A Traumatized Population Learning to Heal Itself
The enormous difficulties Central America faces in its economic and human development are not just material
and financial; they are also of the mind, body and spirit.
More and more people are coming to understand that,
and are taking skillful steps in that direction.
Patricia Mathes Cane
According to trauma expert Bessel A. Van der Kolk, “living through traumas forms an essential part of human life because history has been written with blood....” In modern times, in addition to the pain we go through in our own lives, we are constantly bombarded by media images and accounts of the traumas being suffered by many others all over the world.
In the midst of all this, we have to learn to live wisely, with equilibrium and humanity, both as individuals and collectively. As Van der Kolk notes, “some people have adapted to terrible events in their lives flexibly and creatively, while others have latched on to the trauma and this has led them to live a traumatized and traumatizing existence.” The challenge is to use our own wounds and collective struggles to heal ourselves and others; to transform ourselves and our communities.
Trauma is never abstract. When human beings or other animals are in danger, their two basic survival instincts are to flee or to fight. One of these two reactions takes control of the body and increases its state of alert, breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat, while the digestive, reproductive and immunological systems slow down.
The huge amount of energy dedicated to fleeing or fighting is very effective in helping endangered people escape or defend themselves. The problem is that if this danger is protracted and/or blocked, the body’s response can take over the whole person, embedding itself in the mind and spirit as well as the body.
Embedded trauma is never abstract. We see it in people’s faces, bodies and gestures; in their way of looking, moving, speaking and breathing.
Central America: Thousands upon thousands of people in Central America, in some cases entire communities, have embedded trauma. Natural disasters, ongoing poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, political violence, repression, torture, killings and prolonged wars have meant that a large part of Central America’s population is living a traumatized and traumatizing existence. In fact, the region’s societies as a whole can be considered traumatized.
A history of traumas
Information about the problem, however, is largely lacking, and even when such information is available, the poorest people most in need of help have no access to the needed medical or psychological assistance. In addition, there are virtually no self-help materials for those who have decided to heal themselves and help heal others in their community.
Posttraumatic stress disorderAlthough the traumatic effects of war, violence and natural disasters have been recorded in literature, art and medicine throughout history, the study of trauma and its effects on people’s mind and body is relatively new. According to Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, the research that led to the definition of trauma was largely based on studying the experiences of soldiers who fought in the Second World War and the Vietnam War, and more recently the experiences of women survivors of sexual abuse.
Only since 1980 has the disorder known as posttraumatic stress (PTSD) been recognized and defined in the official manual of syndromes. Before then, traumatic symptoms were variously designated as hysteria, war trauma, traumatic neurosis, survival syndrome, rape syndrome, abused child syndrome, abused woman syndrome and so on.
Posttraumatic stress disorder has now come to be considered as the generic result of a person’s exposure to a situation of extreme stress. According to the textbook definition, the person “experienced, witnessed or confronted an event or events that involved death or the threat of death, a serious injury or an attack or threat to the person’s physical integrity or that of other people, and in that situation the reaction was intense fear, powerlessness and/or horror.” PTSD is recognized as a person’s incapacity to respond to and deal with his or her own life because such traumatic experiences have overwhelmed the body, mind and spirit.
A range of physical and Each person experiences trauma in his or her own way, depending on personality, family history, emotional profile, age, sentimental relations, culture, support systems and coping skills. Generally speaking, however, people are totally affected by the traumatic experience; the underpinnings of their life fall apart. There are marked changes in their body, mind, emotions and behavior. Their vision of themselves, the world and other people changes. They usually experience a great variety of strong feelings that include sadness, pain, depression, blame, rage, irritability and fear. They feel powerless and hopeless. They see the world and other people as a threat in which nothing and no one can be trusted.
People suffering PTSD can become over-excited and relive the traumatic experience in recurrent nightmares, images or hallucinations, or experience intense anguish if exposed to elements that symbolize or are in some way related to it. In addition to the horror of the current trauma, many victims retrospectively recall scenes of traumas from their childhood such as incest, physical violence, accidents or the death of loved ones.
