I have never seen in any of the trauma books I have read, other than Franz Ruppert’s, a clear definition of what trauma actually is. It seems that we assume an understanding of the word trauma, in terms of the PTSD symptomatology, but symptoms alone do not describe what a thing actually is. Most writers discuss “traumatic stress”, which was in fact the title of the prominent trauma psychiatrist, researcher and therapist, Dr Bessel van der Kolk’s previous book published in 1999.
Franz Ruppert, however, makes a very helpful distinction between ‘high stress’ and ‘trauma’. You can find a detailed description in my blog Introduction the Theory of Multigenerational Psychotraumatology, but briefly the distinction that he makes is as follows:
Distinction between High Stress and Trauma
High stress is a highly mobilised state with the reaction of ‘fight or flight’. This is easily understandable in the sense that in order to fight or run away in the face of threat we do need enormous amounts of energy, so the psychophysical system secretes strong energising chemicals to support this reaction. High stress is just that; not the daily stress of life, but the stress of an extremely stressful situation; we can think of it as the highest stress we can manage as a limited psychophysical being.
Trauma on the other hand is a state of collapse, of resignation, an extremely low-energy state where the psychophysical organism has shut off all energising secretions in order to maintain as best it can it’s existence. It comes into play when the high stress strategy fails; fight or flight has not been possible, and the person is completely and utterly helpless.
The organism cannot maintain a high stress state for very long… think of a balloon that you are blowing up; there is a point at which you cannot put any more air into that balloon but the balloon will burst. Usually we can tell this moment and stop putting air into the balloon and tie the knot. The same is true of us. The organism has an automatic cut-off system so that we do not ‘burst’ and die. A highly mobilised state for too long will become life-threatening in itself, regardless of the external situation.
The trauma state response is collapse, a freezing or deadness, and fragmentation. Fragmentation is part of the organism’s attempt to maintain some integrity in the face of overwhelming forces, and in order for this to be achieved something has to be lost, has to be sacrificed, and that is unity. The intolerable experience of the situation is split off from the self. This happens physically where the trauma effect is numbed into one part of the body… body-workers such as cranial osteopaths, zero-balancers, sensitive chiropractors, know this and I have had many tell me of their experiences of such phenomena in their patients. It also happens with the psyche where the intolerable and unmanageable emotional experience is split off through dissociation… literally the mind dissociates from the experience. This splitting then, according to Franz Ruppert’s theory, becomes structural over time, evidenced in our multitude of daily behaviours and attitudes of control, avoidance, denial, distraction and compensation (for the numbed out emotional state).
In my view this provides a very clear understanding of the two states: high stress = fight or flight; trauma = collapse and fragmentation. This distinction I think is very helpful in understanding as practitioners what exactly we are dealing with. In this definition theoretically one can recover our homeostatic equilibrium from high stress; but once the splitting has happened in the trauma state there is effectively no return… the damage so to speak is done, and since the survival avoidance instinct in us is so strong we consistently come up against a wall, the wall in us that says “we do not go there”. The therapeutic work in this case is different.
Van der Kolk’s ideas in relation to Ruppert’s Theory
In Dr van der Kolk’s latest book, The Body Keeps the Score, which I do recommend to students of trauma, he doesn’t make such a distinction, but he does make some allusions to such a distinction. In one paragraph where he is discussing the failure of so-called ‘talking therapies’ to be effective with trauma he says:
“For a hundred years or more, every textbook of psychology and psychotherapy has advised that some method of talking about distressing feelings can resolve them. However the experience of trauma itself gets in the way of being able to do that. No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its reality.” [my italics](van der Kolk, 2014)
That phrase “the rational brain is impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its reality” exactly points to the difficulty of working with trauma, and points to the dynamics we who work with Franz’s theories find in the relationship between the Traumatised Part, the Survival Part and the Healthy Part (see blogpost Surviving After Trauma).
At another point van der Kolk says: “Immobilization is at the root of most traumas.” Not a definition of what trauma is as such, and blurred, perhaps intentionally, by the use of the word ‘most’.
Later in van der Kolk’s book he refers to the work of psychiatrist Stephen Porges who coined the word ‘neuroception’ “to describe the individual’s capacity to evaluate relative danger and safety in one’s environment” (van der Kolk, 2014). The following is all drawn from van der Kolk’s book.
Porges theory, Polyvagal Theory, I don’t need to go into in details for the purposes of this essay, but his conception of ‘neuroception’ proposes three psychological states that determine the level of safety:
- first level – ‘social engagement’: in this level we are able to call for support, help and/or comfort from those around us. This is equal to a situation of increasing stress. If this fails (for example if no one comes to our aid) the situation is deemed a higher status of danger and we go to the second level
- second level – ‘fight or flight’: we fight off our attacker or can run away to somewhere safe. This is the High Stress situation. If this fails we are trapped and go to the third level.
- third level – what Ruppert distinguishes as trauma: as van der Kolk puts it: “the organism tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible. We are then in a state of freeze or collapse”.
The Polyvagal Theory is a neuro-biological understanding of where in the nervous system these three levels function and the resulting physiological displays and organ functions happen:
- level 1 – distressing facial signals, change in tone of voice etc. Signals intended to enlist assistance. Neo Cortex functioning… thinking is possible.
