How to Listen to Trauma: Calm is Contagious By
Julie Carmen, MA, LMFT, C-IAYT
Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up hearing stories of trauma from people who’ve done the work of processing their own feelings of injustice, rage, humiliation, guilt, shame, vengeance and loss have learned to listen from an early age. Band aids don’t take the cut away. They merely blot the pus. But they can convey a tenderness, a platonic reason to touch a wound, a ritual that lightly seals a cut away from new germs. When listening to psychological pain, soul injury and cruelty every attempt to help can feel like a mere band aid.
As a friend or family member I suggest bearing witness by staying in touch with your own breath as long as you can tolerate being present with a loved one and allowing them to share. It is a common pressure people feel to “fix” the other person by telling them what they should do, by telling them similar injuries that happened to you, by telling them a superficial platitude or even shaming them by pointing out how they may have caused the trauma. But I urge you to have the courage of silence for longer than feels natural. You’ll be surprised by what happens.
Stay in Touch With Your Breath
As a yoga therapist I will always be amazed by the power of breath centric movement. Right here, right now exhale as you place your palms over your heart center, inhale as you open your arms, exhale while your arms stay open, inhale again in place and exhale as you place your palms over your heart. Notice what phrases cross your mind as you do this. Continue noticing your thoughts until you settle on affirmations that support your own resilience.
As a clinical supervisor, I find myself offering practices with full disclosure. Focusing on lengthening your exhales will not change the past but it has the capacity to clear your mind of thoughts about a catastrophic past event, potentially just long enough to shift your autonomic nervous system out of it’s fight, flight, freeze reaction. Focusing on your breath long enough to find the easy pause after your exhales may give your Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal system the message that you don’t need to pump stress hormones at this present moment. Taking a breather may, in fact, reduce inflammation. If even for fifteen minutes, this is significant.
When I am mindful of my pulse and breath while listening to acute trauma, my state of calm is contagious.
Stay in Touch With Yourself
When I train yoga therapists to listen to traumatic stories, we consider what in the palate of yoga we can offer that can bring momentary relief. Just like dental floss doesn’t fill a cavity, but it helps prevent plaque build up that makes cavities worsen. In yoga we practice and teach lifestyle changes that work as mind/ body hygiene.
When I am hearing an excruciating story, my empathic immersion goes in-and-out. It does not serve, me or the client if I am “lost in their story” because objectivity can be lost. The mind naturally scans things. A process occurs of alternately locking onto a point of focus and then becoming one with that point of focus, cyclically. This can help prevent compassion fatigue in the listener.
When I listen, in terms of self-care, I stay in touch with my pulse, my respirations, and I stay in touch with the solid structure I am sitting or standing on and the earth’s gravitational pull, the weight of my limbs, on the chair, and what is occurring in my solar plexus.
If someone’s story makes me anxious and I am not in touch with my body, then my anxiety will influence the process, and cause me to be more directional and prescriptive than I should be. If someone is dealing with massive grief and loss, and I have not done my own grief work, then, I can feel uncomfortable, bearing witness to what the client is sharing. That said, if their story warrants vigilance, I appreciate the anxiety rising in me as an informant of safety protocols. The clearer I am when I begin listening, the more I am open to messages in my own body that inform the delicate dance that is a therapeutic alliance.
What I say after I bear witness to someone’s story is, “thank you for sharing. Please let me know ways in which you’d like my help”.
Julie Carmen is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, a certified Yoga Therapist and Director of Mental Health at Loyola Marymount University Yoga Therapy Rx. She is Founder/Director of Behavioral Health Yoga Therapy Supervised Clinical Practicum at Venice Family Clinic. Julie also has a long career as a working actress. Yogatalks.com
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