The Chinese Finger Trap

Mindfulness based therapies have become the standard for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the 21st century. Still though these therapies for trauma are often misunderstood. Trauma therapy is not really about learning to forgive, it is about creating awareness of its effects (read: the trauma symptoms), and having the courage to be emotionally present with those effects.

The defining emotion of trauma is anxiety. Recovery from trauma is about the willingness to connect to anxiety, and to stay there, without flinching. Working with psychological trauma is realizing that trying to leave the anxiety, trying to change it, trying to kill the anxiety, trying to numb it out - all of these strategies fail in the long term-  and typically only make the symptoms worse.

An analogy often helps create clarity. One year for Christmas (I was probably eight years old) I got a bag of Chinese finger traps. My friends and I laughed as we fumbled around, frustrated, trying to get our  fingers out of the trap. Eventually we learned the trick to end the trap: you just relax. When you relax, your fingers drop closer together, and you feel the tension in the trap disappear. Then you just let the finger trap drop off your fingers.

Effectively working with trauma symptoms employs a similar strategy. The more you push and pull, the more you squirm, the more you resist and despise the anxiety - the more you hate, force it, and try to kill it - the more you try exit the tension - the harder the trap squeezes. Without training, most trauma patients simply get reactive to the appearance of symptoms, which makes them more anxious, which makes them bolt and creates panic, which makes the trap of PTSD squeeze even harder the next time.

PTSD can be interrupted by learning to relax into the anxiety. The most beneficial attitude to have towards anxiety is curiosity and friendship. If you can become curious about anxiety, if you can invite it in for tea (as one of my Zen teachers said), then you can understand and learn to work with it. If you can see anxiety as a teacher, one instructing you in the nature of your own experience, then perhaps you can even become friends with anxiety. Once this friendship is established, the patient is now calling the shots. This is counter intuitive, easy to misunderstand, and takes some training and practice. Once learned, however, it allows the patient to control their anxiety, instead of their anxiety controlling them.

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