The trouble with trauma

The trouble with trauma

The trouble with traumatic memories is that we play the same internal tape over and over again.  Like an LP on repeat, they seldom vary.  We get stuck in a loop that doesn’t allow us to see things through a different lens. If we keep our thoughts and feelings inside, they don’t shift.

U2’s Bono said it right when he sang about being stuck in a moment that you can’t get out of

That’s why I love group work. It’s hard, to be sure, but the insights and reflections of others allow us to see ourselves in a different light. Experiences that might originally have been terrifying, can transform to courageous in the retelling.

There is a traditional Lakota expression that says “Healing takes place in the spaces between people.”

No truer words were ever spoken.  I’d like to take my hat off to the twenty courageous men and women who recently successfully completed the Emotions Management and Healthy Living programs.  Even with the multiple layers of challenge going on in Nova Scotia, they stepped forward, ready to tackle material that has for years kept them from living their fullest lives.  They started the process of reshaping history in the retelling.  It was a unique experience to be sure, to be processing, in real time, layers of trauma as it unfolded in our province.  

Congratulations as well to twenty new people who have stepped forward for the Trauma Recovery and Body and Mind Health and Recovery programs.  The world may be on pause, but there’s a powerful, strong group of you moving forward. 

Warm regards,

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Executive Director, Landing Strong

Embracing the power of positive change

Embracing the power of positive change

My dogs are completely ridiculous.  When I come home each day, they charge towards me at top speed, so filled with glee that they can hardly contain themselves.  They are so excited that they start jumping on one another in a playful Ninja manner, the little dog trying to nip the haunches of her older sister in an effort to reach me first.  They quickly become a blurred black and white explosion of play and energy, forgetting the fact that they were even coming to see me. 

When they are relaxed, it’s not uncommon to see them mirroring one another, their bodies unconsciously copying the posture and mood of the other.  What we are witnessing is co-regulation in action.  Because they are close, the mood and actions of one significantly affects the mood and actions of the other.

Co-regulation is that moment by moment interaction between the central nervous system of one person (or dog) with another.  

When you laugh, I laugh with you.  

When you cry, I feel the heaviness in my chest, and instinctively reach out.

Being in close proximity with one another during this COVID crisis, we can’t help but have a profound effect on those around us.  Our central nervous systems are in synchronicity, constantly interacting, bouncing off one another and mirroring emotions that we may not even be aware of.  How I am feeling has a huge effect on my household, and how others are feeling affects me.  At this time in particular, it’s incredibly important that we are aware of the manner in which we are contributing to, or detracting from the health and well-being of those in our circle.

Co-regulation doesn’t just happen in person.  It can also travel through the internet.  Another person’s anger can transmit virtually.  So can joy.  I’m careful in deciding which news to watch, because in general, bad news sells.  This morning CTV focussed on new vaccination efforts, miracle plane landings, and funny bad haircuts, and I started my day off with a smile.

I invite you to take the time to notice what you are feeling, and set an intention about the mood you want to spread to those you love.  Attached is a fun exercise called “Cookie breathing” developed by Liana Lowenstein which might help.  Try practicing, and see if you experience an internal shift.

Warm Regards,
Belinda

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Executive Director, Landing Strong

PTSD: disorder or injury?

PTSD: disorder or injury?

Let’s face it, PTSD is a label.  Having a diagnosis can be very helpful as it allows clients to access appropriate resources and supports.  However, it doesn’t accurately reflect the experience of recovering from trauma.  

When healthy people are repeatedly exposed to traumatic and dangerous situations, it’s normal that there’s a residual effect.  Like an athlete that runs too many marathons without enough recovery time, injuries are sustained that can be lingering or career-threatening.  

The word “disorder” does a disservice to the injuries suffered by those who put themselves in harm’s way in the course of their work.  People with PTSD are not disordered, they are injured.  Their wounds originate from repeated or severe exposure to trauma.  There’s nothing disordered about that, it’s a natural and predictable reaction to unnatural events or situations.  

Just because it’s invisible, doesn’t mean it’s not real.  We’re going to increasingly be using the term PTSI in our communications.  These injuries are significant, severe, and potentially life threatening if not tended to in a thoughtful, compassionate manner.  As with any injury, there’s a continuum of severity, ranging from mildly disruptive to debilitating.  Not everyone who has these injuries is the same.  The mechanism of injury, presentation of symptoms, and severity of harm may vary from person to person.  Nonetheless, everyone has an equal right to access treatment and care in a timely manner.  

Disorders are something we stick in the corner and don’t quite know what to do with.  Injuries are something we heal.  So we get it, without the label, it’s impossible to access appropriate care.  But between you and me, we’ll be calling it an injury. 

Warm wishes,

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Executive Director, Landing Strong

Snow day

Snow day

Do you remember dreaming of snow days as a child?  I’d cross my fingers in hopes that school would be cancelled.  Snow day.  These two beautiful words evoke excitement and anticipation, with the thought of an unstructured and unsupervised day laying ahead.  Even as we grow older, the freedom associated with snow days persists.  Some of us might make a last-minute rush to the grocery store to stock up on storm chips.  Others might curl up on the couch for Netflix marathons.  
 