- level 2 – bared teeth, facial signals of rage and terror. More Limbic brain functioning (more emotional reaction), mobilisation of muscles, heart and lungs to enable extreme activity – fight or flight
- level 3 – collapse, the body signals defeat and withdrawal. The older ‘reptilian’ brainstem part of the brain, that controls all our basic body functions, drastically reduces our metabolism and functioning of lower organs such as stomach, kidneys and intestines. Our heart rate plunges, we can’t breath, and our guts stop working or evacuate. “This is the point at which we disengage, collapse and freeze.” (ibid)
We can see from this that there are definite ideas forming ‘out there’, specifically in van der Kolk’s thinking, that come close to a concurence with Franz Ruppert’s.
One thing that I found fascinating from van der Kolk’s book was the fact, verified by neuro-images of the brain of someone re-living their trauma, that in a dissociated state the left brain – that part of the cortex that deals with speech, logic, ideas, concepts, reasoning and making cognitive sense of things – is totally shut down.
Trauma, it seems, is only registered as experience, which van der Kolk says is why people who have suffered traumatic events can often describe the event as a narrative, but become lost for words and incapable of describing their emotional experience. Another discussion here… in the future! is this in relation to Ruppert’s increasing focus on the word “I” in the intention sentence, but I can’t do that right now.
Ruppert’s “Early Traumas”
By writing this blogpost I have taken the opportunity to clarify my thinking, and get partially formed thoughts off my chest so to speak. But what is strongly evident in my reading so far (and I haven’t nearly finished van der Kolk’s book yet, so there is more to come) is that that which is so primary to Franz Ruppert’s work, the ‘trauma of love‘ (the symbiotic trauma of a child who cannot get a good life-enhancing connection with his or her mother due to the mother’s preoccupation with her own unaddressed trauma)*, very early (even pre-birth) existential trauma, and the trauma, often shared by mother and child, of the birth process, seem not to have a place in van der Kolk’s thinking. So far in my reading of van der Kolk’s book he, like most others, seems to skip to some time after birth in thinking about ‘developmental’ mishaps, and doesn’t seem to conceive of such mishaps as necessarily traumatic. In addition, by his tone in what I have read and heard at the lecture I attended, he assumes an adequate ‘attunement’ between mother and child as the norm, whereas, as those of us working with Franz’s theories know, this is often far from the case.
In addition there seems not to be a concept of the child being entangled in the traumatised emotions of the mother, whereas we often see the child is confused as to what of his or her feelings really belong to him or her and what really belongs to the mother’s emotional state, leading to a life-long entanglement with the mother and a critical lack of clarity as to identity.
[* At the time of writing this essay we had not got to the point of understanding the existence of the Trauma of Identity, the primary trauma of this early phase of life. For those interested I refer you to a later essay of mine on this topic, Trauma of Identity and the Unwanted Child.]
On another brief point, when I was at his lecture it was obvious that van der Kolk is quite taken with EMDR as a good way of working with trauma, with the strong proviso that it doesn’t work “with everyone”, admitting to the fact that it is not so clear why. He does mention “complex trauma” (continuing, repeated traumatisation over time) as perhaps a reason why.
From our perspective it would seem clear that, apart from the fact that EMDR may strengthen rather than dissolve survival strategies, the reason it wouldn’t help some people is because of these very early pre-verbal and pre-cognition traumas mentioned above, because all later traumas are always to an extent a re-stimulation of these early traumas, so our vulnerability to later traumas, and the variety of responses to trauma that van der Kolk proposes from Porges theory (above) in our view is a direct result of the earlier pre-verbal traumas.
So an important question that I have yet to get clear about with regard to van der Kolk’s work is his ideas of the process of healing. Much of what he talked about at the lecture I attended seemed to me to support survival strategies… but not all.
I admire van der Kolk’s energetic exploration of trauma from many perspectives, that of psychiatrist, researcher and therapist, the many formulated studies and papers he has written, and his range of different thinking and disciplines of exploration, but I wonder whether in some ways this ends up in more confusion than clarity. My admiration for Franz Ruppert has always been his single-minded lone exploration, his determination to find out for himself through his own personal experience, and his refusal to be tempted away. In that sense it may be that Franz misses some things ‘out there’, and yet the result is the extraordinary clarity of his thinking and his theory, and the beauty and effectiveness of the method he has developed.
With the Constellation of the Sentence of Intention Franz’s method is much clearer in terms of the function and tasks of the therapist and the trajectory of healing… and this comes directly, in my view, from a clear theory… and there we are back to the starting point, with a clear definition of trauma!
I will write more if these topics come up in my further reading!
Broughton, V. (2014). Becoming Your True Self: A Handbook for the Journey from Trauma to Healthy Autonomy. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.
Ruppert, F. (2011). Splits in the Soul: Integrating traumatic experiences. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.
Ruppert, F. (2013). Symbiosis and Autonomy: Symbiotic trauma and love beyond entanglements. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.
van der Kolk, B. (1999). Traumatic Stress: The effects of Overwhelming Experiences on Mind, Body and Society, USA: Guildford Press.
van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Allen Lane (Penguin)
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