“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system” (53).
K avoided tragedy today but not trauma. Between classes a person in the same hallway had an assault rifle, at first concealed in a guitar case. As campus police shouted at everyone to get down and stay still, the person began running toward K’s end of the hall.
The suspect was arrested before anyone was directly threatened, and K was ushered out of the building safely.
As I talked with K this evening, I drew from a book I’ve recently finished: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, published in 2014. (You can read a terrific review here.)
It was lent to me by my colleague BH, and it’s a fascinating investigation into interpersonal neurobiology: “the study of how our behavior influences the emotions, biology, and mind-sets of those around us” (2).
On trauma:“Traumatized people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them” (17).
On how trauma affects the imagination: It curtails the ability to let our minds play and demolishes the mental flexibility that is the hallmark of imagination. (17)
Paradoxically, that seems to be one of the very things that can most help in overcoming trauma: as van der Kolk calls it, restructuring our inner maps. He explains, “It’s as if you could go back into the movie of your life and rewrite the crucial scenes. You can direct the role-players to do things they failed to do in the past” (301). Drawing pictures, writing stories, acting it out, recounting, “reexperiencing the past in the present and then reworking it in a safe and supportive ‘container’ can be powerful enough to create new, supplemental memories [that]…do not erase bad memories” (302).
He tells us that we stay traumatized until we can integrate the trauma into our lives and greet new experiences without outsized fear.
As for me, I’m so very glad K and everyone else on campus is safe. This is yet another incident that confirms the urgent need for vast reforms in gun laws. Washington’s attorney general is on the right track.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass, as well as a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.