Although I know that heavy snowfalls will precipitate massive cancellations in my client schedule, I have to confess… a part of me gets excited.  I’ll have a whole day of no structure, and little supervision.  What kind of trouble can I get myself into, I wonder?
 
Okay, I know I’ll end up using this time to catch up on overdue work.  But it’s incredibly satisfying knowing that I don’t have to. 
 
At Landing Strong, we recognize that snow days aren’t as much fun for everyone.  Driving in such conditions is stressful.  For those of you in first responder roles, we acknowledge that you are putting your coats on as we are coming home and taking ours off.  For this, we thank you.  
 
Snow days are a reminder that the emotional meaning of current events is coloured by the lens of past experiences.  What might be positive for one person could be alarming or stressful to another.  Trauma is like that too. 
 
Trauma isn’t about what happens to us, rather, it’s the personal meaning of the event in the context of our lives that’s important. 
 
That’s why we can’t judge others’ reactions to things when they differ from ours.  We haven’t walked in their shoes, or seen things through the lens of their experiences.  By seeking to understand, we diminish the aloneness of their experience. 

Warm wishes,

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Executive Director, Landing Strong

The face of courage

The face of courage

They say courage is born on the battlefield.  That may be true, but I think just as often it arises in the aftermath, when we work to face our emotions. Anyone in a service profession knows about putting a “game face” on.  You know it, showing no fear even when you are about to walk into a situation that is dangerous, frightening or threatening.  Joe Frazier knew it when walked into the ring to face Muhammad Ali, arguably one of the greatest boxers of all time.  Ali had a total of 56 professional wins, 37 of them by knockout.  So when Frazier walked in the ring, he likely knew that he had a 50% chance of being knocked unconscious.  Yet he did it anyway.  
 
Shoving our emotions aside in times of distress is important and often necessary.  It allows us to remain functional.  The challenge is knowing when and how to take our game face off, and look deeper to discover what it is that we are actually feeling.
 
In treatment groups I’ve had Special Forces Members, Police, RCMP, Firefighters, Paramedics, EOD Techs, Corrections Officers and Trauma Counsellors say the same thing.  Coming to treatment was one of the hardest, but most important things they have ever done.
 
So perhaps courage does take many forms.  The obvious ones, and the more invisible form as we all come together to regroup, recalibrating our central nervous systems, and reclaiming important aspects of self that may have been lost along the way.
 
In my mind, that is indeed the face of courage. 
 
Warm regards, 

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Executive Director, Landing Strong

We are all affected by trauma.

We are all affected by trauma.

Twenty years ago I did some time in a federal penitentiary. 

It’s not what you might think.  I didn’t break the law.  I was acting in the role of Chief Psychologist for four hundred federal male offenders.  Trying to help them undo the harm they had done to others.

Truth is, there are some wrongs that simply can’t be righted, no matter how hard we try. The dead can’t come back to life, and some emotional injuries run too deep to be healed.  Figuring out how to lessen the emotional impact of such loss is incredibly important, both for the victims and the perpetrators. Otherwise, there is no moving forward.  

During this time I met Pierre Allard, an amazing Chaplain who has been championing the Restorative Justice movement in Canada for decades.  He told me of a reconciliation group he had facilitated, where a group of offenders who had committed murder met with family members of victims of murder.  The goal was for the two groups to sit in a room together, so the men who had committed the crimes could hear how the loss of a loved one had impacted the survivors.  My discussion with Pierre centered not on the actual meeting, but rather, the minutes leading up to it. 

The family members were brought into the room first.  Many were pale and out of shape.  Grief had visibly been affecting a number of them physically.  Their eyes were bloodshot, rimmed by dark circles from decades of sleepless nights. They walked with slumped shoulders and shuffled gaits. Avoiding eye contact with one another, they clutched their coats tightly around themselves, despite the warmth of the room.  They spoke hesitantly, their thoughts jumbled with the powerful unprocessed emotions that they were experiencing. 

Then the offenders came in. They entered with straight backs and sure strides, carrying well-sculpted bodies, the result of countless hours in the weight room. They sat together with comfort and familiarity.  Articulate and thoughtful, they spoke of their deep regrets and immense shame.  Their clear voices were indications of having spent many years processing their feelings and experiences with professional staff within the facility.  

I remembered this story recently as I witnessed the impact of trauma on the loved ones affected by it.  It is not just the immediate victims who are injured.  Those who love and support them are also powerfully affected.  Secondary traumatization can be profound.  In many ways, these people too have experienced a profound loss.  They may not have been in the direct line of fire, but for many, the person who came home injured from work may not be recognizable.  Years, and even decades, are spent trying to restore connection.  Countless efforts are made to end the isolation that can accompany the injury of a loved one.  They wait patiently, looking up a lonely road, waiting for their loved ones to return home. Soldiers in their own right, they travel a journey that is seldom discussed.  Used to turning attention to the injured family member, it can be hard to know how to care for themselves.

Let’s not forget anyone on this journey.  Not those who have been injured in the line of work, nor those who support them. Whether it is in the role of a spouse, partner, child or friend, we are all affected by trauma.   

Warm thoughts from the Landing Strong Team,

Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych.
Founder, Landing Strong