The Trauma/Pain Connection and How To Heal It
The Trauma/Pain Connection and How To Heal ItOctober 2nd, 2018 by Cindy Perlin
The Effects of Trauma Can Last a Lifetime
Last week, many of us watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify before Congress about being sexually assaulted 36 years earlier. Despite the many years that had passed since this traumatic experience, it was clear to anyone watching her testimony that the memory of the experience was still very emotionally upsetting to her. This long term, unresolved emotional distress is very common among trauma survivors. And, just as there is ongoing emotional repercussions from trauma, there are ongoing physical repercussions.
How Trauma Causes Pain
A traumatic event is one in which a person has been exposed to actual or perceived threats to his survival or physical wholeness that led to feelings of intense fear, helplessness, or loss of control. Trauma can involve a single incident, such as a physical or sexual assault or a car accident, or ongoing threats, such as childhood physical or emotional abuse. Generally speaking, the more trauma a person has experienced, the more likely he or she is to develop physical and emotional illnesses, including chronic pain. Among injured people, those with posttraumatic stress disorder experience more pain and respond less well to medical interventions than those who do not have the disorder.
One study found that the more childhood trauma patient had, the higher the rate of unsuccessful lumbar spine surgery. Patients in the study had psychiatric evaluations to determine the presence or absence of five types of childhood trauma: physical abuse, sexual abuse, alcohol or drug abuse by a primary caregiver, abandonment, and emotional neglect or abuse. Patients with no childhood trauma had a surgical success rate of 95%. Patients with one type of childhood trauma had a success rate of 75%. With two types of trauma, patients’ surgical success rate declined to 43%. Those with three types of childhood trauma had a 20% success rate; with four types, 7%; and with five, 0%.
Psychologists Peter Levine and Maggie Phillips, coauthors of Freedom from Pain, believe that unresolved trauma, held in the body, causes chronic pain for many people. They report that during their 80 combined years of clinical experience, they have discovered that pain that did not respond to any of the usual treatments could be traced back to unprocessed accumulated stress and trauma. Unresolved trauma from childhood—such as illness, hospitalizations, surgeries, birth trauma, attachment trauma, and physical and emotional neglect and abuse—can all get stirred up by a current event, including the onset of pain. Levine and Phillips found that most people in unrelenting pain were not taught early in life how to deal effectively with uncomfortable or distressing experiences, either because of neglect or because they were abused when they expressed distress.
According to Levine, wild animals do not experience long-term trauma from stress because when they are threatened, if they survive, they complete the fight-or-flight response by either fighting back against what threatens them or fleeing the source of the threat. After the threat has passed, they literally shake off any residual effects of stress during a period of involuntary trembling.
In contrast, humans often can’t escape or fight back, and we don’t allow our bodies to shake off the residual energy from the threatening experience. We often shift into the freeze response, a state of helplessness and hopelessness that occurs when we believe there is no escape. This unprocessed energy is often at the root of pain.
How to Heal Trauma
Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem, though most people never learn of them. The way out of pain for these individuals, say Levine and Phillips, is to learn how to calm themselves in the aftermath of disturbing experiences. For a long time, most people who sought help to recover from traumatic experiences went to mental health providers who either provided talk therapy or medication. Neither of these approaches are very effective at resolving trauma. Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, psychiatrist, brain researcher and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, discovered that when a traumatized person talks about their trauma, they get emotionally triggered and the left brain, where verbal processing takes place, shuts down. As a result, talking about the trauma can cause more emotional distress and does little to heal it. Medication alters brain function, sometimes muting some symptoms, but does nothing to address the underlying trauma.
Two techniques that I use in my work that I have found extremely helpful for resolving trauma are energy psychology techniques and neurofeedback.
Energy psychology theory proposes that psychological problems are caused by disturbed patterns of energy in the mind/body communication system. Over fifty randomized controlled trials have documented that energy psychology works.
Energy psychology techniques combine focused awareness on traumatic memories or physical or emotional distress with stimulation of the human energy field. In energy psychology, acupuncture energy meridians are tapped at specific points while the client focuses on a disturbing situation or memory. Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that stimulating these acupuncture points affects the release of brain chemicals in ways that reduce pain and shut off the fight-or-flight response activated by emotional stress.
There are many variations of energy psychology techniques. The techniques are easily learned and can be readily practiced at home. If a problem is very complex or the person has been severely traumatized, it is advisable, at least initially, to work with a mental health professional when applying the treatment; this will yield better results.
A good resource for learning energy psychology techniques and how to apply them for pain is The Tapping Solution for Chronic Pain. You can also find providers on the Alternative Pain Treatment Directory who practice the technique and have shown an interest in treating chronic pain patients HERE. A broader list of energy psychology providers and research studies can be found at energypsych.org.
Neurofeedback, also known as brain wave biofeedback or neurotherapy, uses sensitive electronic instruments to monitor the electrical activity of the brain and feeds that information back to the patient so control of the brain can be learned and functioning improved. With both trauma and chronic pain, the brain is overactivated and oversensitized to emotional and physical stimuli. This can be reversed with neurofeedback treatment. When this reversal occurs, the trauma survivor is calmer overall, less likely to be triggered. Emotional and physical symptoms subside. Chronic pain and trauma can be healed.
Find more information about neurofeedback for chronic pain and trauma HERE. Neurofeedback practitioners who have shown a special interest in treating chronic pain patients can be found on the Alternative Pain Treatment Directory HERE. More comprehensive lists of neurofeedback practitioners can be found at isnr.org and eeginfo.org.