Mind Matters — From Philly to the Philippines

Last week was filled with conferences in Philly: days of presentations on trauma research and then a workshop on the clinician’s use of hypnosis for pain control. Meanwhile, a typhoon the likes of which has never been seen had devastated the Philippines. There is a connection in all this.

For one, natural disasters certainly trigger emotional trauma response. And for another, hypnotic techniques can ameliorate emotional and physical pain. On a global level, literally, we all need to recognize that climate change has intensified the destructiveness of many natural disasters, which in turn creates more trauma. The danger beyond the destruction is that we may become inured to the stories of victims when they are thousands of miles away.

My few gleanings from the days of meetings may help bridge the gap between our isolated selves and how we are connected to others, even those suffering in distant places.

The study of trauma is the search for resilience: how humans can eventually find hope and make meaning out of horrendous circumstances.

Years ago, family therapist Murray Bowen theorized that the grief and trauma that occurred in one generation cascaded down the family tree to later generations. Furthermore, he noted, this has a biological component and that this component can be changed. Now, the field of epigenetics affirms his claim. The ramifications in the field of trauma is immense.

Stress and trauma in one generation does work on the genes—not by mutation, but in affecting the expression of the genes, a turning “on” or “off” of certain mechanisms. In fact, bio-social –environmental factors can directly affect the signaling pathways of our DNA. For example, stress or starvation in pregnancy can lead to low birth weight of the infant which can later lead to obesity and metabolic disorders. In other words, what was protective in one generation (slow the metabolism, hold the weight) can be maladaptive in the next. My mother was right, after all. She firmly believed that stress before, during, and after conception would affect the baby’s emotional well-being. And so it does. But what she didn’t know was that the father’s genetic inheritance held in the sperm also responds to stress. The beauty of these epigenetic adaptations is that they continue to be subject to change.

Presentations at the trauma symposium included several on what could be termed disenfranchised traumatic grief—disenfranchised because the populations that experience these traumas are often disregarded, not attended to. Examples of these groups included the military mortuary workers who deal with identification of the mutilated remains of service persons. Another population whose traumas are often not acknowledged are the German survivors of World War II. We may not know that it is estimated that 1.4 million women were raped at the end of the war. Millions were displaced and cities such as Dresden were decimated. “The consequences of war are manifold and complex,” reported Dr. Heide Glaesmer. The complexities of the traumas caused by the occupation of the Palestinian Territories were also addressed.

Remember the three monkeys? “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil?” my four-year-old daughter had the wisdom years ago to say “but they also speak no good, see no good, and hear no good.” Ah, if we could keep this in mind when we shy away from facing trauma and suffering. We can only create meaning, foster resilience, and find hope when we recognize our interconnectedness to all who suffer traumas, especially those forgotten in their disenfranchised traumatic grief.