A traumatic experience impacts on an entire person. The way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people, and the way we make sense of the world are all profoundly altered by traumatic experiences, which is why it is so important that trauma and the resulting emotions are dealt with and that a victim of trauma is helped to process the experience. If trauma is not process the powerful images, feelings, and sensations do not just ‘go away’ instead they are deeply imprinted and are stored in the body’s cellular memory.
The following illustration is a map how emotions are stored in the body. (Bodily maps of emotions by Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen)
The active memories of the trauma remains ‘locked’ in the system causing blockages until a ‘trigger’ occurs. When a trigger that allows the victim to access the trauma presents itself, in suffers of Trauma Transference Syndrome the real cause of the original trauma is not recognised and is instead transferred to the new stimuli or trigger, for example if a therapist treats a client who is storing trauma in his/her body and acts as the trigger for releasing this trauma the client will assign the blame for the trauma to the therapist who has helped them access the trauma.
In order to understand Trauma Transference Syndrome it is necessary to understand how trauma enters the body during a traumatic event and how it is stored within the body as well as the effects that this stored trauma has on the victim. Also how the trauma can be accessed and transferred if not treated.
Why does Trauma Transference Syndrome Occur?
Trauma Transference Syndrome occurs when a past trauma such as sexual abuse has been engraved into the cellular memory and has not been dealt with. It is now recognised that victims of abuse such as rape and sexual abuse suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress. The signs of this trauma scarring are not generally outwardly visible, the memory has been supressed in the mind, but the powerful images, feelings, and sensations do not just “go away” once the danger of attack has passed. These memories are deeply imprinted, more strongly than normal everyday memories and often shards of the trauma occur from time to time manifesting in feelings of anger, rage, sadness, mistrust, fear, shame, loneliness, abandonment.
TRAUMA: EVENT AND REACTION
When a person experiences a traumatic event, such as, but not exclusively, sexual abuse, they often go into a ‘freeze state’ whilst the abuse is going on as a way of ‘surviving’. This is not a voluntary reaction, freezing is the best way the body knows to protect itself from the trauma of what was beyond its control, if fight and flight were not an option and the brain perceives death is imminent it is the best way of protecting itself. In this state the victim of trauma enters an altered state of reality, sometimes referred to as dissociation. Time slows down and there is no fear or pain. If harm or death do occur, the pain is not felt as intensely. This is a basic animal instinct and works on the premise that this response can increase chances of survival if the attacker (animal or human) thinks the person is dead.
The term ‘fight or flight’ has been recognised for a long time, whereas the state of ‘freeze’ has only recently been recognised as being applicable to humans. Fight or flight is all about hope and the chance of escape, it is focused upon survival through avoidance, and we activate it when we believe there's a chance we can outrun or fight off our attackers. The freeze response gets activated when we feel trapped and there's no hope, it is all about minimising pain.
So when escape is deemed impossible and fighting is not possible or the traumatic threat is prolonged, the limbic system can simultaneously activate the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, causing a state of freezing called 'tonic immobility' , this is the same state that an animal caught as prey goes into, think of a rabbit freezing in the headlights. It is a natural survival instinct and the most basic of responses.
Arousal is controlled by the limbic system, which is located in the centre of the brain. This part of the brain regulates survival behaviour as well as emotion and memory. The limbic system has a close relationship with the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It weighs up a situation, signalling the ANS either to have the body rest or to prepare itself for strenuous effort. (The ANS has 2 branches: the sympathetic branch which is principally aroused in states of effort and stress, and the parasympathetic branch which is mostly aroused in states of rest and relaxation).
