How play-acting can calm the brain from trauma.
I remember the moment I held my childhood story in my hand. As a young author of 21 years of age, my daughter, had taken my raw notes and authored a novel titled The Wilted Rose about my life story. I felt such freedom and relief to have my story packaged in a novel. From that moment, it was not my story, it was the story of Grace, the name of my character in the novel. No longer did I have to talk about my troubled past. I could just tell people to read the book.
I had spent decades mulling over my childhood trauma to psychologists, past husbands, family, and friends, like a broken record replaying the same sad song over and over again, wishing each time that I hadn’t dumped my mess onto them. That was not who I am wanted to be remembered for. I was changing, becoming a new person, yet I felt suck in my past. For years, I had read self-help books to the point that I didn’t want to read any more books about overcoming my past. I was over it, sick of feeling fearful, thinking that something was wrong with me. Feeling like I was continually banging up against a brick wall in front of me.
Since 2010, I have been including activities in my life that I enjoyed in my childhood, like dancing, singing, stretching. I also write story poetry and enjoy watching movies that I can get lost into a character. When I record a poem for my podcast, I act out the poem with emotion.
All those years, I didn’t realize how therapeutic these activities were to calm the trauma memories stored in my brain. No wonder I find these activities so enjoyable and fulfilling. Now I have learnt that I can use these fun activities in practical ways to calm my mind, when I am in a stressful situation that caused traumatic memories to rear their ugly head.
Recently, I came across this lecture by Psychiatrist Dr Bessel van der Kolk who is an author, researcher, educator, and president of the Trauma Research Foundation in Massachusetts. Since 1970 his research has been in post-traumatic stress. He authored the book titled The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in Healing Trauma.
Dr Bessel explains that we are meant to be open, to play, to move and to be in engaging relationships with each other. These life experiences bring on a feeling of pleasure, cohesion, and life purpose. He has found that engaging in creative activities such as Yoga, singing, poetry, dancing, or acting out character roles in a theatre group we gain a sense of pleasure in our bodies. These creative activities can create new brain pathways or mend pathways that were damaged from trauma.
Professor Bessel van der Kolk explains that when we talk, interact with people, figure things out, symbolize and create, we use the front part of our brain.
Our memory of trauma sits at the base of our brain which oversees our survival. The base of our brain does the housekeeping for our body and is from where we react to our environment. It is like a road map of our personal world, our individual history. We are born with basic functions (or housekeeping) such as sleeping, waking, breathing, eating, pooing, and weeing. These core functions get disturbed when the person experiences trauma. He says that trauma victims commonly have sleep, eating and basic function regulation.
Our brain automatically determines what we like and dislike. The memory of trauma is difficult to change. The frontal part of our brain can say “Don’t be silly, there is no need to be afraid of this or that.” But the back of the brain says the opposite ‘Even though I know I shouldn’t be scared or angry, I am.’
When someone does something that hurts us and we feel unsafe and we tell them to “Stop doing that to me”, our face and body language tighten up. If the person responds to our signals to stop and changes what they are saying, we feel safe again. If the person doesn’t respond to our signals and they continue to yell, hurt us, we no longer feel safe and we become defensive and angry and go into fight and flight mode. We either want to attach the person in defence or run away from the person to a safe place. My individual experiences in the past have been to freeze on the spot, stop breathing and scream internally when I feel unsafe and unable to escape the abuse. Afterward I would feel used, worthless, and pathetic, blaming myself for allowing myself to be abused. ‘Why didn’t I do something to save myself?”
The road map of a traumatized infant reads ‘People don’t like me, I am in danger, the world is a scary awful place, I’m nothing and nobody.” We can try not to behave that way, we can become successful in our career, but your road map remains the core perception of yourself.
How do you repair these frozen maps of danger, fear, and self-loathing?
Dr Bessel says that most therapies are about telling people to change the way they think, which engages the frontal part of the brain. If we talk reason to an infant or a toddler that is upset, do they change their behaviour? NO. The child does not reason with the parent when they are in an upset state of mind. Nor does telling adults to think differently while in an upset state of mind, work to make them change their thinking pattern.
When we are in an upset state of mind, our rear (survival) brain engages, and the frontal (reasoning) brain stops working. We need to calm down the rear (survival) brain so that the frontal reasoning brain can reengage, so that we can notice who we are and what is going on with ourselves.
Dr Bessel explains that in the middle of our brain, we have a ‘smoke detector’ which sets off an alarm when it detects a threat to safety. In response to a threat, we activate our body to move which gives us a deep sense of competency and ability to do something about the situation. We can protect ourselves. If we think we can do something about our situation, the fear can stir our body and mind to be affective at protecting ourselves. If we think we cannot move, if you cannot take action to protect ourselves when someone threatens us, we freeze. When we ‘freeze up’, then the brain takes a different pathway to a different part of the brain which creates a feeling of helplessness, depression, and despondency.
