the film, Fritzi Horstman, Founder and Executive Director of Compassion Prison Project says,."We got prison wrong - we see what's wrong with people and not what happens to people."

  • Mate calls attachment and authenticity survival necessities: He says, "As a child we have two fundamental needs ... attachment ... & authenticity... without a connection to our gut feelings, just how long do you survive out in nature?"

  • Mate says, "We don't want people who are not angry. We want people who know that anger doesn't have to be destructive." When children get angry, we separate them -- teaching them that intense emotions lead to isolation. But they need connection. Our attachment need is instinctual, so children learn to suppress emotion to avoid alienation. Suppressed authentic emotion becomes depression, anxiety, addiction, or other psychological struggles.

  • Mate offers a radical reframing: depression as a "major success." He told one film participants, "... your depression was a survival mechanism when you had no other resource ... Everything that you judge about yourself, actually served a purpose at the time." Depression, anxiety, and other "mental illnesses" are signals. These feelings call out for attention - they point to a need, or many needs.

  • Another crazy idea: Addictions signal trauma, not character flaws. Addictions provide short-term relief, but lead to long-term negative consequences. Mate says, "The first question is not the why the behavior, but why the pain?" He says, "When people are suffering, they want to escape their suffering. That's normal."

  • When he asked film participants why they became addicts they reported that their specific addiction reconnected them to feelings: when using ... I felt free, alive, confident, attractive, etc. Mate, again: "Addiction is a solution to a problem - it's not the primary problem. The trauma is the primary wound."

Ms. Horstman (of Compassion Prisons Project) talks about ACES - The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. This study offers a list of 10 adverse experiences. The study found that those who scored higher were more vulnerable to long-term health problems. You can take ACE Quiz to assess your own experiences. She points out that most prisoners have at least 8 of the 10.

Our social structures induces, and then punishes, escapist behaviors. Institutional ignorance inflicts more trauma. More trauma leads to more escapism. People get caught in a loop of escape, punishment, more escape, more punishment. Nothing changes. We need more education on trauma, so we can stop re-traumatizing people. No one recovers through punishment.

The good news: recovery is possible - we recover in relationship to each other. Mate says, "We heal in community ... when we see the extent of childhood trauma in ourselves & in the people around them, it takes the othering out ... we have to start seeing each other for what happened to us and not what's wrong with us."

The radical act of treating traumatized people like human beings, NOT trying to change them, "...actually opens up the possibility of transformation ..."

Neuroscientists and psychiatrists can see on MRI's that the brains of traumatized children look different than the brains of non-traumatized children. They also know that trauma is intergenerational - we keep passing it on.

Is this really what we want our human legacy to be?

Mate says, "Every human being has a true, genuine authentic self. And a true, genuine authentic self, can never be destroyed."

And this ..."The energy of trauma can be transformed into the energy of life."

So, if being a Gentle Soul is what brought you to my therapy practice, this blog, or both, this film offers proof that your compassion, kindness and empathy are precious gifts. Society needs your gems to heal right now. This is more reason to protect those gifts. You need to reserve that capacity, your energy, focus & compassion for those who will genuinely benefit.

And, this beautiful film ... an important film ... I believe, makes that case. I highly recommend it!

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