The freeze state prepares the body and mind for the worst, it allows them to endure the pain and still manage to lie perfectly still and stand the best chance of surviving the attack. When author Dr. Peter Levine, gives lectures on surviving trauma, he plays a video of a lion chasing a baby gazelle. He is demonstrating to the audience exactly how the freeze response works. Predictably the lion catches the gazelle and it ruthlessly sinks its teeth into the young animal's neck and throws it lifeless body on the ground several ties. It's an attack that is over in seconds. Then something miraculous happens, as the lion walks away, presumably to bring its young back to the kill, the gazelle comes back to life, as if wakening from a coma or hypnotic trance. You see the gazelle it shivers all over and releases this ‘survival’ energy. The visible shaking and trembling is the completion of the survival process it is letting go of the trauma before it stands up and runs away, making a clean escape. Animal biologists have concluded that if the animal did not complete the process and expel the trauma by shaking and trembling they would not survive the trauma.
For human beings, the freeze response is most likely to occur when we are severely scared and feel that there is little chance for escape and that we are unlikely to survive. It happens in instances of sexual abuse, rape, car accidents, torture and any situation that presents an imminent and horrific scale of trauma. Sometimes a person will black out, losing consciousness or freeze or mentally remove themselves from their bodies so that they don't feel the pain of the attack. This often leads to the victim having no explicit memories of the attack, but survivors of a freeze event will experience flashbacks and other (implicit) memory fragments from the storage of the negative emotions connected to the trauma that are stored in their cellular memory, these past emotional trauma shards will continue to impact and haunt the victim until the trauma is released from their system.
BURIED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: HOLDING ON TO THE TRAUMA
This ‘freeze state’ also influences memory processing, which is why it may not be until well into adulthood that a victim remembers the incident, but just because they do not remember the incident does not mean that it is buried and forgotten, the trauma is held within the body where it is waiting for a trigger to come along to awaken and release the stored trauma. The negative stagnant emotions are like a volcano waiting to erupt and throughout the victim’s life, the negative stored emotions bubble beneath the surface looking for a release. Often small spurts of negative emotion will be released without disruption or eruption, but instead culminating in negative, reactionary behaviour other times a trigger point will spur a major eruption and the trauma will be laid bare, leaving the survivor to interpret the feelings of abuse and process the effects of the past trauma that now encompass them.
It is important to understand that the trauma violated the victim’s sense of safety and trust and reduced their sense of worth. In 2007 Van der Kolk studied the effects of experiencing trauma in childhood and he reported that it increased the survivor’s levels of emotional distress, shame and grief, and increased their proportion of destructive behaviours. ‘Destructive’ behaviours included: ‘aggression, adolescent suicide, alcoholism and other substance misuse, sexual promiscuity, physical inactivity, smoking, and obesity’ (Trauma and Its Challenge to Society). Survivors of childhood trauma were also demonstrated to be more predisposed to have difficulty developing and maintaining long-term and meaningful relationships with caregivers, peers and marital partners. He also argued that adults with a childhood history of unresolved trauma were more likely to develop lifestyle diseases including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, skeletal fractures and liver disease whilst also being more likely to commit crimes and be involved with the penal system.
ADULT MANIFESTATIONS OF PAST ABUSE
Long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse are recognised as including to depression, anxiety, and anger in adult survivors. But it is not just emotional responses to childhood sexual abuse that occur in women Gynaecological problems, including chronic pelvic pain, dyspareunia, vaginismus, nonspecific vaginitis, and gastrointestinal disorders have been diagnosed among survivors and linked by medical Doctors to the past abuse.
This is because the past trauma is continuing to live inside the survivor’s body. Emotion is energy in action that is designed to flow through our body. Strong emotions are an important as they are the tools we use to create and shape our existence and how we interpret the world. These emotions are normal and healthy when they are flowing. When our emotions are negative and constant as the result of trauma this transfers to the body during the ‘freeze’ response; the body is like a storehouse of memory and every cell in our body responds to every thought, memory and experience we have, continuous modes of negative thinking and the retention of negative emotions attached to past trauma memories will change and slow down the flow of emotion creating stagnant energy and producing body behaviours where dis-ease will exist and advance. Holding on to negative emotions in the cellular memory will upset the chemical balance in the body causing physical and emotional distress to the sufferer.
