Saturday, June 23, 2018

Our two brains


  • rational, logical
  • images of past trauma deactivate the left hemisphere of the brain
  • does all the talking
  • linguistic, sequential, and analytical
  • we know the left hemisphere has come online when children start to understand language and learn how to speak. This enables them to name things, compare them, understand their interrelations, and begin to communicate their own unique, subjective experiences to others.
  • remembers facts, statistics, and the vocabulary of events. We call on it to explain our experiences and put them in order. 
  • deactivation of the left hemisphere has a direct impact on the capacity to organize experience into logical sequences and to translate our shifting feelings and perceptions into words. Without sequencing we can't identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future. 


  • intuitive, artistic
  • images of past trauma activate the right hemisphere of the brain
  • emotional, visual, spatial, and tactual
  • the right half of the brain carries the music of experience. It communicates through facial expressions and body language and by making the sounds of love and sorrow: by singing, swearing, crying, dancing, or mimicking. The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants. 
  • the right brain stores memories of sound, touch, smell, and the emotions they evoke. It reacts automatically to voices, facial features, and gestures and places experienced in the past. What it recalls feels like intuitive truth - the way things are. 

The two halves of the brain speak different languages and process the imprints of the past in dramatically different ways. Under ordinary circumstances, the two sides of the brain work together more or less smoothly, even in people who might be said to favor one side over the other. However, having one side or the other shut down, even temporarily, is disabling.

From The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Trauma Healing & Autonomy Restoration

"...four fundamental truths:
(1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being;
(2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning;
(3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and
(4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children can feel safe and where they can thrive."
Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score.

Love, loss & facing the truth

"Semrad taught us that most human suffering is related to love and loss and that the job of therapists is to help people 'acknowledge, experience, and bear' the reality of life - with all its pleasures and heartbreak. 'The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves,' he'd say, urging us to be honest with ourselves about every facet of our experience. He often said that people can never get better without knowing what they know and feeling what they feel."
Bessel van der Kolk writing about what he learned from his great teacher, Elvin Semrad, in the book, The Body Keeps the Score.

Friday, June 1, 2018

My "Student Evaluations of Faculty" Results

After every semester, I get to read what students thought about our time together.
Usually comments are very positive and encourage me. Sometimes there is one that is just mean.
This semester was awesome - teaching the right class makes a difference!
Here's an original that made me smile :)
"Dr. Acuña worked it - put her thang down, flipped it, and reversed it. Best professor for that class."
I'm going to really review comments for themes, but I already know that I am happiest (and so are my students) when I teach classes that I love. SWRK 601 & 602, here I come!!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Trauma ℉u©❄︎s with our Imagination

From The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk...

There is a well-known psychological test known as the Rorschach or ink blot test. When people look at these cards of meaningless blots of ink, what they see tells a lot about how their minds work.

Veterans may see traumatic images in these ink blots and experience flashbacks - seeing the same images, smelling the same smells, and feeling the same physical sensations they felt during the original event.

The most alarming response to the ink blot test is, "This is nothing, just a bunch of ink," because the normal response to ambiguous stimuli is to use our imagination to read something into them.

Now Bessel waxes poetic:
"The five men who saw nothing in the blots had lost the capacity to let their minds play...they were not displaying the mental flexibility that is the hallmark of imagination. They simply kept replaying an old reel.  
Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives. Our imagination enables us to leave our routine everyday existence by fantasizing about travel, food, sex, falling in love, or having the last word - all things that make life interesting. Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities - it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true. It fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships. When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of the mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach (p. 17)."

Self-Mastery after Trauma

Still reading, The Body Keeps the Score, by Van Der Kolk and taking notes...

How do you become the master of your own ship after trauma? Van Der Kolk has been studying and treating trauma for over 30 years. He summarizes what he has seen work:
  • Talking
  • Understanding
  • Medications can dampen hyperactive alarm systems in the body
  • Having physical experiences that directly contradict the helplessness, rage, and collapse that are part of trauma
I love the sound of that treatment plan. 

It's okay to talk about it - make sense of it and sort out feelings. It helps to create a coherent story -with a beginning, middle, and end - with lots of details about the good, the bad, and the horribly beautiful. 

Storytelling helps to develop an understanding and empathy for self and others. Sharing or reading stories is powerful because you start to see patterns and commonalities. There are common reactions to stress and trauma. Instead of judging or feeling out of control, you develop an acceptance and understanding of yourself and others - it can bring peace.

Medications are more stigmatized and feared than alcohol, pot, and street-level drugs. How did that happen? I am not afraid of taking advantage of anything and everything that is safe and good for my well-being, including medication that calms by hyperactive alarm system. I like sleeping soundly. I like being at peace in my own body. I like not reacting to everything like it's an emergency. I like screening what I want to focus on and put my energy and attention to - it makes me feel in control and not helpless.

Most intriguing is the idea that having physical experiences that directly contradict the feelings associated with traumatic events can help recovery. It sounds like what Peter Levine talks about in Waking the Tiger. Summarized brusquely, he asserts (based on his work with clients) that when the body freezes in a traumatic event, it later needs to follow-through with the movement in order to recover. This idea about having physical experiences also reminds me of how healing it is for some survivors of tragedy to set up a foundation and pursue social justice goals as a means of recovery.  Sometimes we just gotta do something to counter and challenge the feeling of helplessness. Seeking justice (and not revenge) can be an antidote for the rage.

Regaining self-mastery is the ultimate goal of trauma recovery. Addictions of all kinds are a short-cut to soothe the pain of trauma memories. Unfortunately, the side effects of addiction are feeling out of control and shame, which is farther away from self-mastery and recovery. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Physiological Impact and Treatment of Trauma

Negative Impact of Trauma on the Body
Research from neuroscience, developmental psychopathology, and interpersonal neurobiology tells us that trauma has a physiological impact:

  • recalibration of the brain's alarm system
  • increase in stress hormone activity
  • alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant
  • compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive
Hope & Healing
Methods and experiences that rely on the brain's own natural neuroplasticity can palliate or even reverse the damage so survivors can feel fully alive in the present and move on with their lives:
  • Top down - talking and re-connecting with others, allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma
  • Taking medicines that shut down inappropriate alarm reactions, or by utilizing other technologies that change the way the brain organizes information
  • Bottom up - by allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma
  • Or any combination of the above
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, New York: Viking Penguin.

Our two brains

Left-brain rational, logical images of past trauma deactivate the left hemisphere of the brain does all the talking linguistic, sequen...