Book Review: Trauma is Really Strange by Haines & Standing

In Trauma is Really Strange, writer Steve Haines and artist Sophie Standing explain current and historic research on the human brain’s responses to trauma.  This 32-page book is packed with information and reads like a “trauma for beginners” manual.  The book starts with an explanation of the two different brain pathways that trauma can stimulate: fight-or-flight and dissociation.  From there, the authors walk us through brain function and how the brain can remain in a traumatized state for years after traumatic events have ended. This lingering disorientation can result in a feeling of living outside of one’s body.

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Thumbs up to well-cited research studies!  Trauma is Really Strange will catch you up on some current trauma research.

In addition to explaining brain physiology using visual metaphors, Trauma is Really Strange makes suggestions about how to heal and how to take care of yourself during the healing process. The tone of the book is unrelentingly positive and proactive.  Early on, the authors introduce three statements about trauma:

  1. There is trauma.
  2. We can overcome trauma.
  3. Healing trauma is about meeting the body.

Although some may feel alienated by the YOU CAN DO IT! message of the book (I was, as you’ll see), it helps move the reader through some fairly dense information.

trauma is really strange
This is not your 1990’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy! Author Haines promotes a movement and visualization focused treatment approach.

 

Haines, a chiropractor and bodyworker, has a specific idea about how trauma can be treated, and the final third of the book provides a short introduction to his method, which involves using movement and visualization to reconnect with parts of the body that feel “absent, hazy, or hard-to-feel.” He uses the overcooked mnemonic OMG — in this case meaning “orient, move, ground” — to describe the process of dealing with an activated state of alarm or dissociation. Haines’ emphasis on the idea that “dramatic emotional outpouring, in particular, is not useful in working with trauma” was confusing to me. Is this statement condemning a common experience in trauma counseling, or is it meant to offer hope that progress can be made with less emotional suffering?

The book is graphically beautiful.  Standing’s block print-like images communicate complex ideas elegantly, and the rich, textured colors are lovely.  The book educates readers by using helpful metaphors that describe the experience of living in a traumatized state, while easing them through technically complex information that has the potential to be emotionally challenging.  A narrator, who appears as a bald person in a blue shirt, guides the reader, and the illustrations help to pace the dense content of the text.  The overall effect is a thought-provoking series of visual metaphors and illustrated statements supported by substantial margin notes that include references to research literature.

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This book taught me about the old vagus and new vagus control systems, and their role in dissociation.

My wife read this book with me.  As the spouse of a trauma survivor, she loved the hopeful tone and the general suggestions for healing approaches.  She immediately turned to the references section and chose more books to read.  As a trauma survivor, I found the book useful.  The information about the old vagus and new vagus systems (p. 19) was particularly interesting and the presentation was very approachable.  I have tried several types of treatment for trauma, but never one that is movement focused, and I was happy to hear of Haines’s innovative approach.  However, the tone was not satisfying for me.  Haines is demanding with his readers, saying, in essence,, “You CAN recover from your trauma and make your brain work right again, so now go do it!”  Good pep talk, but I don’t have access to the treatment he recommends, and definitely not on my insurance!  He emphasizes that each person must take trauma recovery at their own pace, but the rapid-fire info seems in contrast to that message.  Also, because this is my blog, I want to tell you that I didn’t love being talked at by a chipper bald dude that reminded me of a microsoft clip art character.  The tone doesn’t trivialize the experience of trauma, but it’s so damn perky, and at this point in my own recovery, maybe I’m just allergic to cheerleaders.  

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A few books my wife is reading now.

Still, I absolutely recommend this book.  I learned stuff.  I am now reading two books that are cited here (my wife is reading four). The authors did an admirable job of presenting the neuroscience of trauma in an engaging and witty way.  Science comics are really challenging to do well, and Trauma is Really Strange is a great example of a solid science comic, although it would benefit from a light touch of empathy and humility.

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