TRIGGERS AND RE-LIVING THE TRAUMA
When a trigger occurs it doesn’t cause the victim to remember the traumatic event, it causes them to relive the trauma. It is important to remember that it is not memories that are evoked because the memories of traumatic events that have occurred under severe stress and under the ‘freeze state’ are not put into words and are not remembered in the normal way we remember other everyday things. The normal integration between verbal and nonverbal experiences does not occur. Instead, the nonverbal memories remain ‘frozen in the body’, locked away in the cellular memory in the form of body sensations like smells, touch, tastes, sounds, visuals, physical pain, and strong emotions.
A flashback is a sudden intrusive re-experiencing of a fragment of one of those traumatic, un-verbalised memories. During a flashback, people become overwhelmed with the same emotions that they felt at the time of the trauma. Flashbacks are likely to occur when people are upset, stressed, frightened, or aroused or when triggered by any association to the traumatic event. The trigger happens through one or most of the five senses and when it occurs the survivors mind can become flooded with the images, emotions, and physical sensations associated with the original trauma. They feel like the traumatic experience is happening again and they may have difficulty separating the past from the present. A survivor of abuse may watch a documentary and see something that acts as a trigger for their repressed trauma and have strong emotional reactions to information concerning anything they actually experienced. A survivor may hear about some terrible experience someone else has endured and have an over the top reaction, as though they are experiencing the trauma and in effect they are because the stimuli of hearing about something similar to something that they experienced in their past has acted as a trigger point and has open the flood gates for the emotions associated with this abuse to flood out. A trigger could also be a smell that was linked with the abuse, a taste or a touch. Often they do not recognize the experience they are having as a flashback but instead feel that they are ‘abused again’ or having a “panic attack”. It is their inability to separate the past from the present that causes the ‘transference effect’ to take place, for example when a therapist performs a therapy such as deep massage that involves touch, it’s intimate nature may evoke flashback as the sufferer feels their past abuse and the trauma begins to be released. The therapist will often be unaware of what their client is experiencing and unable to deal with the manifestations of the mobilised trauma energy, and the strength of the therapeutic action of their treatment. During something like a massage a reminder of a previous assault may come in the form of a pelvic lift manoeuvre when a rape victim may experience sharp and penetrating pelvic pain that can become chronic pelvic pain or perhaps just a male therapist touching a female survivors body during a massage acts as a trigger due to vulnerability. These symptoms that hark back to past abuse have come to be known as ‘body memories’ or ‘cellular memories’. Physical and emotional symptoms are not likely to be recognised by the sufferer or by health care professionals as related to a previous traumatic event. Because the survivor is feeling the abuse in the present moment he/she will naturally transfer the burden of responsibility of abuse on to the therapist. It is likely that he/she will reject any interpretation of their physical or emotional symptoms as being related to a past trauma, in part because he/she hears such an explanation as a minimization of their pain, as if s/he were being told it is “all in his/her head” and in part because s/he is continuing to subconsciously protect themselves against being swamped by the horrific feelings connected to the past trauma. When a trauma survivor ‘transfers’ the cause of their trauma to someone or something else they are just following a natural instinct of self-preservation, they are not acting out of malicious intent or lying, they feel the abuse in that moment and they need to assign it somewhere, they need to process the abuse and minimise their pain.
THE ROLE OF EMPATHY
Empathy is a natural emotion that allows us to interpret and understand the experience of another person’s situation from their perspective. To be empathetic is to imagine yourself in another’s shoes and truly imagine what they are feeling. Empathy is generally credited with being a supportive emotion that allows us to support and share feelings and serves as a guide to action and it was thought that the process of empathy was an emotion based on logical thought process, however, it is now recognised that ‘mirror neurons’, exist in the brain which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them. It is mirror neurons that allow us to not just imagine what someone else’s pain feels like, but actually feel the pain as our own. Emotions such as fear, pain, anger, frustration, and immobility are the energies most likely to be ‘captured’ by mirror neurons and those that have experienced abuse, trauma, chronic anxiety, depression, or stress are predisposed to be hyper-attuned to others as the mirror neurons will tune in to the unresolved trauma lying within their cellular memory; by drawing the trauma of another into body resolving these negative emotions as their own physical pain and symptoms. It doesn't have to be people that are closely linked such as friends and family the power of empathy and mirror neurons can be activated by events that happen to complete strangers.
