Our experience has been that Shamanic healing practices have been remarkably effective at healing trauma. Perhaps this is not surprising as in the indigenous cultures in which Shamanism arose, trauma in various forms would have been one of the main issues that healers were called to help with.
To understand why, let’s look at Trauma from both a Shamanic perspective and a Western scientific understanding:
How do we usually process our experiences?
In every moment we are constantly taking in information through our various senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and the “felt” senses (both outer and inner). This information comes into both hemispheres of the brain, is filtered for what is significant and what is not important, and later when we are sleeping the experiences are woven into kind of story of what happened which gets stored as a memory.
In a traumatic experience that standard process gets overwhelmed and the integration of sensory experience into a normal memory does not happen. During the traumatic experience, a person’s consciousness will often become absent from their body. In psychological terms this is called “dissociation”. In Shamanism this is referred to as “soul loss”.
People who have experienced trauma may have no conscious memory of the experience. Instead of being filed away in the past as a memory, the patterns of sensory experience become linked to the part of the brain responsible for our stress response – the Amygdala.
As a result, whenever we experience something that is similar to or matches the original traumatic experience – whether it is sounds, images, smells, feelings – we get triggered into that stress pattern – which may be fear, numbness or anger/aggression. It’s like having a faulty smoke alarm which keeps going off even when there is no fire.
Importantly for the healing of trauma, all of this happens without any involvement from the rational conscious parts of our brain!
The human brain
Our human brains have inherited various parts from our evolution over millions of years. The most ancient part, sitting right over the brain stem is the reptilian brain. This is concerned with basic survival stuff – I sometimes refer to this as the Five Fs: Fight, Flight, Freeze (the basic responses to danger), Feeding and F****ing (reproduction). This is sometimes also referred to as the “arousal system”.
The layer above this is the mammalian brain, the Limbic system, which is the seat of our emotions. Emotions evolved as a way for herds or communities to stay together by communicating what each individual is feeling. Probably the heart is also involved in that mysterious communication as we now know that the heart puts out the strongest electromagnetic signal of any organ in the body.
Trauma affects both of these ancient parts of the brain the most. Traumatised people often have an enlarged amygdala (responsible for the stress response) and often feel either overwhelmed by or cut off from their emotions.
The most recent part of the human brain to evolve is the neocortex – which is the rational thinking and language part – and the only part which has a concept of past and future (the body intelligence and the older parts of the brain live in the eternal “now”).
The neocortex is the part of us which is least effected by trauma, and yet it is the only part which traditional talking therapy engages – which probably explains why people with trauma can sometimes spend years in therapy without making much progress. Thankfully many therapists are starting to also include broader approaches involving more of the whole person.
Shamanism is embedded in a holistic way of understanding the person as not separate from their body, their soul, their community, family and ecosystem. As one of our teachers says, “In the Lakota language, there is no word for ‘I’, only ‘We’…when someone is hungry then ‘we are hungry’ when someone is sick then ‘we are sick'”.
Healing is understood as something that involves the whole community, including the community of the natural world and the spirits. Shamanic approaches to healing also work at the level of the body, the senses, the heart and emotions and the unconscious, by use of ceremony and accessing different states of consciousness through sound and movement.
This is important because, as Gabor Maté MD writes, “the essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves…. separation from the body and emotions.” This disconnection is what Shamans refer to as “soul loss” and the aim of the healer is to reconnect the parts which have become lost and dissociated. This reconnection also involves the person feeling more connected with nature, with their heart, their body and with other people. All of these play an important part in our workshops.
In Western scientific terms, shamanic healing works at the somatic (body experience) level as well as using both right and left hemispheres of the brain to enable a positive integration of the fragmented aspects of the traumatic experience. New neural pathways are created offering alternative ways of being with our bodies and experiences in the world. In other words we don’t just change our thoughts – we actually have a healing experience which changes us at all levels.