ABOUT ANNGWYN ST JUST
Dr.St. Just is a systemically oriented social traumatologist who holds advanced degrees from WISR and the University of California at Berkeley. She is also a cultural historian, trauma specialist and somatic educator who specializes in developing multi-modal, cross cultural methods for trauma education and recovery. Her master’s and doctoral theses written during her years at WISR evolved into a first book Relative Balance in an Unstable World : A Search for New Models for Trauma Education and Recovery. Also available in German and Spanish, this volume chronicles the evolution and expansion of her understanding of trauma to include the kinds of overwhelm that extend beyond the individual, into the realms of family, community, nations and the global biosphere . Readers are invited to look beyond current concepts of trauma to include Nature, shamanic wisdom, cross-cultural, non-verbal, somatically oriented methods and an appreciation of the healing power of community. Topics include the special needs of traumatized women, healing powers of Nature, impact of war upon generations of family and cross cultural war trauma work in the former USSR.
Currently the Director of the Arizona Center for Social Trauma, Anngwyn has served as instructor and somatic advisor for the Drug and Alcohol Studies Program at UC Berkeley, and for over 30 years has maintained a co-creative relationship with Peter Levine, founder of the Somatic Experiencing methods for working with trauma. She has traveled widely in North, Central and South America, Europe and Russia offering seminars and training programs focused upon innovative ways of healing individual and social trauma.
Anngwyn’s work is always evolving and a second book is now available, A Question of Balance: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Resolving Trauma , also in Spanish, which begins with John Donne’s invocation “ No man is an island”. Further information is available on her website: www.acst-international.com . Questions and comments are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to my blog. I hope that you will find this perspective useful in both your personal and professional lives and that you will continue to visit as new information emerges. While I understand that systemic approaches to understanding and resolving trauma are not everyday topics, the fact remains that this is a subject of great importance to all of us who are human and also social beings. My initial posts will offer an introduction and overview of my perspective on individual, family, social and global trauma, as well as an explanation of what is meant by “systemically oriented trauma work.” Since I travel and work internationally, there many opportunities to work in vastly different cultural settings. This has added much richness and depth to my understanding of the human condition and many of the challenges facing us during these trying times of rapid environmental and social change.
A GENERAL DEFINITION OF TRAUMA ?
This is my most frequently asked question. In response I offer the following. Medical trauma results from injury to the physical body and psychological trauma from an injury to the psyche. These two conditions often overlap since psychological shock and injury can lead to psychological trauma and psychological trauma always has a physical component in the manifestation of somatically encoded stress patterns.
In essence, trauma is all about a response to overwhelming experiences that can lead to “ broken connections”. These broken connections represent a fragmentation in the relationship to self, as in numbness, hyperactivity, disorientation in time and space and other forms of dissociation. One can also experience a profound sense of alienation, despair and fragmentation in relation to family, others and the larger matrix supportive of human life. This is similar to what Martin Buber called…” a wound in the order of being”.
Trauma impacts the ability to relate, to learn, to earn in the workplace, a capacity for intimacy and the ability to parent. Unresolved traumas, therefore, are often passed on to subsequent generations. Trauma can overwhelm entire families, communities and nations as well as our planetary biosphere. Traumas that affect those beyond the individual and family level are known as social traumas. We also have global traumas that overwhelm the ecology of our planet in the form of events such the radioactive fallout from nuclear meltdowns from the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The December 26th earthquake and tsunami affected 11 countries and caused the Earth to wobble on its axis. There are many such events in our distant past such as ice ages, massive floods, polar shifts and asteroid impacts.
SYSTEMIC PERSPECTIVES ON TRAUMA
Writing has always been an important exercise in an ongoing effort to clarify and deepen my understanding of trauma and trauma recovery work .Since I am also a cultural historian it was inevitable that this has brought a contextual perspective to my work. My graduate studies at WISR inspired me to look beyond both individuals and families in order to understand the role of some of the larger forces that contribute to the shaping of individual lives and generational dynamics.
