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The Power of Trauma - Book excerpt

Recovering from PTSD can be likened to how a tree heals after a storm. This analogy became very vivid to me as I looked back over where I had been. I felt that my roots were not just damaged by my storm—they were ripped right out of the ground. I later found out that my roots had also been wounded by previous traumas. I needed professional help to right myself, to get myself back up. So let me tell you how I see this, from the perspective of the tree. After a damaging storm, a tree surgeon arrives to assess the damage. Work needs to be done to rescue the fallen, broken tree.

Replanting it in the same environment, as is, would not be wise, since the next storm will bring it down again. The foundation needs to be worked on to prevent another upheaval. He clears the soil of anything that could impede growth. He digs deeper to create more space for growth. He adds fresh soil with the appropriate nutrients. He replants the tree, but not before the rotten or broken parts of the roots have been carefully pruned. It will take time for the roots to reestablish themselves, and during that period, extreme care is needed.

Once the root system begins to heal and starts to take and grow, there is a powerful chance for new life to not just survive, but to thrive, to expand past the limited space that was there before, unrestricted by energy-zapping obstacles. I recently bought the book I Can’t Get Over It by Aphrodite Matsakis,PhD, and I was very excited when I read that Carl Jung used the tree analogy as well. “Carl Jung, a student of Freud and a famous psychologist in his own right, used the metaphor of a growing tree to describe the client in therapy.

The client, he said, is like a tree, naturally growing taller and fuller while its roots spread out wider and deeper into the ground. “When the roots of a tree hit a large stone or other obstacle, do they try to shove away the stone or crack it? No. The roots just grow around the obstacle and then keep going. The stone may have interrupted or slowed the tree’s growth for awhile, but no stone, no matter how large, can stop the tree from growing.”

In Jung’s view, stones in the way of tree roots symbolized obstacles to personal growth. These obstacles can include an internal emotional conflict (for instance, loving and hating the same person) or an external stressor (for example, a trauma). Jung theorized that certain emotional conflicts are not eliminated; they are simply outgrown. They remain as permanent parts of the psyche, just as the stones surrounded by tree roots become “part of” the tree. In the same way that roots can move far past the stones in their path into new territory, you can grow beyond your trauma. Perhaps today, your trauma is frozen in time, far away from the rest of you. But once you have integrated the trauma into your life, you can use some of the powerful energy generated by the trauma to benefit you, to use in pursuing goals of your own choosing.

Trauma can become a vital part of your life—just as stones can support and strengthen the root structure of a tree. Like a tree, you are resilient. With patience and support, your roots can be restored, and your branches will spread again. As the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has said, “What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?” This is the brilliant and ultimate power of trauma.