Thursday, July 03, 2008

Notes from the Trauma Conference 2- Effective Action

Another concept stressed at the trauma conference was effective action.

Why do we have emotions in the first place? Why is it evolutionarily beneficial to feel?

Emotions are there to create action. An organism that can move about in the world has to have some way of evaluating various choices and what the impacts will be. It has to be able to move towards actions that will keep it and its species alive, and move away from those that are harmful. So the goal of emotion is to make the body move. The brain is the organ that moves the body. So the body sends signals to the brain, known as emotions, and the brain evaluates these signals on many levels. There is the emergency response of the amygdala: quick, but not too subtle. Just am I in danger? If so, can I run away? Fight? Or do I need to freeze?

The woman on a hike is dreaming of her new boyfriend when she sees a curvy dark object in the path ahead. She jumps back before she is even aware she has seen it. Her heart is beating fast. Her attention is focused on the object. All thoughts of her boyfriend are gone.

If the organism has time the higher brain can step in and make more subtle decisions. Is this situation relevant to me? How does this compare with other sensations I have felt? What is the most effective action in this situation? Should I suppress my habitual fear response and do something else?

Cautiously the woman approaches the object and gathers more data. It isn’t moving. It has bark. It’s a stick! She is able to move it out of the path and keep hiking, but it is several minutes before she feels relaxed again.

The emergency response is essential to the survival of the human race. Its goal is effective action to survive the threat. We spend stress hormones on effective action- that is what they are for. One part of the emergency response is to seek attachment- the human attachment needs go up in danger mode. This too makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, as the other person can help over come the danger.

The goal of emotions is to effect physical movement and regain equilibrium.
Through effective action and through connection we return to homeostasis.

But the traumatized child is blocked from any action. And the people to whom he looks for attachment help are the people who are hurting him. Fight or flight reactions with no effective action leaves the body stuck. Successful action returns the body to homeostasis. With no action possible, the person is left with a template that nothing you can do makes any difference.

One writer who has explored this concept extensively is Peter Levine, whose newest book is Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing
by Peter Levine, Maggie Kline
North Atlantic Books; 1 edition (December 26, 2006)

So how can we integrate these concepts into our treatment settings?

Let’s think carefully about how we can expand our children’s experience of effective action.

In every day life we can use all the principles of youth driven treatment: student councils, consulting youth on decision making, peer mediation, etc.
We can give the kids ways to help the greater community through volunteering and social action.
We can help them develop competence in many areas and act for themselves through making their own phone calls, arrangements, advocating with their DCF worker, writing letters, attending meetings about their life, etc.

And when something goes wrong, the Restorative Approach(tm) promotes effective action. Through restorative tasks and making amends, the child learns how to solve their own problems and make up for the harm they caused.

A child who assaults some one and then has to spend hours alone in a room has just had one more experience of no effective action being possible, one more experience of "there is nothing I can do". He feels more shame than ever. He is suck with all the danger action hormones with no where to go.

A child who assaults some one and then works it out with them, does a chore for them, works on a chart about what happened, and heals the relationship is left with a feeling of "there is something I can do". He still feels bad about what happened, but feels he is a person who can accomplish something, and make things better.

The principle of encouraging effective action will be a great guide for us if we keep it in the forefront of our treatment decisions.

1 comment:

Michael Jones said...

Thank you Patricia for such an interesting post!