Shortly after completing my doctoral studies I began a five year period of working together with Dr. Peter Levine, founder of the Somatic Experiencing method as a medical trauma consultant in an innovative family practice medical clinic in Colorado. (Peter has a doctorate in medical biophysics , as well as psychology, and I trained as a RN at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). A number of our patients were Native American and I soon realized that their symptoms could not be fully understood , nor a treatment plan implemented without an understanding of the many factors inherent within their culture and history. Clear evidence of racism, genocide, the toxic legacy and cruel abuses of our government sponsored Indian Schools, which all contributed to massive levels of generational trauma was unavoidable. Over time, I came to realize that all of our individual patients were also part of systems that connect to much larger patterns, involving all of their relationships, family, culture and history.
From then on, I knew that even within the field of clinical settings ,where we believe that we are working with just one person, we are in fact, also engaging, influencing and being influenced by many interconnected systems which ultimately extend all the way into the realm of some of today’s and yesterday’s most pressing and intractable problems. Any intervention that we may offer during an individual client’s process, will affect everyone else that he or she is connected to, past, present and future. The extent to which those of us in the healing and helping professions are willing to become conscious of this larger interconnected reality, the more options and resources we are able to bring to the challenge of understanding and resolving trauma.
HOW CAN RELATIVES, FRIENDS, LOVED ONES AND OTHERS, HELP SOMEONE LIVING THE CONSEQUENCES OF TRAUMA?
Here we have a need for patience and willingness to become informed about the many faces of trauma, as well as what kinds of resources are available for recovery. Offering support can be quite challenging because post-traumatic symptoms can appear under a guise of many seemingly unrelated behaviors…. depression, grandiosity, suicide attempts, addictions, eating disorders, compulsive busyness, extreme sports, panic attacks, violence, religious or political fanaticism, sexual acting out, blind devotion to a self-described mission, obsession with a need to help, rescue and/or control, chronic pain eating disorders, and other self-destructive behaviors. Any, all or some combination of the above conditions may be an attempt at self-medication in order to handle overwhelming responses to something or many things which may be just too much to bear.
They may suffer a compulsion to re-enact a trauma, or some aspect of a trauma or traumas, in some form, along with an inability to perceive any options other than to repeat self-destructive behavior, over and over. Needless to say, this can be very distressing and even dangerous for trauma survivors, as well as for those that are connected and care for them. It is not unusual for trauma survivors to enter into a trauma bond which can be understood as a dynamic enmeshment with others who have been wounded in a similar manner or event. These trauma bonds can form within intimate relationships wherein lies an illusion of finding “ a soul mate” who is in reality a “wound mate” , or with members of a support group, military unit, religious affiliation, political party, clan, tribe, race, or gender preference. These affiliations, in the short term, may offer much needed temporary solace. The danger however, is that extended enmeshment with these trauma bonds, together with other survivors, tends to isolate one from friends, family and all others who have not shared these exact same overwhelming experiences. This seriously narrows any interest for engagement or activities outside of these very intense trauma dependent bonds and these bonds have the potential to fragment, disturb and even destroy family cohesiveness and many other relationships, as well
Here it needs to be said that entire families, religions, cults, races and nations, with the help of their leaders and their chosen controlled media outlets can also be caught within these delusional entanglements. Trauma bonds are re-enforced by a belief that the only hope or any sense of safety is within survivors own .known and often, narrow emotional confines, and that the outside world is dangerous and not to be trusted. While there may be some very real truth in this perception, which must not be entirely discounted, this viewpoint also presents a serious limitation for those who seek recovery.
Concerned friends and family who truly want to help need to know that it is vitally important to not over react, over function with excessive caretaking or treat your loved one as a poor helpless victim. This attitude is demeaning, sends a message of weakness, fosters dependence and might just provoke an angry or even violent response. Trauma survivors need to maintain or find their way back to self-respect, dignity and empowerment. In time, the challenge becomes to find their way toward those necessary adaptations on their way to expanding and including their traumatic experience within the larger pattern of theirs lives.
IS THERE ANY WAY TO PREVENT THE CONSEQUENCES OF A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE ? CAN WE BE BETTER PREPARED FOR ADVERSITY ?
