It’s distressing to watch news reports claiming this or that “new treatment for PTSD” can help Veterans. There’s nothing new about our human response to trauma: we are properly hardwired to react strongly to disturbing experiences and images. If there is any kind of disorder associated with post-traumatic stress, it is the disorder of attempting to suppress a normal human response to violence, trauma or mental/emotional abuse. Progressive health care professionals are quite right to refer to “post traumatic stress injury,” which is a more accurate and ethical term.
Instead of attempting to “treat” post-traumatic stress, wouldn’t a better approach be more holistic? Would it not be healthier for our human systems to work to integrate a traumatic experience into our human fabric in a healthful way – to allow the horror to become a part of our psyche in a healthful and useful way rather than burying the trauma as some unacceptable event? This stuff actually happened to us – it’s not some imaginary thing that can be blocked out mentally or emotionally! Shouldn’t that fact change how we deal with trauma?
Prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences can dull the system to exactly how terrible traumatic triggers are, but it does nothing to remove the triggers. We are hardwired to respond deeply to horrific events. Do you or anyone you know enjoy watching movies that scare the living daylights out of you? In small doses, terror can actually be fun…for some of us. But there’s a limit; after that, we tend to store up the accumulated psychic wreckage of repeated trauma until our responses to even very banal events trigger crazy behavior. This is how we work, folks, so we’d better learn to deal with it.
Fortunately our human systems include built-in capabilities that help us process or responses to extreme trauma. Yes: we can eliminate the harmful effects of horror and reshape our psyches in a less trigger-prone direction. Have you ever experienced, either by choice or involuntarily, a once-in-a-lifetime event that changed you forever? As you look back on that impossible-seeming event, do you feel now that you could relive it, probably with a lesser effect? That’s your hardwiring taking over – making you conscious of a dramatic change that’s happened to you. If you could tap into that hardwiring to help process trauma, would you?
This is not new: human beings have been using awareness of our internal systems for centuries, perhaps millennia. Martial arts, especially the romantic notions of some ideal ninja warrior, illustrate ways we can train ourselves to access the deep inner world of our hardwired responses to terror and anguish. Fortunately there are other more practical ways. Yoga, which prepares the body for meditation, is one way that the body and mind become quiet and ready for opening to the psychic integration of traumatic experience. But one doesn’t need training as a ninja warrior or yogi to access human hardwiring for dealing with traumatic stress. There’s an easier way.
Direct access to the subconscious world is available using music. Music that moves you beyond the obvious level of “like” or “dislike” – beyond “enjoy” or “hate” – has the ability to connect you to the part of your traumatic response where the work of integration begins. Terms for this process include “washing away the pain” or “letting go” or “feeling free of the terror,” but these are very limited ways of describing what really takes place. In the inner work of both intentionally triggering and holistically assimilating a traumatic event, music can provide a cleansing bath in which horror’s harmful effects are transformed in a neutral buoyancy of acceptance and relief. Both psychologists and spiritual teachers have terms for this process, and it is highly valued in both practices as a turning point towards wholeness.
I have had several such musical moments – psychic epiphanies if you like – in my life. Sometimes it feels like my flesh is crawling, or skin tingling. Sometimes I have been unable to stop weeping for many minutes or even hours. Sometimes I get the creepy coldness of sheer terror; sometimes it feels like I’ve let go of some impossibly heavy weight.
You can jack into this musical response in your system; it’s simple and effective. First, choose a piece of music you love – it doesn’t have to be music that triggers a trauma response, but it must be music that moves you deeply in some way. Next, give yourself uninterrupted time – your response may take a while or it may happen very quickly. Then, set your intention to stay with the music until you feel a change and LISTEN.
The last time I was seriously suicidal I decided to listen and let the music work on me. (I’ve been letting music work on me while I play the piano for many years, but this time I decided NOT to play.) That night I chose to listen to a piece of piano music by Rachmaninoff – Etude Tableaux Opus 39 number 2 in A minor, a song I learned to play as part of my music degree – which holds much meaning for me. Using over-the ear headphones, I took my feelings of suicide with me to a comfortable chair, put the track on repeat, told myself I was safe and that I wouldn’t allow anything to happen until I had changed, and I just forced myself to sit and listen. I don’t know how long I sat there.
After some time I know that my feelings of rage and hopelessness simply shifted, or melted, and I just began to weep. While I didn’t know what would happen next, I knew then that I wouldn’t kill myself. I wept for hours that night, and woke the next day with a renewed interest in life and possibility…exhausted, but changed.
I’m still exploring the trauma I’ve accumulated over 50+ years, and learning to understand the changes all of it has made in me. Therapy has been useful to supercharge that process, and I feel like I could take up the work or put it aside at any time, but there is a sort of beauty to learning about the traumatic scar tissue that’s built up in me over my lifetime. It’s not so much recalling the events – sometimes I don’t consciously know or clearly understand what they were. The process feels more like re-touching the place that was once hurt; reminding myself that this injury, too, is a part of who I am. As I continue this work, I feel as if I do know myself more fully, but the most important result has been the relief that comes from knowing that the hurt place I’ve just touched again is OK. That helps me to feel more OK. Many times I can find those hurt places quickly with music; many times they appear and integrate into whatever limited wholeness I have. Sometimes the understanding or change in the pain comes like a deeper meaning for the particular song that revealed it to me. It’s an ongoing journey, this learning about my many responses to trauma. Music has always been one of the tools I turn to and I’ve learned others, like yoga, drumming, meditation, tapping, even an amazing physical tool called Trauma Release Exercise. There’s a lot I can do to mind myself on my journey with pain and trauma, and I take every opportunity to do so.
Yes: music can also help integrate my response to other intense feelings. Like me, you’ve probably retained musical memories from significant events throughout your life. The good ones come back to visit as nostalgia. We can take our intention deeply into those pleasant memories using music and often gain satisfying additional depth from them. I like to share music with those I love. Have you ever thought about why you made a new mix tape or playlist for your significant other, or to accompany a road trip, or take you through a workout? Expand on that: share your music more widely with collective intention – with family, friends, your co-workers, your unit. There’s a powerful beauty to sound-tracking your significant moments that can also infuse your day-to-day productivity, mental/emotional health and even your physical stamina and mental prowess.
November 2014 is Military Family Month. It’s my wish that military families would share some music together this month, perhaps even make some music together or sing together. What could it hurt? And what it might help! Drum together, go to a sporting event and sing the national anthem together; whether you’re serving active duty or a Veteran, teach your family the words to the song for your branch and then sing it together. If you’re a little crazy like my family, put on some disco and dance together. The sky’s the limit and it’s time to soar.
As the Marines say, semper fi. This is stuff you can do NOW. It’s safe. It’s effective. It works to strengthen bonds between brothers, sisters, parents and families. Every one of us deserves that, and no one need wait to start having that NOW.