Golden Willow Retreat: Difference Between Trauma And Grief

By Dr. Ted Wiard
Golden Willow Retreat

Editors Note: This column is part of a series written by grief specialist Dr. Ted Wiard, dedicated to helping educate the community about emotional healing.

This column’s intent is to give emotional support for individuals, families and communities during this time of radical change. The last couple of months have been challenging as each person, family, organization and community have had to find ways to navigate the radical changes in which COVID-19 has blindsided the daily routines and ways of life that was once the norm.

As people have been ordered to stay at home, wear masks, follow distancing protocols and now have to change many of their ways of navigating the world. There has been a loss of the old, and in this grief, we have to redefine ourselves into this new norm or status quo of being in the world. Many people have also noticed trauma from this event in which the brain has set off alarms that the world around them is dangerous and deathly.

For some, triggers have arisen from the present situation with levels of uncertainty, deaths of people they know or have heard about, being on any of the frontlines as essential workers, worried about friends and family, fears of financial sustainability and the overall state of the world. This is just to state a few of the emotional triggers that someone may be experiencing.

As these triggers are touched, fissures into the foundation of someone’s history may be exposed, and traumatic historical traumas may arise that have not been recognized, or felt, in an exceptionally long time. Someone may be surprised as they thought they had already taken care of that issue. Present losses and trauma can bring back similar memories and reengage those old emotions. This is not wrong, bad, strange, or uncommon. It is only the psyche trying to heal and allow a person to grow and evolve.

Grief and trauma are very different and come from different parts of the brain. The grief process happens in the pre-frontal cortex in which the brain is given data that someone is balanced, and emotionally safe. Maybe not the world around them or the loss they are feeling, but there is a level of infrastructure to be able to emotionally hold the person. The prefrontal cortex is where creativity, long-term rewards, spirituality, working as a team, love, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and “mindful” thinking is derived. This includes transitioning into the present by gleaning wisdom from the past but not “caught” in the story of the past.

Trauma is generated from the limbic part of the brain which is all about survival in the exact moment. It does not care about the future because it is set up to survive the moment to even have a chance for a future! It is the fight, flight, freeze part of the brain and puts the all systems into a place of high intensity. The entire body responds to the trauma call and parts of the brain actually decelerate and almost go “offline” to give more power to the limbic system.

As an electrical system, the loving, caring, patient, and open part of the brain has somewhat of a brownout, and gives its energy over to the warrior, survival, non-empathetic, and survival of the fittest part of the brain. Once trauma is triggered and historical issues meld into the present issue, it can be difficult to get out of warrior mode and back into the part of the brain that allows healing rather than survival. As the survival part of the brain is activated and other stimuli comes in, the brain has a difficult time calming in order to shift out of hypervigilance.

Finding support and feeling levels of safety and support can help move to a place of healing rather than only survival. I wish you well, and until the next article, take care.

Golden Willow Retreat is a nonprofit organization focused on emotional healing and recovery from any type of loss. Direct any questions to Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, Founder of Golden Willow Retreat or call at 575.776.2024.