Trauma studies are relatively common these days, though they are almost always conducted from the outside in. In a way, this would stand to reason because most of those that have studied psychology have never experienced trauma while most of those that have experienced trauma have never studied psychology. However, Joshua van Asakinda is different in this regard, as he not only has a background in psychology but also has been the subject of trauma himself. For this reason, the study of trauma is very near and dear to his heart, and his insights into the individual experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may yet prove invaluable.
[ Note:What follows represents the opinions of the author drawn his from own personal experiences with trauma, and should not in any fashion be construed to be representative of psychology in the main, nor should it be construed to represent advice insofar as psychotherapy is concerned. ]
What We Learn From the Dark
A Prelude to an Upcoming Work by Joshua van Asakinda
I want to be entirely clear: People who say that they never feel fear are either lying or psychopathic.
Fear is physiological; fear is the body telling the mind that danger is near (or vice versa?), and that something needs to be done about it: We need to fight; we need to flee. But above all, we need not to freeze, not to panic, like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. Because panic brings death.
In order to fully understand trauma- not to mention all that comes along with it- we need to understand the fear mechanism- what is is for and what it is not for, when it is functional and when it is not functional. Sadly, there is no differentiation in English between physiological fear and psychological fear- that is, there is no differentiation in English between the physiological signal and the psychological response to that signal. And there should be, because these are two very different things. However, we call both of them fear, and this can create some confusion.
Generally speaking, men that are capable of surviving traumatic experiences on a daily basis- soldiers, firefighters, policemen- are able to sever the connection between physiological fear and psychological fear so that when the body gives the signal that something is wrong, the conscious mind can function efficiently in order to neutralize the threat. This is something that has to be taught; it has to be trained. So long as there is danger, a continual state of hyper-vigilance is actually optimal: It keeps a man alive. However, when the danger has passed, it can be difficult shutting it off, especially in civilian life.
Hyper-vigilance and the borderline paranoia commonly associated with (relatively) mind forms of PTSD is actually an adaptation to crisis- that is, it increases survivability. To put it in tribal terms that our ancestors would have understood all too well: The man who keeps his eyes open survives while the man who thinks that everything will be all right ends up being sabertooth tiger meat. Some degree of what we now call PTSD may have been state zero for the vast majority of human history, a completely normal and commonplace state of affairs, as it may very well be still for certain soldiers in combat zones. Ultimately, however, we no longer live in a tribal environment; we live in civilization- and so we need to be able to turn it off.
But some doors, once open, are virtually impossible to shut.
When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I went to speak with my military friends about what I was going through, and every single one of them without exception said the exact same thing: "You're not crazy; we all go through it."
And yet these were all strong, well-adjusted men. How could PTSD be a "disorder" if every single soldier I knew went through the exact same thing, and were all fully functional in civilian life? Then it occurred to me: Their environment had changed. When I was talking about my troubles with them, I felt at home, and at peace with what was happening to me, as though I was in a brotherhood. As one friend said to me, "Welcome to the club."
The most damnable thing about PTSD is how isolating it is: Every trauma is different; no two traumas are similar. And because of this, those suffering from PTSD find themselves surrounded by people who- though they may mean well- have no idea what they are going through. This creates a vicious cycle of withdrawal from the world, which itself exacerbates the very feeling of isolation that had caused the withdrawal in the first place. When soldiers- or firefighters, or policemen- go through crisis, they do so surrounded by their brothers, and that is precisely the tribal environment for which that psychological pattern was designed for. However, when they leave that environment- when they return to "the real world"- they are removed from that tribal environment, from their brothers in blood, and left to their own devices.
As anyone trained in psychology knows, isolation is dangerous. Psychology is, after all, "the talking cure." The validity of the field is entirely dependent upon the therapeutic nature of communication. So when those that have gone through trauma find themselves surrounded by people who could never hope to understand what they have gone through, the same hyper-vigilance that was fully functional in combat becomes wildly dysfunctional.
The mind is the same, but the world has changed.
Survival: Victors & Victims
Surviving trauma- especially traumatic violence- requires a very specific kind of personality. It should be of no surprise to anybody that the vast majority of soldiers, firefighters, policemen, are and have always been men. Dangerous jobs require characteristically masculine psychological traits: will, focus, conviction, a high tolerance for pain, a low tolerance for pity, and the capacity for strategic self-organization in groups. But even though crisis environments require masculine psychological traits, that does not mean that every man possesses these traits merely by virtue of being a man.
As with everything pertaining to the human condition, there is a spectrum: Men find themselves blessed- and cursed- with varying degrees of these traits, and the degree to which they possess them will affect the manner in which they respond to crisis. Some survive; some do not. Not every man is made to be a soldier, a firefighter, a policeman- and that is all right. However, a man needs to understand himself if he is to recover.
Just like every trauma is different, every man who experiences trauma is different. And so each will, obviously, respond differently to therapy. Sadly, the modern paradigm of psychology largely ignores the fundamental physic-psychological differences between males and females, and so it often leaves men in a troubling position: a choice between therapy ill-fitted to their masculinity or no therapy at all- and tragically, many choose no therapy at all. Because when given a choice between unhealthy masculinity and "healthy" emasculation, men will choose unhealthy masculinity any day.
This is why it is absolutely critical for men suffering from PTSD to find others like themselves with whom to discuss their troubles. Communication is absolutely critical to recovery.
Recovery in Concept
Trauma recovery, conceptually speaking, is largely oriented towards restructuring our own behavioral patterns. That, however, is easier said than done. Because we do not respond to traumatic experiences consciously; we respond to them unconsciously. And so it is the unconscious mind that we have to contend with.
When we experience trauma, the experience drives deep down into the psyche, and affects our psychology at a fundamental level far beneath the surface of the conscious mind. It affects the R-complex- the "reptilian complex," an early model for the most ancient part of the brain that is generally discounted these days by neuroscientists, but can be a convenient shorthand in principle-, and thus affects our most ancient patterns of behavior: for instance, aggression. Above the R-complex resides the limbic system, and above that, the neocortex, which is the seat of "consciousness" in the general sense of the term. So the level at which trauma has an affect is multiple levels beneath what we are consciously able to control.
And that is a problem.
Fortunately, it is a problem that can be overcome.
Recovery in Context
Albert Einstein once said that a problem cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created it, and in a sense, he was right. However, if I may be vain enough to question Albert Einstein, in a sense he was wrong as well. Because trauma affects the deeper layers of the brain, it must also be dealt with at the deeper layers of the brain: We must deal with the R-complex at the level of the R-complex.
But what does that mean?
That means consciously pushing ourselves in the direction of how we would have dealt with trauma if we were living in a tribal environment: through religion, and through brotherhood.
Purification by Fire, & Other Clichés
"What does not destroy me makes me stronger." So wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Beyond Good and Evil. And yet again, he was right and he was wrong, depending on the context. Because context really is everything.
Imagine for a moment a gym, complete with weights of every description. Although it is true that lifting weights develops strength. However, the mere presence of resistance is not enough; we must actually lift the weight. And the same is the case with PTSD: Trauma can make us stronger, but only if we fight to overcome it.
What is it that separates men from one another? How is it that this man goes through his trials and tribulations and comes out better than before while that man goes through his trials and tribulations and finds himself lost, broken, and despondent? Is it because of some inherent difference in character? Almost certainly to some degree, but in and of itself that seems insufficient. Ultimately, the answer is both more subtle and more complex: When a man has a reason to fight, he will fight- and grow stronger; however, when a man does not have a reason to fight, he will not fight- and be destroyed.
Men require context for what they do. We are not machines; we require meaning and purpose. So in order to overcome trauma, we need meaning and purpose as well. That is why the most dangerous situation for a soldier come home from war is to have nobody to come home to: When a man no longer has his tribe, he has nothing. And so it is absolutely critical to find a reason for overcoming our various traumas.
That reason may be anything: It could be for God; it could be for becoming a better man; it could be for family or for friendship; it could even be to share some wisdom with others that may be going through a similar experience (the case with myself). We all suffer, but suffering is made bearable through purpose. And so what is most important for each of us is to find that purpose, to look within ourselves and to find what it is that we wish to live for every day, and how we can direct our suffering towards that end. Then and only then can we heal, and grow stronger.
[ Disclaimer:Joshua van Asakinda is not a licensed therapist. Psychological consultation is not intended for the diagnosis of mental health disorders, nor is it intended for the treatment or management of mental health disorders. Those who may be suffering from a mental health disorder should discuss it with a licensed therapist. Materials contained herein pertaining to mental health disorders are for educational purposes; services rendered by Joshua van Asakinda are rendered for the purpose of consultation only, and are in no way intended to be therapeutic in character. ]
Joshua van Asakinda +1-330-314-4170 Joshua.van.Asakinda@gmail.com
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