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Contraction and Expansion: Post-Traumatic Growth

Kintsugi Bust

Kintsugi is a centuries-old Japanese art of fixing cracked pottery. Rather than hide the cracks, the technique involves rejoining the broken pieces with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. When put back together, the whole piece of pottery looks beautiful as ever, even while owning its broken history.

Who Understands Me but Me

They turn the water off, so I live without water,

they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,

they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,

they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,

they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,

they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,

they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,

they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,

they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,

they give me pain, so I live with pain,

they give me hate, so I live with my hate,

they have changed me, and I am not the same man,

they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,

they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?

I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,

I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,

I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,

my beauty,

I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,

I am stubborn and childish,

in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,

I practice being myself,

and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,

they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart

when the walls were built higher,

when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.

I followed these signs

like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,

followed the blood-spotted path,

deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,

who taught me water is not everything,

and gave me new eyes to see through walls,

and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,

and I was laughing at me with them,

we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

Mind + Body. Our conventional understanding of the mind and body is that they represent two separate entities and processes. Some folks study and work with the mind while others focus on the body, or even smaller systems and organs within the body.

In the field of Post-Traumatic Stress, concentration of study has been on how the mind processes psychological trauma, as if PTSD is located in the brain. Two of my heroes in the field, Bessel van der Kolk, MD and Peter Levine, PhD, separately studied and mapped the process of psychological trauma within the integrated MindBody.

We now know that not only does the mind struggle with understanding and processing trauma, but the body holds onto psychological trauma, as well.

"In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning."

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD in his article in Scientific American, Post Traumatic Growth: Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity, “many who experience trauma—such as being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, losing a loved one, or experiencing sexual assault—not only show incredible resilience but actually thrive in the aftermath of the traumatic event. Studies show that the majority of trauma survivors do not develop PTSD, and a large number even report growth from their experience. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “posttraumatic growth” to capture this phenomenon, defining it as the positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.”

Tedeschi and Calhoun identified seven areas of growth which spring from adversity:

· Greater appreciation of life

· Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships

· Increased compassion and altruism

· The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life

· Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths

· Enhanced spiritual development

· Creative growth

I know this sounds fabulous. Something positive could come from something devastating. But the road to growth is neither pleasant nor easy. Nor does the traumatic event and all of the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories around it evaporate when growth occurs. Surely, growth is not an item to be checked off when it is done growing. Growth deepens over time and may unravel perpetually, pendulating between expansion and contraction. Contracting just a bit narrower and expanding just a bit wider, as the MindBody is able to hold space for a deeper understanding of the trauma narrative.

How does one arrive at Post-Traumatic Growth? The cleanest explanation is that trauma survivors must approach recovery from both top-down information processing and bottom up information processing. These must be actively coupled with one’s own willingness to be with our trauma experience just as it is.

Our instinct is to avoid our experience (thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and memories) because we are afraid of our fear and all the emotions associated with our trauma. It feels too painful. It is counterintuitive to lean into the pain, but that is exactly what we need to do to complete the stress cycle and release it from our MindBody. And, it takes so much courage to do this work, but the benefits are wildly liberating.

What is top-down information processing? Top-down processing is information processing guided by high-level mental processes, as when we construct perceptions by filtering information through our experience and expectations. Talk therapy supports top down processing. Talk therapy is an important part of the treatment of trauma, but talk alone often is just not enough. The missing link, however, is bottom-up information processing where information processing is guided by sensations in the body. Stimuli enter through the senses and are processed through our interoceptive awareness, only then rising to language and cognition. Processing on the bodily level helps to complete the stress cycle by releasing trauma even on a cellular level.

According to Peter Levine, the somatic treatment is titrated (slow is better with trauma) through the pendulation between resourcing, the practice of inviting our mind/body to attune to sensations of safety or goodness, however small they may be, and titration, working with only small bits of difficult experiences at a time. It also looks like pausing, and taking time to notice sensations in the body correspond to what is being spoken about.

This helps the body to regain homeostasis—a state in which the body's systems are regulated and working in balance. Like kintsugi pottery, the pieces of trauma are put back together looking as enhanced, yet integrated as ever, perhaps holding a revised narrative, even while owning and incorporating one's broken history.

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