In trauma we can’t talk or think rationally, because our frontal brain stops functioning and the limbic system, which is used for survival takes over. “I will die if I don’t stop what is being said to me or what is being done to me.” My body reacts by making movements to protect myself.
How do we calm down our brain? How do we change our perception of the world?
Most of our brain is used to focus, talk to each other, to pay attention and to socialise because we are social creatures. Our relationship to others, how we fit in, how you fit in with me, whether we like each other, how we connect with each other.
In the military they teach the new soldiers to march, sing and to move in sync with each other through basic training, which result in having a sense of life purpose, friendships, and being part of a team. The soldiers train and learn new skills one day at a time. The trainers push the soldiers to their limit of capability each day repeatedly. 12 months later, they have transformed the new soldiers into confident, capable men and women that are good at what they do.
The same pattern of learning takes place when we form new friendships. The moment we feel in sync with each other, we feel a deep sense of joy. As the friendship grows closer, the friend’s bodies and voices start to move (sync) together. The bond of friendship, whether it develops into an intimate relationship or develops into good mates, the result is a sense of purpose in life and feeling part of a term.
Right side of the brain is the non-logical side, producing feelings and special intense emotions.
Left side of the brain is the logical side. It is where we figure things out, talk with others, make programs, sequences and recognize time.
During trauma, the left side gets pushed aside and the right side takes over. The top left-hand corner of the brain is where speech is produced. In a scan, this part disappears while experiencing trauma. It’s like this part of your brain goes offline. This is the brain’s automatic reaction when we get upset and panic.
Dr Bessel says that simply gaining the knowledge of why we react the way we do in stressful situations doesn’t stop us from reacting the same way in future stressful experiences. He says we must repair the damage that been made to the brain when we experienced the trauma in our childhood or as an adult.
How does practicing Yoga, acting out roles, singing and dancing help with trauma?
Dr Bessel has found evidence that the practice of Yoga stabilizes the back (survival) part of the brain where the memory of trauma is stored. Yoga and body awareness meditation ignites this self-awareness part of the brain.
Yoga and body awareness meditation ignites this self-awareness part of the brain. Singing aloud and dancing while paying attention to body movements. Allowing yourself to embody the role. Sing as if you are your favourite famous singer. Dance as if you are a famous dancer. Act out character roles in a theatre group.
Up through the middle of our brain is devoted to me – my feelings toward myself, the awareness of my body at any given time, whether sitting, walking, or moving.
This self-awareness part of my brain enables me to look deep inside of myself and allows me to feel what someone else is feeling. Like when I read a novel, watch a movie, or go to live theatre. The actor becomes the character they are playing and portrays the character’s emotions out to the audience. As part of the audience, I connect with the character and feel what the same feelings the actor is portraying through their acting. Through the experience of acting or losing ourselves in the characters, we can learn to pay attention to our internal world and to embody the sensations in our bodies through acting out characters that are not our own.
Acting activates the right side of the brain in the actor and their audience, the embodiment of the character being played through the tone of their voice and their body movements. Theatre acting helps you become someone who you were not before. Embody this new presence, this persona, opens you up to new opportunities and life experiences that you have not or may never experience in real life like being a king, a police officer, a criminal, a victim, a singer, or an astronaut etc. The right side of the brain is used in theatre acting and creative work like story writing.
Once a person has been traumatized, we engage less and less in playful activities, because the traumatized person is so anxious because we are so afraid of what people will do to us and we are afraid of our own reactions. We don’t want to talk about our trauma when we are feeling miserable. Only when we feel safe, and our survival brain is calm can we start to talk about the trauma that we experienced.
Dr Bessel’s yoga and the theatre acting method is being used in prisons, as well as within the community, to help traumatized people repair by having experiences different from the trauma role that they once lived in. Conducted by experienced therapists, theatre acting helps them find words for their own trauma experience through acting without falling over into reliving the trauma. They play the role in the play; they say their lines feeling the words in your body and they embody the character to the best of their ability. Dr Bessel says that it is freeing for a traumatized person to be able to tell their story and that they have a need for their story to be known, even if it is only through third party role play.
Since learning about this research, I want to engage more fully into these activities to reap the benefits for my body and mind. Why not listen to Dr Bessel’s talks yourself and decide if some of these activities might help you to keep your mind in a calm state?
Beverley Joy © 2022 Simply Create 2 Share All Rights Reserved.