With over-excitation, the person becomes hyper-vigilant, easily startled and irritable, explodes violently with anger and has difficulty both concentrating and sleeping. The person can have numerous bodily reactions, including dizziness, blurred vision, trance, rapid or irregular heartbeat, trembling, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, breathlessness, irregular or rapid breathing, an urgent need to urinate, sweating or fever. After a period of being overwhelmed by the symptoms above, the person may avoid activities, places or people that bring back memories of the trauma or repress feelings as a self-protective measure. The person may feel distanced or estranged from others, less capable of loving or being intimate. He or she may also lose faith in the future and live without any sense of purpose, with a sensation of proximity to death.
Ignore the trauma, try traditional Our lives reflect the history of our family and our society. On occasion, trauma is reproduced generation after generation. According to Dr. Sandra Bloom, who has studied how the effect of trauma is passed successively from one generation to the next, “ignoring the traumatic event and its memory does not make it disappear. All we achieve by ignoring it is to create a psychic tumor that takes root in the person and can survive in succeeding generations.”
therapy or employ a holistic approach?
In the majority of cases, normal treatment methods such as verbal therapy and drugs only deal with a traumatized person’s symptoms and are generally not enough to heal the traumatic experience. There is a need for an approach that recognizes the fundamental unity of body, mind and spirit and can be oriented to the energy system and the equilibrium of the person as a whole.
This holistic approach is the common denominator of various converging theories about and approaches to the healing process. Trauma expert Steven Levine maintains that the symptoms of posttraumatic stress are caused when the energy produced at the moment of crisis is not fully discharged and remains trapped in the person’s mind, body or spirit. Healing thus occurs by discharging that energy and strengthening the natural flow of energy in the body, mind and spirit to restore balance and well-being. Aminah Raheem, transpersonal psychologist and founder of the Acupressure Process, agrees.
In Asian cultures, a holistic approach involving the healing capacity of the mind and the power of consciousness has been recognized for many centuries. Such a faith-healing model sees health as a dynamic process involving interdependent physical, psychological and social dimensions. Illness and trauma represent an imbalance and a rupture in the equilibrium of this complete system. In the past 20 years, some Western doctors, biologists and psychologists have also begun to recognize this fundamental relationship between emotional states and mental and physical well-being.
Judith Lewis Herman identifies the fundamental experiences of psychological trauma as incapacitation and disconnection. She explains that recovery is based “on empowering those who survived and creating new connections.” Recovery is developed within the context of relations. Herman includes three basic stages in her definition of recovery: establishing security, reconstructing the history of the trauma and restoring the connection between the survivors and the community.
Over years of work in this field, I have confirmed that many body-mind-spirit practices have a beneficial impact in promoting this discharge of blocked energy and return to equilibrium and personal plenitude. They help unblock, awaken, balance and nourish the energy system of the individual and the community.
Energy: The life sourceEnergy is the underlying and unifying concept in the process of awakening, healing and transforming oneself, of recovering from the trauma. More than half of the world’s population—those who live in the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia and all the world’s indigenous peoples—recognize energy as the fundamental force of the life of all being, life’s substance.
This life force is a fundamental assumption of the shaman tradition in Central American cultures. For Mesoamericans, all natural phenomena had an essence, a vital energy. Working with energy—unleashing it, nourishing it, equilibrating it—is the basis for several healing systems in the different traditions of many peoples.
My work over many years with Capacitar Center teams in many countries of the world, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize, has allowed me to get close to traumatized communities. This has confirmed for me the importance of popular education workshops that show people the practices and exercises that allow them to equilibrate their damaged energy and nourish themselves with new energy. The results are both surprising and encouraging.
One healing method: BreathingBreathing exercises, for example, are very important and very simple. Breath is the source of life. During inhalation, fresh energy enters our bodies, our energy centers, through all our pores, nourishing cells, tissue and organs. With exhalation, we free ourselves of accumulated stress, stagnated energy and toxins.
Breathing exercises form the underpinning of many ancient practices that promote a deepening of consciousness: meditation, full awareness, yoga and chi kung. In the Middle East, the word breath (ruaj in Hebrew and ruj in Aramaic) means spirit, wind, air. In all people, deep, flowing breath is a sign of health, balance and plenitude of spirit, while short and superficial breathing indicates stress. Only in recent decades has breathing been studied in the Western world, and breathing exercises have been developed to promote the healing of the body-mind-spirit.
