Dealing with trauma: A note on re-wiring our brains, ‘ripening’, and healing

I hope and hope and hope that this World Mental Health Day shines more light on trauma. Because trauma, especially deferred trauma, is contagious.
Silhouette of a woman looking at a sunset
Silhouette of a woman looking at a sunset
Written by:

Last week, on one of my infrequent outings to the next street, I walked past a fruit seller pushing his cart on his daily rounds. He was calling out to the houses, and a woman stepped out of one of them. The first thing she said before even reaching him was “Pazhamaa kudunga (Give me ripe ones).” And I thought to myself: if only.

Everywhere I look these days, in real and virtual worlds, there is rawness, overwhelming feelings and mess. Our country’s perfect storm of the last year and beyond has us longing, no doubt, for some indicator of progress, catalysis, resolution, relief, softening, ripening. But the fruits of hoping, despairing, participating and activism are uncertain, and sometimes unrecognisable.

We have always been in a giant mental health crisis. We just didn’t know it. But – eerily mirroring the turning point when an individual realises their mental health needs attention – 2020 has ripped the veil off what passed for functionality in our society and showed us the staggering level of completely avoidable trauma that we’ve been inflicting on each other for millenia. Imagination fails me when I wonder what kind of trauma migrant labourers, pogrom victims, dissenters and victims of caste- and gender-based violence, like the Hathras rape-murder victim and her family, must have been through this year – to mention just a few. Mental health care is such a huge privilege that it is not accessible to most people in this country, nor is it their first and most basic need. When your mental health is in danger because of your circumstances, yet you have more urgent needs that are not being taken care of – that’s one of the contributing factors in a mental health epidemic.

I hope and hope and hope that this World Mental Health Day shines more light on trauma. Because trauma, especially deferred trauma, is contagious. It is an unmanageable, insidious entity that cannot be suppressed for long, and relentlessly gnaws at the foundations of an individual’s and society’s mental health. If not addressed at its social roots and at the level of the affected individuals, it cannot help proliferating. It can only be fought with social reform, and at the individual level, with awareness, acceptance and kindness – but our psychoeducation is so abysmal that these are in short supply in our families, friends’ circles, institutions and workspaces.

We long for sweetness in our lives, yet bitter, raw, gritty material keeps turning up with alarming frequency instead. And it seems to look to us to process and ripen it. It comes up in our sleep patterns, our work days, our addictive tendencies, our mood swings, our close relationships, the news, social media, our anxiety about the virus, and our anger, endless anger, about the inhumanity playing out around us. We feel our hearts and minds harden, dry out, become brittle, break.

How to tell the universe, “Pazhamaa kudunga”? How to ask for a better world in which, just for starters, caste- and gender-based oppression don’t exist? How does one politely reject the sour stuff we’re served instead? Is our task to make lemonade out of these lemons?

There are avoidable traumas, which arise, for instance, from social oppression; and unavoidable ones, like ill-health or ageing or losing a loved one to a natural death, which happen to everyone. There are also so many kinds in grey zones, where we can’t tell if they could have been prevented or not.

For me personally, after decade upon decade of unhelpful habitual thought patterns in my approach to the messiness of my C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), one of the hundreds of valid answers to these questions has been to reverse the logic. Am I supposed to process, ripen, sweeten these lemons that I’ve been given, or are they supposed to soften and ripen me? As the couplet written by Kabir goes: 

Maati kahe kumhaar se, tu kya raundhe mohe,
Ek din aisa aayega, main raundhoongi tohe.

The soil says to the potter, “How come you are moulding me?
The day will come when I will mould you.”

“Neuroplasticity” is one of the unromantic modern terms that come to mind when reading this couplet. Our brains are, it seems, mouldable, plastic, flexible. We can re-wire them. The physical changes that trauma has wrought on our brains can be healed. The rigid, unbending mental patterns that formed as a result of trauma can also be softened over time, with the right therapeutic practices.

We love to be the one who is doing, who is working on something and moulding it, rather than submitting ourselves to be worked on. It’s human nature. Even those of us who are prone with anxiety, unable to function – well, actually, in a manner of speaking, we are the hardest workers of all! We compulsively work every worry and thought to death and beyond, terrifying ourselves. We think and think and think, sometimes unconsciously, until we have no energy for anything else. Our misplaced, fruitless labour is one of the saddest aspects of chronic anxiety.

There are plenty of situations in which something must be done. And currently workers and activists in various fields are doing all they can and more to protest and improve the horrifying situations people are finding themselves in today. But there are also plenty of situations, especially internal, mental ones, where stopping unproductive work and being the work instead is the need of the hour. The more we learn being, the more we are capable of doing. Even more important, our softened, mouldable minds (I don’t mean an impressionable mind here, but a more flexible mind) are more capable of turning their focus outwards in effective love and compassion – one of the keystones of social reform. This letting go is one of the ways in which mental health works.

How do we know which is which?

Personal discretion seems to be the answer, and I have found some very oblique answers, so oblique that they almost miss the point, that work for me personally. My meagre attempts at psycho-educating myself have sometimes landed me plumb in the middle of the 20,000-page Pali Canon, the base of Buddhist scripture. The beauty of being so ignorant that you’re utterly, hopelessly lost in such a vast body of literature is that, apparently coincidentally, conveniently poetic bits and pieces turn up out of context, like Rorschach blots, seemingly tailor-made for the reader. Two such spaces I have found have been two discourses given by the Buddha using arrows as a metaphor.

In the first, the Salla Sutta (from the Sutta Nipata 3.8), or Salla Discourse, a short mention of the flipside of ripening turns up, as the Buddha says:

Once they are ripe, fruits are always in danger of falling.
It is the same for mortals, who live in constant fear of death.

This is not really bad news for me. It is good news, as there are many unhelpful mental habits in the processing of my C-PTSD that I would very much like to ripen and fall off, please.

The other discourse, the Sallatha Sutta (from the Samyutta Nikaya 36.6) or Sallatha Discourse, explains the difference between unavoidable and avoidable suffering, yet does not address my questions directly at all unless it were a metaphor within a metaphor. As summarised on one of the many Sutta websites on the net:

When shot by the arrow of physical pain, an unwise person makes matters worse by piling mental anguish on top of it, just as if he had been shot by two arrows. A wise person feels the sting of one arrow alone.

I like to conclude from this that I am shot by one unavoidable arrow, the mental anguish of trauma, and that it is the second arrow that I unconsciously shoot at myself, the post-traumatic response, that I have any control over. Going back to the Salla Sutta for a minute:

One desiring happiness should extract the arrow he has stuck into himself.

Extracting this arrow from our individual selves, and from our society, is apparently possible. And that is what I’m counting on.

Sneha R is a Bengaluru based writer. She has been trying to make sense of her bipolar diagnosis since 2006. She loves trees and reads too many self-help books.

Views expressed are the author's own.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute