From the initial low of my brother’s malignant brain tumor diagnosis, to the high of his supposedly successful brain surgery and recovery, the emotional toll of this seven-year cycle piled up and culminated in waves of grief after his loss.
Experiencing the rollercoaster of a family health crisis during the formative years can mean significant effects for one’s emotional and psychological health. Grief is just one common response to a traumatic event, often underscored by what is lost or missed as a result of that event. But trauma, as explained by one natural healthcare expert, is a significant experience that starts as psychological.
“Trauma isn’t necessarily a result of the event,” says Alane Lucht, DC, LPC, LADC, assistant professor of massage therapy at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “It can be a traumatic event, but it’s not psychologically traumatizing until it gets stuck in your system when our bodies override the natural response to dissipate the energy around a traumatic event. We override that constantly.”
Lucht is well-versed in the landscape of trauma. She waded through a youth of indistinguishable personal feelings of something being “off” inside of her that led to decades of education and degree earning. She grew up in a seemingly normal middle-class family in Bloomington, but from the age of seven, she always felt that something wasn’t right with her—though she wasn’t able to pinpoint what it was.
“There was a sentence in one of the books I read that said, ‘It was a failure of the environment, not a failure of you,’” Lucht says. “And that’s what I was looking for in all those years.” This a-ha moment led her down the path of trauma-informed healthcare, an approach that focuses on how trauma may affect an individual’s life and his or her response to behavioral health.
On Guard and On High Alert
There are two broad categories of trauma in the psychological realm: Shock trauma, which refers to a single event, and developmental or complex trauma, which is trauma that is ongoing. Though psychological in nature, unresolved trauma can manifest physical symptoms.
“Our physical body is what holds the trauma,” Lucht says. “Who we are physically is a representation of who we are on a mental, emotional, and psychological level. It’s super important for people to know about this because a person’s physical body can be seen as a representation of what’s not being addressed on a psychological level.”
An overly active sympathetic nervous system can contribute to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or restless leg syndrome, she says. “it’s an over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system that can contribute to chronic pain symptoms.”
When someone doesn’t know how to tolerate this over-activation, their body begins to shut down because it doesn’t know how to deal with the unfamiliar feelings, sometimes leading to a state of hypervigilance or a sense of collapse.
“That’s being hyperaware of everything that’s going on around you—sights, sounds, smells, people’s facial expressions, tone of voice,” Lucht says. “You learn how to ignore what’s going on with you, and you pay attention to what’s going on with everybody else so you can make sure you function in a way that keeps you feeling safe.”
The physical effects of unresolved trauma can get “stuck” inside of us, particularly when there’s compounding trauma from grief, PTSD, abuse, or unresolved issues from childhood.
How to Start Healing with Intention
Experts say the vagus nerve—the longest of our 12 cranial nerves—controls major body functions like the immune system, heart rate, and digestion. Though you can’t necessarily control these functions, you can control your response to stimuli that affect them.
“The vagus nerve attaches in our brain stem and connects and innervates to our ears, jaw, lungs, throat, heart, and the organs that are just below our diaphragm,” Lucht says. “It picks up information from the environment and sends it to our brain stem, which then interacts with all the other mechanisms within our brain, helping us to appropriately see what’s going on in the environment. So when our nervous system is detecting threat, real or imagined, we will respond exactly the same way if it’s a tiger running after us or if it’s our boss being upset because something is late.”
The way we react to those situations is imperative to our health. Lucht believes that movement—such as running, walking, or dancing—is important to several aspects of healing, but heeds the warning that some people use exercise to suppress feelings instead of actually working through them. More than exercise or movement, Lucht believes it’s important to raise our level of awareness about what’s happening when you do those intentional practices.
“When I go and take a yoga class, if every time they want us to do a heart-opening position and there’s a part of me that says, ‘Nope, I’m not going to do that,’ that feeling is something I need to be aware of,” Lucht says. “Maybe not on a physical level because there’s nothing wrong with my rib cage, but on an emotional level I feel like I need to protect myself. So every time I’m asked to do something that has that physical posture of opening up, it connects to that emotional or psychological vulnerability.”
One of the most important things that Lucht wants people to remember is that trauma and the subsequent healing is unique to each individual.
“The biggest thing is that trauma is complex. It’s not reductionistic. It’s not ‘if you do this, then things will be okay,’” Lucht says. “You have to take things from a broader perspective.”
Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a premier integrative health institution that prepares the next generation of healthcare professionals deliver and advance healthcare, offering 11 areas of study. Its clinics and TruNorth Wellness Hub are open to the public to support healthier, better lives for all. Bloomington Clinic specializes in whole-family care, providing chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutrition, and cupping. Sweere Clinic offers comprehensive care for complex pain conditions and trauma. The Biomechanics Lab and Human Performance Center support proper movement and recovery through gait analysis, rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning.
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