Breathing exercises were very useful for Hondurans who suffered the trauma of Hurricane Mitch at the end of 1998. This was especially true for men who were in prison at the time, since they were already traumatized and were very affected by the tragedy. They not only suffered the passage of the hurricane and the anguish of not knowing what was happening to their families, but also had to survive without water, food or any assistance for many days after the disaster. The prisoners finally rioted and many died in the ensuing violence. Alba de Mejía, founder of the Padilla Visitation Center, a Honduran organization that promotes women’s rights, was one of the first people to enter the chaos of the prison to take food to the prisoners and negotiate their disarmament. Alba taught those men breathing exercises so they could recover their control and begin to shake off the trauma experienced. Amid poverty and desperation, they had only their own bodies to overcome a situation that had pushed them to the limit. Through the breathing, they began to help themselves, to discharge their rage, terror and so many other repressed emotions. They began to regain control and focus their energy constructively.
Self-protection by setting boundariesLearning to protect oneself by setting boundaries with respect to other people is an important skill we must all learn, especially those of us suffering posttraumatic stress. All day, every day, we are in a constant energetic interaction with our environment and with those around us. Certain people and situations drain our energy while others energize and animate us.
Most of our daily interaction occurs at an unconscious level. When we become aware of our own energy system, we learn to protect ourselves to avoid being drained and to set and maintain healthy boundaries with other people. Practical exercises that teach protection and limits are a fundamental element of our workshops. I was delighted to discover in one workshop that the Mayas of the Guatemalan Nahualá community still maintain a traditional practice of protection that they have been using for generations. Before starting the day, they surround themselves and their children in a healing light and sacred energy by making ritual movements. They quickly grasped the exercise we were proposing to them.
Thought field therapyThought field therapy is another highly effective tool in overcoming posttraumatic stress and addictive behavior. Thought fields are the complexes of forces that affect human behavior. According to clinical psychologist Roger Callahan, who developed this body-spirit-mind tool, our problems and negative emotions are not fundamentally located in the brain or nervous system, but in the thought field. With traumatic stress, the person frequently lives as a prisoner of the past and of memories of the trauma. Callahan’s approach is to use acupressure points and eye movements to “collapse” or change what he calls these “perturbing” thoughts so that thinking them does not continue to cause such distress.
This simple therapy has been used internationally on thousands of traumatized people to provide immediate help following a disaster, an accident, a terrible event. One can use it on oneself or on another person. It does not change reality, but does change the way the person sees or reacts to that reality. The positive result is that the person can remember traumatic moments without all of their emotional baggage.
Nicaraguan psychologist Mary Bolt taught this therapy technique to the survivors of some communities from Posoltega, Nicaragua, where thousands were killed, wounded, disappeared or left homeless following a massive mudslide on the Casita Volcano due to Hurricane Mitch’s intense rains. Many people learned to use this technique to empower themselves, as they could apply it to themselves at any time. Now, each time torrential rains and lightning reawaken the terrible memories of Mitch, women, men and children press their acupressure points with their own fingers and thus manage to control their fear and anxiety constructively.
Breathing, setting boundaries and thought field therapy are only three of a set of body-mind-spirit exercises we use to help free up people’s traumatic stress and balance their energy. The others are visualization, grasping each finger with the other hand to control anger, Tai Chi meditation, the ancient Chinese and Korean exercises called Pal Dan Gum, the Yoga Salute to the Sun, and a complicated and powerful culminating exercise called River of Life, in which people retrace experiences of crisis, healing and transformation over the course of their life.
A second set of related practices deals with nourishing and harmonizing one’s central energy. The components of this set are meditation and full awareness, intuition and channels of wisdom, working with the energy centers known as “chakras,” Aminah Raheem’s Acupressure Process, massage, polarity movements and connecting with the elements of nature.
Community is keyBoth the individual and the community are deeply affected by the trauma that natural disasters and political or family violence generate. For this and other reasons, the community is key to a profound healing of the trauma.
As Judith Lewis Herman says, “Traumatic events destroy the ties that sustain the individual’s relationship to the community. Survivors learn that their sense of humanity, of self and of their own value depends on feeling connected to others. Group solidarity provides the strongest protection against terror and desolation and is the strongest antidote for a traumatic experience.”
