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Post-Polio Health (ISSN 1066-5331)

Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 2002

Improving Quality of Life: Healing Polio Memories (pg 3)

Effects of Trauma

Distressing events or experiences, whether subtle (e.g., a child's interpretation of a parent's facial expression) or blatant (e.g., terrorism that kills thousands), can have traumatic effects when they threaten basic needs to be safe, to trust, to feel some control over one's life, to be valued, and to feel close to others (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996).

People react differently to threatening events or experiences. For some individuals, their polio experiences may feel as traumatic as living through a war or natural disaster. The aftereffects can result in clinical conditions. On a continuum, the effects can range from mild anxiety and/or depressive symptoms to panic attacks, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, chronic and/or severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation. When reactions are severe they can result in feelings of helplessness or being stuck, and an inability to function in certain areas of life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a medical condition that can arise immediately after a trauma or perceived threat, or be triggered many years later. PTSD frequently takes the form of intrusive thoughts or memories (e.g., nightmares, recurrent dreams, flashbacks), hypervigilance, isolation and withdrawal, and numbing of feelings (DSM-IV, 1994).

A common example of dissociation is how children block out distressing events from their conscious minds in order to cope. For survivors, dissociation often takes the form of blocking physical pain to avoid overwhelming feelings such as helplessness and hopelessness.

Stephen Levine recognizes that "... Accidents, falls, illnesses and surgeries that the body unconsciously perceives as threatening are often not consciously regarded as outside the range of usual experience. However, they are often traumatizing (Levine, 1997)."

In working with a therapy client who suffered from panic attacks, Levine discovered that the cause was a disturbing childhood memory. The experience resurfaced in the form of intense physical and emotional reactions to being in a crowded room while taking a graduate exam.

"When she was three, she was strapped to an operating table for a tonsillectomy . Unable to move, feeling suffocated (common reactions to ether), she had frightening hallucinations. This early experience had a deep impact on her . (Levine, 1997)."

Over time, in her therapy sessions, Levine helped this woman to remember and discover the reason for her panic attacks. Gradually, she noticed her anxiety decrease and she was able to learn constructive ways to manage what remained of it.

Each individual will respond uniquely to a traumatic experience based on factors such as personality, self-esteem, level of emotional support and past experiences of trauma. For this reason, responses to threatening experiences or the perception of a loss of safety can differ, even to the same event. While learning from others' experiences is useful, judging and comparing oneself with others can undermine self-esteem and relationships.

Individuals need to approach themselves compassionately in order to resolve traumatic memories effectively. The very fact that individuals have survived having had polio reflects the depth of their inner strength.

Making Sense of Trauma

Earlier interpretations of events, especially those formulated during childhood, can result in traumatic perceptions. When the facts are explored, some individuals have discovered that their perception of an experience was different from the original intent, as in the following example.

A six-year-old boy who was hospitalized for one year due to polio perceived that his mother had abandoned him and carried this sense of abandonment with him into his adult life. In therapy as an adult, he learned that at the time of his polio his father was serving in the military overseas. His young mother lived six hours from the hospital without a vehicle and was parenting two small children with no family support.

He eventually realized that his mother had, in fact, done the best she could during that difficult time. Through counseling, he was able, over time, to express and process his feelings of grief, hurt and abandonment. This allowed him to connect with the truth of the original situation and to begin to build trust in intimate relationships.

While previous examples have revealed actual mistreatment and incompetence that have caused great distress to survivors, the above situation points out how even a perceived threat or loss can have a traumatic impact.

"Children can be traumatized by events that might not be overwhelming to an adult because children's minds, especially in the very young, lack the capability to process the experiences. Many of our traumas remain hidden from us until our minds or bodies give us hints that something is wrong. Scientists have found that we not only store traumatic memories in our minds, but in our bodies as well. As adults, people may have totally forgotten the trauma they experienced as children, and start therapy because they are having nightmares or flashbacks of events they do not recall, or because they are feeling depressed (Finney, 1995)."

From these examples, we can see that even well-intentioned actions can result in harmful long-term consequences. The goal of exploring past memories is to gain insights that lead to concrete solutions for resolving complex difficulties in life.

Recognizing the Need to Seek Professional Assistance

Psychologist Gary Schoener, an international expert on professional boundaries, recommends the use of behavioral health professionals just as we consult specialists in other fields. Schoener suggests seeking professional assistance from a competent, ethical therapist when:

Consulting professionals is especially important when a person recognizes any of the following signals:

Persistent avoidance of thoughts, feelings or topics that remind you of a distressing time in your life.

Always obtain regular medical evaluations to rule out the possibility that other medical conditions are causing your symptoms.

Continued ...