At the fork in the road: Trauma healing

(Note: This article was originally published in Conciliation Quarterly, a publication of Mennonite Conciliation Services, Spring 2001; Vol. 20, No. 2. Used by permission.)

As peacebuilders, we must learn to recognize and examine the trauma that often smolders beneath conflict. We might be able to provide a quick fix, but we can’t transform the presenting conflict without uncovering — or somehow attending to — the underlying trauma. The conflict can actually worsen. Victims are re-traumatized and, if the trauma goes unhealed, the victim may become the aggressor; the abused may become the abuser.

Peacebuilders make peace everyday with the picture of dead bodies before their eyes and the sound of bombing in their ears. In order to transform conflict in these situations, the peacebuilder must first address the rage, anger, outrage and denial that results from this trauma.

The further risk to peacebuilders in ignoring trauma is the potential for peacebuilders themselves to become traumatized (or paralyzed) by not recognizing the power and danger of working in intense trauma conflict-filled areas. Researchers have named this occurrence as vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatization (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1990). This phenomenon looks at how caregivers can be as susceptible to a similar traumatization as the primary victims. We do not need to have the actual physical events occur to us directly to be traumatized. Reliving them mentally can have a similar emotional effect to the direct violence that occurred. This provides another reason for peacebuilders working in trauma conflict situations to understand trauma and trauma healing.

Description of Trauma

Ordinary stress is common in all our lives. We know that a healthy amount of stress in our lives helps us feel alive and stimulated. However, when we feel unable to cope with important demands or expectations placed upon us, we experience distress. This distress is different from traumatic stress in that it is gradual and less intense.

Traumatic stress is a piercingly intense, surprising occurrence outside the range of usual human experience. It would frighten almost anyone. Following the genocide in Rwanda, a children’s booklet defined trauma as, “a normal response to an abnormal situation when something scary or bad happens to you.”

Ordinary Stress Traumatic Stress
* Slow or gradual change
* Wearing down over time
* Able to plan and problem-solve
* People affected differently
* Sudden significant loss
* Piercing intensity; shock to system
* Overwhelming sense of helplessness
* Terror; frightens almost anyone

Trauma may be caused by destructive acts of nature (earthquakes, tornado, flash floods) or accidents (car/plane crashes causing disability or death) resulting in sudden, significant loss. A more pernicious form of trauma may be caused by violence, injustice or wrongdoing at the hands of another person or group. It is this latter type of trauma that is the focus of this article.

Trauma Healing Map

(Adapted from cycle of violence and aggression by Olga Botcharova, while working at the Center for International Studies.)

Trauma healing entails recognizing and reconciling trauma. It can be seen as a map of concentric circles. The inner circle may be towards a natural, instinctive revenge journey and the outer circle may follow a journey moving towards reconciliation. The inner circle might describe how to recognize trauma-based conflict and the outer circle would describe how to reconcile trauma-based conflict.

Recognizing Trauma: the “Inner Circle”

  1. Realization of Loss
    • Filled with the fear of realizing the horrible truth mixed with the fear of looking into the future
    • Overwhelmed to imagine life without that which we lost
    • The more dramatic and sudden the change is, the greater the sense of loss experienced
  2. Denial and the Suppression of Grief/Fears
    • Trauma destroys our sense of security in the world; denial allows us to let in only as much pain as we can tolerate at one time
    • Denial and suppression are common survival mechanisms which help us pace ourselves through the process of adjusting to catastrophic loss
    • In trying to avoid pain, we do everything to not get deeply into the grief or confront the fears of past and future
    • Circumstances in many conflict situations are usually not favorable for the time needed for lamenting and mourning.
  3. Anger: “Why me?”
    • Allowing oneself to feel the fury of hate and anger, especially when one has been abused, violated or severely wronged, is often a healthy part of the recovery process
    • Feeling anger toward the perpetrator(s) may be the only resource available that allows some personal respect to be maintained.
    • Anger turned inward is often evidenced by the question: “Did I do something to cause this?”
  4. Desire for Justice/Revenge
    • Punitive justice may turn into a quest or crusade for revenge
    • While rage and revenge fantasies appear initially to bring relief, the opposite is true. Repetitive revenge fantasies actually increase the victim’s torment, making the survivor feel like a monster—-‘just like them’ (Herman)
  5. Telling and Re-Telling the “Right” Conflict Story
    • Creating myths/heroes that play well in the revenge conflict story
    • Writing a history that supports the “ingroup” (victim’s group) and demonizes the “outgroup”(offender/enemy group)
    • Placing the blame entirely on the “other” so victim needs to take no responsibility
  6. Act of “Justified Aggression”
    • Victim becomes the aggressor who victimizes and continues around the inner circle again, now as the aggressor but believing self to still be victim

Reconciling Trauma: the “Outer Circle”