Because oppressive social systems frequently create the causes underlying new violence and new traumatic events, it is fundamental to work with the collective and the individual in an ongoing and complementary manner.
No contradiction between self and communityIn Central America, I have listened to many people, especially women, who very early were taught the scant importance of the individual. They were trained to believe that true happiness lies in sacrificing themselves for their children, husbands and families. As a result, huge numbers of women must fight constant feelings of guilt and selfishness when they look after their own interests. With the current evolution of human values, there is a real need to work on the tension and energy generated by this apparent contradiction—community vs. individual—so people can learn to care for and celebrate their own life as well as that of others.
When I think of a strong community with strong people, I recall the Salvadoran women of El Paraíso. These women awakened during the seventies and eighties, the years of repression. They acknowledged their dignity and their power as people, and organized to demand justice and achieve social change. Over 25 people from the base community of El Paraíso were kidnapped, tortured, forcibly disappeared, killed or threatened with death. The women organized to support and help all those who were suffering. Now that those horrible years are behind them, they are still organized, now to take care of both the community’s needs and their own. Violence is still present in their personal lives and in their community, in the form of street vandals, youth gangs, sexual abuse and domestic violence, but these women have learned that caring for others and caring for themselves are not mutually exclusive.
The curative power of the labyrinthThe archetypal spiral labyrinth is an ancestral symbol of healing and transformation for the body, mind and spirit. Going through it can be a powerful curing experience for the person and for the community. Its energy field and the turns that trace its internal path have been used successfully to unblock, harmonize and heal many groups of people in the United States and Latin America, where so many have been individually and collectively wounded by so many forms of violence. El Salvador offers a powerful example. María Isabel Figueroa was secretary to archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero in the period leading up to his assassination in 1980. For years, María Isabel lived in a constant state of alert, under threat because of her work for justice in the Christian base communities. As she walked through the labyrinth we made on the floor of a community center in San Salvador during one of our workshops, she began to cry. Four times María Isabel retraced her path, crying, until the tears stopped flowing. Finally, exhausted, she lay down in the center of the circular labyrinth and slept deeply there the entire night. When she awoke the next day, she described a sensation of great peace, the first she had felt in many years. Somehow, walking over that labyrinth pattern helped María Isabel integrate, heal and transform the painful memories of so many years of terror. Today, those memories remain with her, but they no longer torment her. And she is now working with renewed energy to transform the lives of her people.
The curative use of the labyrinth, rediscovered only in the past decade, is currently linked to spiritual or festive practices in different cultures around the world. Lauren Artress, an Episcopal Church priest, has founded the World Labyrinth Project, which builds them in high schools, parks, hospitals, retreat centers and churches to help heal people and reconnect them with their past.
Communal labyrinths in GuatemalaOne of the most interesting experiences I have had with the labyrinth occurred with a group of 25 Mayan men, women and children of the Kakchiquel community, which has lived in a climate of violence for 30 consecutive years. As sacred circles are part of Mayan cosmology, the drawing of the labyrinth was familiar to them. They walked it in a kind of sacred procession, with many of them, both male and female, crying. As they went, they connected with their memories: the terror, the massacres, the violence. When the whole community dropped to its knees to pray in the center of the labyrinth, I realized that not even so many years of brutality and suffering had been capable of destroying their dignity.
That particular group decided to encourage many other communities to travel over the labyrinth to heal themselves. Several of the men were tailors and they measured the pattern of the cloth labyrinth on which they had walked in the workshop and calculated the amount of material they would need to make similar ones in their communities. They also calculated the amount of dye they would need to color the paths and selected the Mayan symbols they would use to decorate their own communal labyrinths.
Each culture has its own ceremonies and rituals and each community its own life and energy, generated in part by the health and life of its members. As these Mayans demonstrated, the labyrinth can be a powerful practice to heal, strengthen and unite the individual in community. Other valuable collective practices include rituals such as the Healing Circle and the Four Directions, as well as movement, dance, music and song.
