This week I watched the documentary, The Wisdom of Trauma created by Dr Gabor Maté, an expert in stress, addiction and childhood development, particularly looking at the role trauma plays in our lives. Although it may sound like it could be a bit dry and heavy, it's not and I promise you'll be drawn in to the film. I've been aware of Maté's work for a while and he's renowned in his field but I was completely floored by this documentary. The Wisdom of Trauma specifically looks at how the experience of trauma, regardless of how 'big' or 'small' that trauma is deemed by society, manifests in our lives and impacts our behaviour and relationships. Maté stresses that trauma is so incredibly important to work with as it's at the root of so much physical and and nearly all emotional illness. In this sense, trauma could be overt such as being abused by a parent, or more indirect like being showered with gifts by your parents and given everything you asked for to make up for the fact that they were absent and neglecting to fulfil your emotional needs. As a child both of these examples of trauma can materialise within the body and nervous system and if not acknowledged or processed then play out in adult behaviour.
The documentary looks at the manifestation of trauma through different life experiences. There's an incredibly powerful circle exercise that is conducted with prisoners, highlighting the proliferation of severe traumatic experiences and generational trauma in those who go on to carry out crimes. We also see the impact of trauma on addiction as Maté states that addiction is not a choice, yet is viewed as such by society resulting in a feeling of punishment over that person. We see some addiction as worse than others, like substance abuse in comparison to an addiction to social media, junk food or dieting, but at the root of every addiction is the need to escape an individual's suffering, whether they're consciously aware of that or not.
He then goes on to discuss the systemic faults within medical institutions and although based in the US, many of the root problems are mirrored here in the UK: short consultation times meaning a leaning to using medication as a first line response, overuse of steroids in treating physical illnesses, and an overall tendency for nearly all treatment to avoid looking at the root cause of a problem. Over the last year or so this is something I've become increasingly passionate about educating myself on and it's astounding when you suddenly realise that so much of the medical treatment subscribed by health care systems is treating the symptom not the cause. As Maté says, chronic disease is the bodies sign of letting us know that something is being suppressed and as a part of any healing process we need to be asking what an illness or symptom shows that person about their life. Diseases are normal responses to abnormal circumstances and what is considered normal today is most definitely not normal in the way we are living. We have become so disconnected, disillusioned and disempowered by the intelligence of our bodies, even more so since Covid, and this disconnection from our physical bodies is also a disconnection from the earth and vis versa. So many of people inflict pain and hate upon their bodies which is part of the reason we see this then inflicted on the planet and world around us.
A lot of this boils down to the mind-body connection and in the film we see Maté carry out his own style of trauma informed therapy, which he calls Compassionate Enquiry. From what I understand this builds upon existing trauma informed therapy techniques but I think the big takeaway was the fundamental need to be compassionate to ourselves and others. We need to be taught how to regulate our emotions and feel all our feelings in a safe environment that allows them to be fully processed by the body. Of course this kind of change is never quick and from a developmental perspective requires change in educational and medical structures that have existed for a long time as they are now, but we can engage with a form of compassionate enquiry with ourselves and that could be through a number of practices, whether that's talking therapy, meditation, breathwork or journaling, and I actually I think it's nearly always a combination of treatments, fundamentally including something body based. I saw a post this week by Jake White which summarises the importance of releasing the physical expressions of trauma: 'Trauma is not healed through [only] telling the story of what happened. It is healed through safely releasing the shaking, trembling, tears, emotion, fear, raw aggression, postures and images that unwind the bound energy of self-protective responses. Leading to a reclaiming of our relationship to our own body and a new found capacity to regulate our fears, worries, and insecurities.'
Originally published in my newsletter 2021