Kindness in the Treatment of Traumatic Stress

These are the words of my husband Robert Chuckman, an MSW and psychotherapist who has spent many years studying trauma and helping people heal. An important reminder that we all have stories, we all need compassion and beyond all other healing interventions kindness is always of fundamental importance.

traumatic stress

The experience of safety enables individuals healing from trauma to access levels of emotional pain required for healing. Feeling deeply is a natural human response to inescapably painful experiences. However, the personal and interpersonal dynamics that characterize traumatic stress prevent individuals from feeling at depth. This is part of the “hell” of PTSD- psychological disturbance combined with an unconscious apparatus that prevents sufficient awareness of traumatic memories.

Clinicians working with sufferers work firstly to establish safety. Safety is an internal experience related to calmness, and it includes a sense of connection to others. Thus, safety is both an interpersonal and intrapersonal phenomenon, reliant on the expression of humanistic traits such as empathy, creativity, and trust. These are modelled by clinicians in authentic ways and emerge spontaneously in clients during treatment. Safety is a critical dialectic to trauma that must be realized in clients seeking recovery.

Kindness is a practical tool that can be taught to clients that also helps clients realize a dialectic to their pain. Like the stage-one trauma goal of safety, kindness creates feelings of well-being and trust. Expressions of kindness likely result in kindness being returned, creating a self-sustaining system of psychological reward, which can act in service to overall trauma recovery.

Kindness could therefore be used as the purposeful engagement of the complex, positive emotions that facilitate deep social connections. 

Polyvagal theory has discovered that traumatic stress disrupts functioning in areas of the body responsible for creating well-oiled social exchange. For example, warm facial expressions are sometimes reduced, making it difficult for others to approach them. Sufferer’s perceptions of positive social behaviour in others, is also often disturbed. The hostility associated with PTSD, for example, can be attributed in part to missed or erroneous interpretations of social cues and their physiologic underpinnings in the body-mind.

The establishment of safety can be increased using kindness as a systematic interpersonal goal, in service to the dialectics of trauma recovery. Like the manner in which safety operates on an individual level, kindness resolves the social disconnectedness that lies at the heart of traumatic stress. 

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