No contradiction between There are many profound and inspiring examples of the healing and transformation generated by body-mind-spirit exercises. Gladys Lanza, of Honduras, is one of these examples. Actively committed to the struggle to promote workers’ rights, Gladys was considered one of the most outstanding female union leaders in Central America during the eighties. She was the national president of both the Electric Union and the Federation of Grassroots Organizations, thus representing tens of thousands of people. In her work, she had to deal with the military and with powerful economic and political figures, valiantly advocating human rights and demanding justice. I met her in 1988 in Tegucigalpa, on my first solidarity trip to Honduras. Her features were hardened by years of political struggle. Under constant threat of death during that period, she slept in a different place each night, always on the run. Her house had been machine-gunned and her union dismantled.
social activism and spirituality
I saw Gladys again in 1994, when she participated in the first Capacitar workshop in Honduras. She was unemployed and doing volunteer work in the Padilla Visitation Center. She had recently learned to meditate and had realized that in all the years of political struggle, something had been missing: a spirituality to inspire and nourish her activism. In that workshop, Gladys discovered that she had a tremendous healing power in her hands. From then on, she began to combine her two potentials: fighting for the rights of the same women she was healing by giving different kinds of massage.
Gladys’ face now radiates peace and she uses and teaches the body-mind-spirit practices with many people: prisoners, abused women, indigenous people, those who were tortured. She says she has never felt happier or more alive. One day she told me: “The powers that be don’t realize how subversive I’ve become. Now I’m committed to a revolution to transform hearts. I can see the same possibility of compassion and grace in those I called enemies that I have learned to recognize in myself. No violence can destroy this ability.”
Like many Hondurans and other Central Americans, Gladys lived through many traumatizing experiences: poverty, death threats, political violence, torture, psychological abuse and natural disasters. Because she lives in Honduras, she continues to be surrounded by traumatizing situations. Nonetheless, Gladys is different spiritually and energetically. Her heart is awake and renewed. She is able to control the traumatic stress with great wisdom and sympathy, and from this internal source of peace, energy and strength is now able to heal and transform her community and her society.
“Capacitar” began in NicaraguaHow did all this begin? In 1988, still in the midst of the war, a Nicaraguan popular education center called Cantera invited me to work on a folklore festival. For two weeks, I painted murals with base leaders as a way to celebrate their culture and their history. Just to endure the grueling schedule, I personally practiced Tai Chi and acupressure, exercises that the Nicaraguans watched me do with curiosity. Finally, one day they said to me, “We like the painting, but when are you going to teach us to do what you’re doing?”
The upshot of their request was that I decided to do a series of healing workshops in some poor Managua neighborhoods. I never imagined that that comment would so change my life and that of so many other people. In Nicaragua, I learned the meaning and the spirit of the Spanish verb capacitar, which means so much more than its strict definition of preparing, training. Its more profound meaning is to give strength, to encourage, empower, enable. I would later use the word as the name of the organization I founded and currently direct.
The word continued to spread, and the capacitación workshops on healing exercises multiplied. I began to receive invitations from other Central American countries. I have now offered over 600 workshops to over 12,000 people in Central America, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brazil, South Africa, China and 11 US states. A great diversity of people have participated in these workshops: indigenous people, feminists, union activists, couples, religious workers, children, young people, people who are struggling against addiction, other psychologists, nurses, social workers, peasant farmers, doctors and teachers. We have held them in very different places, including training centers, spirituality centers, parishes and high schools.
With all these people in all these countries we have practiced breathing exercises, acupressure, massages, polarity exercises, visualization exercises, body movements, meditation, Tai Chi, rituals... Some practices are more appropriate for certain cultures than for others, but all have produced positive results, personal and community transformations.
Now I have summarized the experience of all these years in a book that offers individual readers, community leaders and other interested people a variety of practices, some very old and others new, that can help unblock the traumatic stress frozen in the body-mind-spirit of so many people and return balance, harmony and a new vital energy to them.
“All we have is hope”A Guatemalan union leader once told me in a workshop: “In our poverty, hope is often all we have. So if we lose hope, we have nothing.” We create with hope, and can use it to manifest with certainty what we want. The application of this way of understanding hope in the context of healing trauma and of transformation places the individual struggle in a broader perspective. The cleansing of trauma cannot take place in isolation, in a social-political vacuum.
Perhaps the number of traumas that today affect so many millions of human beings in every country and at all social levels is forcing the human family to acquire a new level of consciousness. From this consciousness we can begin to understand what we must do to totally change the entire system that humanity has constructed over thousands of years.