Heal thyself? Do we have the capacity?

Those who follow the Christian faith wholeheartedly believe that God is the “great physician” and eschew the belief that humans heal themselves. As a result of this belief, Christians sometimes react rather strongly to humanistic language of “self-healing.”

But before you do, consider this: if we assume that God is indeed the creator of all things, then we must also assume he puts into place the many corrective features found in the body. The liver and kidneys remove toxins from the body; blood clots when we cut ourselves; we sneeze to get rid of irritants; we sleep to rejuvenate what has become run down. In better words, Richard Mollica says,

This force, called self-healing, is one of the human organism’s natural responses to psychological illness and injury. The elaborate process of self-repair is clearly seen in the way physical wounds heal. At the moment of injury, blood vessels contract to staunch bleeding. Chemical messengers pour into the tissue, signalling a multitude of specialized cells to begin the inflammation process. White blood cells migrate into the wound within twenty-four hours, killing bacteria and triggering a process of cleansing and tissue repair. A matrix of connective tissue collagen is then laid down, knitting together the ragged edges of the wound in a repair that may not be perfect but is highly functional. (p. 94)

He goes on to say,

The healing of the emotional wounds inflicted on mind and spirit by severe violence is also a natural process.

I find his writing on this subject rather helpful. Sometimes we look passively to God to resolve our traumas, as if it were entirely up to Him. Other times we either resist what we can do or attempt what is not healthy for us. Dr. Mollica (an MD) provides many examples in his book of how the body naturally tries to heal/respond to trauma (e.g., DHEA counteracts toxicity of too much cortisol), where the system goes wrong, and what we can do about it from a therapeutic standpoint.

Dr. Mollica is right in that our bodies are designed to respond well to traumatic experiences. However, I’m pretty sure he also agrees that we are not designed to do this unassisted. The community must participate in the process. We are social beings and thus our healing must be socially situated.

Two Toxins: Emotional Memory and Poor Storytelling

Part of the problem, says Dr. Mollica, is the emotional memory system. When we experience a trauma, our cortex forms declarative memories of the event. These are where we store the “facts” (where we were, what we felt, and how these events connect to previous experiences). But there is another memory system, one he calls “emotional memory” (p. 96). Declarative memory involves the cortex and hippocampus while emotional memory involves the amygdala.

The amygdala is the fear-response command center of the brain, and it does not wait around for the conscious mind, located in the cortex, to decide if a threat is real or not. The amygdala can activate an emergency response throughout the body within milliseconds by calling the stress-response system into play.  (p. 96)

Unfortunately, traumatic events can create emotional memories in the amygdala that keep on replaying and are difficult to extinguish over time. (p. 97)

Another toxin is the re-telling of the trauma story in a way that retraumatizes the victim. Dr. Mollica, in chapter 5, describes the problem of poor storytelling. Poor storytelling evokes only the trauma, the shame, the degradation experienced. Storytelling should cause us to form images in the teller and listener’s minds. These images need to symbolize the whole person/story and not only the most damaging details. The problem is we tend to tell stories that fixate on the intense emotions and thus elicit toxic emotions and maintain the experience that the trauma is still ongoing.

Many traumatized persons are plagued by the two poles of humiliation–sadness and despair on one side, and anger and revenge on the other. (p. 122)

Assisted Self-healing?

Mollica says, “A proper clinical approach to emotional memory avoids triggering the emotions stored in the amygdala and enables the cortex to assert conscious control over the recollection of traumatic events. (p. 97)

How do you do this? With the help of a storytelling coach, a person tells their story in a factual, direct, but not grotesque way that would cause the listener to turn away. Why does this matter? Because part of the healing process is to be heard, seen, and empathized with. Fixating on the most grotesque details only enhances the emotional memory system and pushes others away. Good storytelling still tells the truth but does so in a way that reconnects people with the world, enables them to feel sadness but in community with others, and helps them see that their lives are not solely defined by the traumatic events. Further, good storytelling points to larger values that are still held and not lost due to the evil done by others. Surely trauma does shape and change us. Recovery and healing to the point of living as if the event did not happen would be to live in a world of denial and self-deception. But good storytelling reminds us that we are not ONLY defined by and/or limited to being victims. And good storytelling reminds us of God’s sustaining power that is greater than those who can only destroy bodies.

Dr. Mollica summarizes this chapter this way,

Strong emotions comprise the traumatic memories that are imprinted in the survivor’s brain. One of the mind’s key tasks after trauma is to take these strong emotions and gradually reduce them over time through good storytelling. A poor storyteller tells a toxic trauma story, unhealthy to mind and body with its focus on facts and high expressed emotions. In our society situations that demonstrate this type of storytelling are common, including superficial, sensational media reporting of tragedies and debriefing therapy by misguided mental health workers. In contrast a good storyteller is able to express tragic emotions with the artfulness of a musician playing an instrument, engaging the listener’s interest and involvement. (p. 133)

I commend to you the book. He discusses both good and bad dreams, the role of “social instruments” of healing and a call to health. Very helpful book if you are interested in international trauma recovery.


Filed under Abuse, counseling science, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology, ptsd, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Heal thyself? Do we have the capacity?

  1. Amy

    I like the concept of this and think it sounds great. But I think we also need to keep in mind that our bodies are broken. Not all blood clots, not all kidneys remove toxins…not all bodies heal. Overall, though, I think this might be an interesting rest, especially because I am increasingly interested in brain physiology, especially among youth.

  2. Jess

    Hmmm… interesting. The only thing I wonder about is whether traumatized individuals truly know how to tell their stories in healthy ways without guidance. Or is that part of what you are saying, that there is the need for guidance?

    Something about the way Mollica seemed to put the onus on the traumatized individual to tell the story correctly struck me as slightly off, but maybe I have misread what he is saying or perhaps it would read differently to me in its original context. In any event, I will ponder this!

  3. Scott Knapp

    Humans universally mistake the “glorious ruins” (as Crabb often puts it) of our fallen image as evidence of self-sufficient god-hood. I guess capacities for self-healing should rightfully fall amongst the things Paul said should point people to God, since they are “evident within them” (Romans 1:18). Isn’t it ironic that, while non-believers fail to give God glory by acknowledging the source of self-healing capacities, Christians essentially do the same by denying their existence.

  4. David Murray

    I’m so thankful for Christian psychologists like you who have the knowledge, wisdom and courage to write posts like these.

  5. If I depend on a Psychiatrist, or drug to fix my emotional problems, I am depending on a false hope. Depression caused by resentment and unforgiving heart only gets worse with time. I must change the way I think in order to experience true recovery. Stinking thinking and a negative outlook always bring me down. Attitude is everything.

  6. Pingback: Wyn Magazine | Resources and hope for mental and emotional healing

  7. Glory Johnson

    I am grateful for this post. It inspires me to get better treatment for myself. I lived in another country as a child. I was the daughter of a Missionary. I was sheltered and raised with good values. But years later, back in the US, I was traumatized by date-rape by three different men right after the other. I was so unprepared. I ended up getting preganant by the third guy. I didn’t seek much help for any of this. I moved in with this third guy. But he just used me for sex and didn’t pay much attention to me. Eventually, I became a rage -aholic. I was diagnosed with depression with phsycotic features and was put on medication. God is with me all the time.

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