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The book is structured as a conversation between Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry. Oprah mostly asks questions, while Dr. Perry brings the more scientific explanations behind trauma, but they both share their interactions with people affected by trauma.
It focuses on the fact that a person’s behavior is shaped by the traumatic events they experienced. If we understand this, then we can be more empathetic toward the people around us, shifting our perspective from “What’s wrong with this person?” to “What happened to this person?”
A few main points from the book are:
A key part in understanding how trauma affects a person is the way their brain experiences a new event. In a simplified explanation, everything we experience passes through more levels of the brain in a sequential way:
Take as example the story of a military veteran suffering from severe PTSD, taking minutes to recover from hearing the sound of a louder motorcycle that his brain associated with gunshot sounds.
Dr. Perry explains that the reason behind this behavior is the sequential processing of the brain: the sound of the motorcycle is first processed by the brainstem, which developed to associate these kind of events with something potentially deadly. This causes the other parts of the brain to temporarily “shut down”, and only reactivating the cortex after a few minutes, when he recovers.
The functioning of the brain depends on the state we are in. When you are calm, you are using the “smartest” part of the brain (the cortex), whereas if you feel threatened, the “lower parts” of the brain take over, shutting down the cortex.
And the situations we feel stressed in depend on our past experiences, how we were treated as children, essentially our trauma.
This means that a traumatized child might have a teacher that resembles her abusive father, so her performance might be impacted just because she feels fearful in this class (without knowing why).
Even though moderate stress can be beneficial (such as in exercise), being put through high levels of stress is the main cause of trauma for many people (e.g. having abusive or missing parents). There are 3 categories of people:
A counterintuitive idea is that a traumatized person will seek people similar to the ones that hurt them in the past. “It’s the same type of person continually showing up in their life. They might arrive in a different package—it might be a boss or a domineering friend.”
People look for predictable responses from the world. Predictable might mean punished, excluded, minimized. Even though their worldview is chaotic, they look for evidence that it is right, such as “I’m going to get kicked out of this class” or “I don’t belong here”.
For most of our species’ history, we have been living in small intergenerational groups. It is safe to assume that our ancestors experienced trauma-related problems: anxiety, depression, sleep disruptions. Their methods of healing were:
Taking inspirations from our ancestors, our children should grow surrounded by loving adults, each having a different set of qualities for the different needs of the child.
In school, children should be allowed to play and not be forbidden to touch each other, as touch encourages connection.
Teachers should understand that children rocking, chewing gum, daydreaming, or listening to music might just be trying to regulate themselves.
There is a direct relationship between a person’s degree of social isolation and their risk for physical and mental health problems. But when you do have connectedness, you have built-in buffers for whatever stress or distress you experience.
It’s important to understand that the old pathways in the brain are not simply replaced by new ones. They will always be there, but the goal should be to replace them with new ones.
Ideally, a child should experience just so much stress so that they become a resilient person. But a sensitive person has an opportunity to build strength and resilience through their healing journey.
”The journey can create post-traumatic wisdom.”
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