Victims of abuse often find that empathy can be triggered by sight, smells, sound or touch and can leave an empathiser quickly feeling exhausted, drained, and unhappy. Such an empathiser will find that their mirror neurons are particularly unrelenting and that the internalisation of other people’s trauma frequently leaves them feeling the need for isolation and time away from everything in order to ‘deal’ with their emotions, they will regularly suffer all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress as if the trauma were their own this is because it presses on their own trauma buttons; triggering memories of their own trauma or abuse that is still held in their cellular memory. Sometimes a person who experiences this level of empathy becomes unaware that the event or trauma is not their own or in other cases is unaware of their empathy and just experiences pain or feeling of emotional discomfort.
TREATMENT AND RECOVERY
Because the ‘freeze response’ is controlled by the limbic system, brain stem, and spinal cord; talking therapies (such as counselling) tend to miss the arenas where trauma and post-traumatic stress are to be found. Deep Bodywork and other somatic approaches are methods ideally suited to dealing with the core of trauma and releasing the pockets of negative emotion within the body, because they access our experience at a sensing and feeling level first, and verbally only as an important secondary process.
Trauma patients are ‘trapped and frozen within space and time, encapsulated unconsciously by their past trauma. Because these survivors are in a deeply anxiety producing position, any use of touch to be done extremely slowly and carefully. One of the characteristics of Deep Bodywork is its slow, sympathetic and sensitive application. This allows the trauma patient to engage his or her felt-sense and allows the trauma to be accessed.
Deep Bodywork in trauma related cases must be slow and sensitive in order to allow the client to process the trauma and for the stuck energy of trauma to be freed from the body. As this energy begins to free, typical manifestations in the clients’ bodies can be trembling and shaking; followed by emotion, as the actual traumatic event gains access to memory.
Through slow body work in a safe environment of trust and love, the client’s capacity to access the trauma, with the therapists support, increases. The client must establish a deep connection and trust with the therapist before bodywork can commence and eye gazing is an incredibly powerful technique that will help to connect the client to their true spiritual side and to trust the therapist and overcome initial feelings of vulnerability and overwhelming emotions. Eye gazing provides a direct soul connection removing barriers and creating connection and forging trust between client and therapist.
Deep breathing techniques are also central to the treatment of trauma, after all breathing is life. It is important that a client learns how to breathe and takes part in breathing techniques for the longer the client learns to inhale the more access to more oxygen and energy they gain. The long exhale allows them to access and release any emotional energy that’s been held in the system.
Life energy can also be increased through good sleep, exercise and eating patterns. A detox that involves avoiding alcohol and drugs is recommended. Whilst adopting a regular exercise routine boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. It also boosts self-esteem and helps to improve sleep. Often changes in eating patterns are also recommended, eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings. Raw and fresh foods are recommended to help strengthen the immune system and flush the toxins from the body. Whilst you may be drawn to sugary foods for a quick boost or temporary feel good factor they provide, complex carbohydrates are a better choice with prolonged health benefits.
Relaxation techniques including meditation and yoga exercises are important elements of the re-building and healing process. These techniques provide rest and restoration for the mind and body and help to eradicate negative emotions stored in the body.
Trauma Transference Syndrome is a condition first recognised by Mal Weeraratne, an internationally recognised healer qualified in Tantric healing and emotional release through bodywork. He has treated thousands of clients and has spent several decades learning and researching the effects that trauma takes on the body, the results of his findings culminated in his founding of Trauma Transference Syndrome.