Healing After Trauma


Trauma is shock, suffering, and anguish. Right now, we find ourselves in a country divided along political lines and experiencing a raging pandemic that keeps us physically apart. The consequences of trauma are a range of symptoms, involuntary memories, poor sleep, anxiety, and a sense of doom. How will we move on from here?

In moments of torment, my coping is to tell myself to just get over it. If that’s not enough, I read When Things Fall Apart, reread the stages of grief, and push on, hoping time will soften the pain. It’s what my family did. When my maternal aunt lost her third child, my pre-teen wisdom announced to mother, “Ég mundi bara fara í burtu” (throw in the towel). But my mother said women did not have this choice. We keep going for the sake of our families. 

When the confusion is big and our financial resources sufficient, we seek professional support. A skilled therapist helps us find a way to cope, to see options to return to happy enough. But our memories and the pain they create find a home in our cells and are difficult to evict. New discoveries suggest trauma is also passed on through birth and bonds.

I was intrigued to read that the American Indians, Black Americans, Armenian, Jewish, and Kurdish people who suffered the worst human cruelty (oppression, war, genocide) were also the people who made the most joyful music and dance. Was it their antidote to extract the pain of agonizing memories from their cells? Unlike swallowing another antidepressant, music and movement requires active participation of mind and body—no shortcuts.  

Laura Shannon who teaches traditional women’s dances around the world wrote, “despite the horrors these peoples have gone through in their history. The dances seemed to hold clues to the mystery of moving on with life after trauma.” 

After the fall of the Iron Curtain (1989), much of what had happened during WWII had come to light. After the opening of the Eastern bloc and German reunification, the collective joy didn’t last long. Soon people were exhausted with all the talk, concluding that no amount of conversation could heal the past. What was there to say? How could Germans ever make amends for what they did? Most of the women attending Laura’s dance program were born just before, during, or after the war. Along with their own cellular memory, they carried a family memory of horrible trauma. Although they were not responsible, they suffered monstrously and carried guilt like branded herds. 

“For these German women,” Ms. Shannon writes, “dancing Jewish and Romani dances provided a nonverbal bridge to cross this chasm. In dance, we could come closer to one another and to our own emotions, and to historical themes and events which had felt unapproachable, simply witnessing them – and ourselves and each other – with compassion and love.”

Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher, frequently speaks about the human tendency to see the world through us vs. them. The evil is out there. In the last four years, our country has experienced a rupture between family members, friends, and communities. Displaying loyalty for one side imparted a sense of superiority, a feeling we are doing something about the problem. Driving around with big flags temporarily reduced feelings of fear and vulnerability. But it’s not the size of the flag but the size of our heart that frees us from reactivity and suffering. 

Despite our differences, through dance we hold hands and move in synchrony. Laura Shannon writes on her blog, “The mutual acceptance and support we practice in the dance circle can literally create an experience of a more peaceful community, while also supporting our individual healing.”

I do like dancing, but I don’t like touching strangers or outsiders touching me. (This Scandinavian trait is a positive in the COVID era.) Then, a couple of years ago, attending a Buddhist retreat, what I enjoyed the most was the drum circle. “Come into the circle. Come into the circle. Bring what you have to give. Take what you need,” we chanted and danced to the rhythm of the drumbeat. 

The drum circle interactions were a give and take, an essential element for communications and relationships. People of all ages, gender, ethnicity, cultures, and political views had come together without playing with their smartphones—no small event. Instead of surrendering control to our unruly mind, replaying yesterday’s regrets, we created harmony with our instrument. Making eye contact, smiling, the joy was palpable. The class ended, and nobody was in a hurry to leave. In a few short days, I’d established connections to strangers that usually takes months. Later I’d learn that the sacred act of drumming used in religious rituals and other ceremonies in all cultures is experiencing a revival with women who say the drums put them in synch with Mother Earth. 

Millions of Americans were horrified and unable to understand how our friends supported a leader who lied and attacked us. Their vote for him in 2020 justified his attacks on men and nature. He would protect their investments and individual freedoms, they reasoned (falsely). Those who knew history saw a connection between the Nazi Party’s theme, “MAKE GERMANY GREAT AGAIN” and Donald Trump’s “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”  

After severe trauma, the physical wounds heal, but the mind and soul’s wounds continue to experience the devastation emotionally. Dancing and drumming are ways to come together in reconciliation when we choose peace over conflict.

Recovery of our political fracture and COVID requires we reach out to one another.  Dance and drum circles provide a safe space for this work. We can remind ourselves that our well-being doesn’t depend on others to change. Rather we can focus on our capacity to respond to conflict with the most caring part of our being. We dance and drum to recognize and accept our shared humanity and legacy of suffering, and pray for our collective healing.