As long as we are living here on Planet Earth, which is in many ways a difficult as well as beautiful place, we need to accept that trauma is and always has been part of the human experience. It is just not possible to “trauma proof” or vaccinate against the kinds of overwhelming experiences that can lead to trauma. Our best option is to gather resources conducive to mental, physical and spiritual health and also promote resiliency. My understanding of resources includes those people, places, things and experiences that relieve anxiety and tension and reinforce one’s sense of strength, purpose and positive connection to life. Resources can also be found in positive memories and dreams that provide a sense of safety, comfort, and support during times of difficulty and pain. One can never have too many resources and most of us have more resources than we realize. During my clinical experience, I observed that those who have a strong positive connection to both parents, entire family of origin and cultural roots, have the most resiliency and ability to adapt and prevail under very trying conditions.
This observation makes sense if one considers the basic biological fact that life itself is given through mother and father and that it came down to them from their ancestors. A good connection to this life force offers a sense of strength and serves as a powerful resource in the face of adversity. There are practical measures, as well, through outreach programs to find professionals who would be willing to find ways to modify medical birthing and dental procedures, educational and judicial practices, immigration agencies, child protection services, and police and Homeland Security protocols that can go a long way toward the prevention of unnecessary trauma.
MANY ARE WORRIED ABOUT 2012. COULD THAT BE A KIND OF PRE-TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE ?
We have experienced an ebb and flow of apocalyptic speculations from the First Century BC and they probably existed long before then. Since 1582 we have had our experience of linear time defined by the Gregorian calendar implemented by Pope Gregory XIII. This is a solar calendar which measures “ time” according to the physical cycle of Earth’s orbit around our sun. In contrast, the Mayan understanding of time was quite different. They recorded many levels of time in the form of interlocking cycles ranging from daily glyphs to long count cycles lasting 26,000 years each, and some of even longer duration. As I understand it, the Mayan calendar is astronomically and mathematically accurate and records the cycles of time far beyond that of our sun. It is interesting to speculate as to what time is it if we leave our Earth or even our solar system ? More importantly, there is serious speculation that this ancient calendar also records the cycles of time that influence the evolution of human consciousness. According to Mayan scholars ,Carl Calleman, Ola Petterson, Ian Lungold and others this explains why time seems to be speeding up and what time it is now is a time when ethics overcome power. This is an appealing notion which may, at least partially explain why so many people around the world are now choosing to pay attention to an ancient calendar that apparently ends in the now iconic date of 2012. It should be noted there is considerable debate as to when this current cycle of the Mayan calendar actually ends and some maintain that the actual date is October 28, 2011. In any event, the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually end, it just begins yet another long count cycle. A good overview of this material is available online at www.mayanmajix.com .
If I were a futurist, I could imagine many intriguing possibilities for this so called end date, including a time when we discover time travel or that our relationship to time changes. The completion of this ancient long count cycle could also signal the end of an era and the beginning of something entirely new for our species. Also worth considering is the speculation by two controversial Russian astrophysicists and astronomers that during previously recorded time in the Mayan calendar we have actually been a part of a spiral arm of the Sagittarius B dwarf galaxy. In 2012, this dwarf galaxy will be absorbed into the much larger Milky Way galaxy. This would mean that all previous astronomical calculations relative to the matrix of the dwarf galaxy will no longer apply and we will need to re-orient to our new galactic position. These Russians speculate that the Maya knew this and that is why they ended their long count cycle on that date.(Clif High:www.halfpasthuman.com )
I am certainly no expert in these matters and time will surely reveal more about this mysterious date. What I do know for sure is that the subjects of time, consciousness and the experience of trauma are closely related. During a traumatic experience, time may seem to speed up or slow down or even stop. Sometimes traumatized people can seem to be frozen within fragmentations of time surrounding an overwhelming life experience. This can happen to entire generations, as well.
During the outset of our second Gulf War I noticed that my parents were behaving as if we were back in World War II and “Saddam Hussein was Hitler and needed to be stopped before he took over the world”. It has been said that military commanders are often stuck fighting the previous war. This certainly seems true if you look at how the Americans forces are approaching Iraq as if it was Vietnam again, and then continuing to approach Pakistan as if it were Iraq or Afghanistan and so on. More recently, with the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster ,the language used in the international media and by the survivors is reminiscent of World War II, such as kamikaze missions and comparing the destruction to images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear bombs exploded. I plan to further explore the relationship between time, space and trauma in my next book TRAUMA: TIME SPACE AND FRACTALS.