Treating emotional trauma using theraputic music.
The wounded brain is a fascinating thing. For instance, we know that we can see physical evidence of traumatic brain injuries and concussions on the brain, but did you know that even emotional trauma leaves reversible physical damage in the brain? And when that trauma occurs, the physical damage essentially stalls out that part of the brain at that precise point of development, which is how the age you were when the trauma happened can be identified with reasonable accuracy when assessing a brain map.
ARDR therapy is equally fascinating, and, more importantly, IT WORKS. Here’s why….
Read this explanation from Liz Deacon:
Based on my research and experience so far, I believe we are seeing a form of auditory-induced bilateral decoupling. This is a technique that capitalizes on an evolutionary reflex in humans that ensured we could successfully divert our attention from any task at hand to attend to another task. The Orientation Reflex was developed as a means for survival and can also be used to decouple the emotional charge from our previous traumatic experiences.
Why is that important? Oftentimes, when we feel stuck or rooted in the same narrative, unable to move forward, it is because our limbic/emotional system is trying to protect us from “making the same mistakes” as our past. It is trying to shield us from that previous pain. Unfortunately, this survival mechanism is no longer serving us because, although we are ready to move forward beyond previous trauma, our emotional brain isn’t on the same page yet. Ultimately, we need these 2 parts of our brain – the logic/knowing part and the emotional/feeling part – to align. This can be accomplished by using a combination of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral techniques and ARDR.
This is the word picture Liz shared with me: (artistic license was liberally used)
The amygdala, a.k.a. the brain’s filing cabinet, has a handy feature built right in – an alarm that goes off when it recognizes danger. This alarm activates the fight/flight/freeze response.
This was helpful, for example, during a hunt. Early Man had to focus on taking down the prey, but he also had to be aware of the rustling in the bushes nearby. Was the noise caused by a savage beast, or a harmless bunny? Without losing sight of the prey, Early Man had to determine the source of the disturbance, and respond accordingly, while still bringing home the bacon to the neaderthal babies in the cave, securing the survival of the human race.
When trauma occurs, the amygdala gets traumatized too. It can develop hyper-aware threat assessment. Even harmless things can look, sound, or smell like trauma to a damaged amygdala. That experience then becomes yet another trigger that activates fight/flight/freeze response. This explains issues with anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD.
What is needed is a way to calm the amygdala, and teach it that not everything is a threat. It can learn the difference between a distraction and a disruption worthy of sounding an alarm. This is where ARDR comes in.
My first ARDR Therapy session
This was my first one-on-one time with Liz, and I was very much looking forward to it. Liz has a lovely, calming presence, which in turns creates a safe and welcoming atmosphere in her office.
We spent some time chatting about my childhood trauma, and what I could expect. Liz explained that this would be different from the regular type of talk therapy I had been used to.
Please understand I am completely supportive of traditional talk therapy. It is so helpful, and often a critical component of dealing with emotional traumas and mental illness. Accessing skilled therapists over the years is a big reason why I am still here. They helped me make sense of the pain and confusion, and gave me tools to help me as I made my way through this world.
ARDR takes a different approach. There was no need to go back to the beginning and drag up every detail of traumas experienced throughout my life. The main thing is how have they affected me? I explained, as I often do, in a word picture.
Before Neurofeedback, my place of trauma looked like a big abandoned concrete lot. It was covered in a tangle of weeds and vines and garbage that had blown in. Over time, with the help of talk therapy, I had cut through parts of it in an attempt at making a clear safe pathway to get to the trauma in the middle. But my health benefits would run out, the therapy stopped, and it all grew over again.
Neurofeedback cleared out all of the weeds and vines and garbage, which represented my persistent severe depression. Now I had a clear, empty, concrete lot, with one exception. There was my trauma, in the form of a pile of discarded scrap metal. It looked like a mound of junk, but it was in fact a structure of sorts, as if a group of kids had collected whatever scraps they could find, leaned all the pieces up against eachother, and tried to build a clubhouse.
There it sat, right in the middle of the lot. I could clearly see it, but I couldn’t access it. I couldn’t step even one foot onto the lot. It was as if some kind of invisible force field prevented me from doing anything except look at it from the outside.
When I described this to Liz, she she handed me a pair of noise-cancelling headphones connected to a tablet. “Put these on, close your eyes, and go back to that lot. You will hear music, but I want to you to focus on the lot.”
This would be like meditation, only instead of trying to achieve complete focus on only one thought to the exclusion of all others, I was instructed to welcome and follow every thought or experience that came along. Ask “why”. Follow the rabbit trails to see where they lead. Everything in this space was there for a reason.
If I could come up with a name for the structure, that might be helpful. If not, no problem. When the music ended I could remove the headphones.
I was not prepared for what happened next…
I closed my eyes, the music started, and instantly I was transported to the lot. But this time was different – I was able to step on to the lot and walk up to the structure.
I was my child self – Little Lisa, 6 years old, wearing the dress and socks and shoes I had worn the day I was molested. I expected to feel bad, heavy vibes as I drew closer. But the opposite, in fact, was true. I felt curious. I wanted a closer look. I named the structure Curious Heap.
As I came closer, a horde of cockroaches swarmed out, frantically climbing all over it. I felt fear, but it didn’t belong to me. The fear came from the cockroaches. One of them scurried over to me, ran across the toe of my shoe, waved its little antennae at me, and ran back inside. All the cockroaches fled back inside as well. Then, as if they had conducted a meeting where the one told the rest that I wasn’t there to hurt them, but they couldn’t be there anymore, they all left through the bottom of the Curious Heap and ran away.
I began investigating, walking all around it. I saw the sunlight streaming in through jagged holes. I saw one big dandelion growing out of the base, and more baby dandelion leaves sprouting from between the cracks. I explored my way around to the front again, and noticed there was a door. I opened it, stepped inside, and realized –
I had been there before.
When I was first molested at age 6, I worked diligently to make myself forget. I succeeded, until the memory flooded back when I was 23. That was when I got a vision of my 6 year old self, shackled by my ankle to my little rocking chair, in a dark abandoned shack. There were holes where the sunlight streamed in. I could hear children laughing and playing in the meadow full of wildflowers just outside the door, but I couldn’t leave. I was sock-footed, still wearing the dirty anklets that were ruined when I ran away from him.
When I did the work on forgiving my molestor, the vision came again. This time the rocking chair was empty and the shackle was broken. I could hear my own laughter in the wildflower meadow outside the door.
That was then. This is now.
I saw the rocking chair with the broken shackle still attached. But this time I saw the dirty socks, laying on the ground. They had been left behind, along with my shame.
I felt relief that Little Lisa was finally truly free. She wasn’t carrying around those dirty shameful socks any longer. This entire place was devoid of life, abandoned, and useless. I wanted to dismantle it, and started examining it closer, to see how that could be accomplished without it crashing in and hurting me. I had no idea how to begin, but I knew Liz was there to help me. I felt strong enough. I felt hope, and joy. I knew this place would become something beautiful instead.
The vision changed, and instead of the Curious Heap, I saw a huge shade tree in full leaf, with my rocking chair sitting in the shade at its base. It was surrounded by a fragrant field of wildflowers. I knew this place would remain as a place of hope and healing and joy for anyone who needed to come here and recover.
The music stopped. I removed the headphones, and let the healing tears fall.
Theraputic music really does calm the savage beast. It calmed mine. Turns out the beast wasn’t so savage after all – it was just my wounded amygdala. It is recovering now, and more closely resembles a harmless fluffy bunny more and more every day.