  1. Mourning and Expressing Deep Grief
    • Knowledge that grief experienced does dissolve over time
    • Often a fear of being overcome if one allows the tears to flow
    • Seeing some glimpse of new life even as the ashes are brushed away
  2. Accepting Loss and Confronting Fears
    • Survivors need to (1) separate themselves from the events that have happened to them; and (2) integrate the events into their lives
    • Integrating the grief and pain by deciding to heal, believing and understanding what happened and trusting yourself
    • Deciding to remember and move on
  3. “Why Them?” Re-humanizing the Enemy
    • Moving from total victim self-absorption to some recognition of the other
    • Curiosity about how the “other” got involved; seeing the common humanity in the other; the survivor begins the slow transformation and may even feel the hidden pain of the abuser.
    • Realizing that not punishing the “other” does not mean forgetting what happened, but rather recognizing that we can never truly get even and that an inner peace comes when we give up trying
    • Seeing the Divinity in the enemy*
  4. Moving Beyond Tolerance
    • A beginning baby step of trust beyond a willingness to just co-exist
    • Finding a survivor mission—some meaning in the ashes
  5. Choice to Forgive; Commitment to Take Risks
    • Not at all forgive and forget
    • Ability to transform the impulse for revenge into a search for something larger
    • Realizing that nothing we do to punish another person or group will heal ourselves
    • Seeing that this frees us to put to better use the energies once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments and nursing unhealed wounds
  6. “Re-Writing” History, Negotiating Solutions and Joint Planning
    • Revising the trauma story to be both honest and constructive
    • Walking through history together, openly examining wounds on all sides, sorting out truth from falsehood and recognizing mutual responsibilities
    • Sincere apology, symbols of repentance and an open confirmation of good will
    • The trauma prisoner/survivor needs to make some sense out of the suffering—“to find some purpose and meaning in the suffering” (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1959)
  7. Establishing Justice That Restores
    • Restorative justice which focuses on relationship and restitution
    • Restoring victims as well as offenders to the community
    • Repairing the social injury and right relationship
  8. Moving Toward Reconciliation and Trauma-based Conflict Transformation
    • Does not mean that I forget what has happened—or condone it in any way. Forgiving and forgetting is precisely what has disallowed many from achieving true forgivingness

Three general guidelines as we consider the two circles on this map:

  1. Trauma healing is both a decision and a process. The initial choice involves the decision to move toward healing or stay in the react/revenge/get even inner cycle. Trauma healing is also a process, in that it entails my being patient with myself (and others if a whole community is traumatized) as I go through this journey.
  2. Trauma healing is not one directional. It clearly is not linear. Like the grief stages, a person jumps around rather than follow a tidy progression from one stage to the next. Trauma healing, like trauma itself, is messy, confusing, intense and overwhelming. Persons often jump around, surviving the best they can. Some may even move to the outer circle only to find themselves back in the inner circle again having a desire for revenge.
  3. The key is knowing that choice is available. Amela Puljek-Shank, currently a graduate student in Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, recalls the helpfulness of this trauma healing map. As a survivor of the Bosnian War, Amela shared how the trauma healing map assisted her by providing a visual representation of the trauma itself. At that time her trauma experience was a confusing and overwhelming emotional experience which included flashbacks and a pervasive fear of remembering the atrocities of war. Finally she was able to get a visual representation of the inner emotional experience as well as another path that might take her toward healing. “In the war situation with the anger, hate and revenge, I could see how I could never basically heal if I was staying in the inner circle of trauma anger and wanting to do violence. From the diagram, I began to see that I had a choice to remain in the inner circle of trauma or move to the outer circle of trauma healing: a choice to heal rather than to hate and kill; a choice to possibly become a healthy individual again; a choice to take some steps to move back home after displacement—-home to my spirit, my body, my homeland.”

Amela is clear that people who want to do the work of peacebuilding and conflict transformation where trauma has occurred, need to receive training in trauma healing and recovery. She thinks trauma should be a core course in any peacebuilding curriculum. “You can make peace on the governmental level and think that our work is over but when 2 million people are displaced and traumatized? How can you make peace when trauma healing does not take place? How can we heal conflicts if we don’t have any idea how to heal traumas? To create real peace, there needs to be recognition of the trauma and time for trauma healing to take place—at the national level as well as individual level.”

Fork in the Road Decision: Choosing to Move from Inner Circle to Outer Circle

Why let go and move to the outer circle? Why forgive or even think about it? The pain, violation or injustice is so great that the main impulse—which can stay for months and years—is to get even. The survivor needs to find some answers to the question as to why move on. Sometimes we need to go round and round the inner circle until we are certain that we have to—and gradually choose to—take another kind of healing path. We find out that nothing new or good under the sun is in the inner circle of anger, revenge and hatred and actually discover that we have become like the enemy. The bitterness is destructive for the self as well as the other. The outer circle is so unnatural that we have to be sure that some of the reactions that come so humanly, so instinctively are not any good for us or our communities.

The Paradox of Trauma Healing: In Order to Forget, We Need to Remember

As peacebuilders, we are beginning to ask the questions of what to do in the aftermath of trauma. How do we remember and tell the trauma story so as not to re-traumatize? In her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Martha Minow describes a two-year study where these questions were asked. Minow, with an organization called, Facing History and Ourselves, explored the range of possible institutional responses to collective violence, genocide, apartheid and war.

After these atrocities, “what lessons can be learned—what should be taught—to young people growing up in a world that has known, and still produces incomprehensible patterns of violence and torture? Would it be better to shield young people from the fact of those patterns until they grow up? The wager made by programs like Facing History and Ourselves is that young people would do better to learn about the horrors that have occurred at the hands of adults than to be subject to silence about the events that still shape their world. Young people, understandably, want to know what has been done, and what can be done, to respond, redress, and prevent future occurrences”.

We know that forgive and forget does not work and, in fact, layers on more trauma. The question continues to beg for a creative healing and restoring response to trauma: how to remember and move on so that the trauma story is healed and the conflict transformed. As peacebuilders, our mission is to hear the trauma story, revise it and receive a fuller picture of the truth(s) of the trauma and begin to hold it differently so as to live into another story for our future.

Nancy Good – PhD, MSW – is the former professor of Trauma Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.