London, Red Bus, Big Ben

Lessons from London

Author: AM Scott

The bright, red bus lurched and lumbered as it wended its way down the windy, narrow streets of London. Tired passengers, some carrying heavy bags or pushing tetchy toddlers, bumbled on board, swiping their Oyster cards motorically. No greetings. No smiles. Life, it seemed, was not an opportunity for connection with others. Except for one passenger, a foreigner to London town, who, unknowingly, was about to be tested on all she’d learned at an international congress on trauma and attachment less than 24 hours prior.


Three days before boarding bus 414, safely cocooned in Canary Wharf with 500+ psychologists and other nice, empathic people, our visitor was pinching herself to be seated at the feet of masters in their field. Her purpose in attendance: to gain understanding around the pervasive and overwhelming anxiety that children with barriers to learning experience (many of whom are traumatized within the school system, even unintentionally), to consider insights shared by the esteemed lineup, and take away strategies for their practical application in a school back in South Africa. She was interested to consider the implications of secondary trauma experienced when a child hears about or lives through horrific stories of crime in the country, and the generational trauma that is passed on as a baton down the family and community lines.

Her copious notes over three days recorded some of the salient points:

Dr Dan Siegel, master of attachment theory, opened the event and set the tone. The nature of attachment is unique to and part of each and every person, and it will have bearing on how an individual manages trauma at any level. Dr Siegel quickly went to the concept of compassion in managing someone who has experienced trauma. The principal noted, “How well do I know their story?” as her own provocation.

Dr Lorna Benjamin, student of Freud and, at 85 years old, a sage among the speakers, responded to the question, “What does the therapist do that is effective?” Drawing on tomes of data gathered over decades worldwide, she drew out key traits manifest by therapists who were able to set up a positive therapy alliance with their clients: empathy, compassion, cheer leading, offering of strategies to support coping and interpersonal skills. Lorna explained that anger’s purpose is to get distance and gain control, anxiety is to activate a person to deal with a threat (real or perceived) and depression happens when a person is overwhelmed and feels trapped. She mooted that a good therapist organizes what a person is saying but doesn’t offer ideas, and introduces procedures to help the client bring about their own healing. Dr Benjamin believes in deploying psycho-education as a key practice to empower the client to continue their trauma healing.

Liz Mulliner addressed the possibilities for survivors to be empowered to take charge of their own healing, to view triggers as treasures that unlock the pain so as to release it. She explained that trauma is ‘more emotion than a person can handle’. She stressed the importance of expressing emotions and directed delegates to help survivors to empower their inner child. Her strategies included learning to recognize triggers and ways to discharge the energy in the body so that a person can learn to respond instead of react. Liz underlined the imperative of a survivor feeling safe and emphasized the role of peer support and compassion.

Dr Daniel Goleman renowned for his work on emotional intelligence (EQ) grounded his input in the anatomy of the brain. The amygdala, he said, is the ‘guard dog’ reacting to symbolic as well as actual threat, including trigger cues; the prefrontal cortex takes up the role of the ‘wise owl’. By his definition, maturation is the lengthening gap between impulse and reaction. Daniel spoke of “managing the heart”. He was clear that meditation enhances cognitive control. A person can learn to put their attention where it is required and control responses to emotions when these come unbidden; i.e., stop-think-act. Dr Goleman created a good argument for contemplative based trauma and secondary trauma healing. He described a social brain, designed to ‘lock on’ to the brain of the other person present. In our empathy circuitry, he said, we cognitively understand how another thinks and perceives things, and we can feel it too. From this base, we can express empathic concern and embrace a care-taking role: ‘I am here for you.’ Daniel said that meditation is not a cure but an ancillary method, a stage one level of help in trauma.

Paul Gilbert orientated the definition of compassion to the courage to descend into the human experience. In the case of working with trauma, it is to meet the person at their point of vulnerability and bear witness to their pain, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Compassion is not love, by his definition, it is an ability to be with another as they release their suffering. He urged delegates to build a ‘compassionate mind’.

Jemima Fischer spoke of healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors and described her view that the moment we accept ourselves, respect ourselves and unconditionally love ourselves is the moment of healing. Human beings need psychological distance from overwhelming events and dissociate to achieve this. Our resultant ‘parts’ attempt to protect us emotionally just like “fight, flight, freeze” responses protect us physically. Safely reintegrating our parts is the key. Jemima would have survivors connect to their ‘higher self’, who is untouched by trauma and capable of becoming a witness and a self healer. Healing, she shared, is the outcome of a compassionate connection between a curious, calm, connected “normal life” adult and wounded child parts. It is an intra-personal experience. The traumatized part can be cared for by the wise part. The therapist must hold empathy to support the process. Jemima emphasized social engagement and mindfulness language.

Armed with these mindfulness strategies, a deepened insight into triggers, revision of the fight-flight-freeze-pain mechanisms for survival, and greater understanding of the spectrum that is trauma, the South African delegate left the convention satisfied that she had in hand some pertinent considerations to take back to her school. Some would impact on recruitment strategies, some on the children at the school and the interventions in place for them. Some strengthened the argument for and affirmed existing practices like cues of belonging (uniforms or sports houses), points of connection (circle groups), memory making activities (think concerts or fun days), social skills groups, the code of conduct (boundaries), etc. It all emboldened the vision for Snoezelen and Instrumental Enrichment as interventions. Certainly, it highlighted that staff need as much support as the parents and children that they ‘adopt‘ and care for each year.

The visitor walked tall to the bus stop. Compassion was the key; empathy the imperative; being present and being mindful were the armor pieces to the left and to the right; and self-regulation would keep it all together. She boarded the bus practically ready to be a hostage negotiator!

Fast forward.

Slam! The bus halted abruptly. Like dolls in prams, the passengers’ bodies lurched involuntarily, in sync with the movement of this common place transport vessel.

Forward. Back. Steady. Stop.

In forced motion,  the principal fell forward and the side of her shoe lightly brushed the sleeve of the jacket of a fellow passenger crammed in the bus.

“Sorry,” she said, with a warm and sincere smile.

“Sorry? What’s sorry? What kind of a person are you that you wipe your shoes on another human being? That you demean them so? Do you not know where shoes belong?” the irate man snapped, aggressively.

“I am so sorry, sir,” she offered, holding her tongue from any retort that might suggest this was hardly her fault, and it’s not that she had even touched his person, just the sleeve of his bulky jacket. The barrage, however, did not abate. Despite the crowded seats, he swung around to bring his face square to hers, leaned in and yelled, “You despicable being! You trample on others! You devalue me by wiping your feet on me and think you can just say sorry?”

Siegel lesson rushing in, “He has an insecure attachment.”

Goleman’s words coming to the fore, “Hold that person with compassion.”

Liz’s experience ringing in her mind, “He has been triggered, respond to him as a traumatised person. Hold space. Maintain contact.”

“Gilbert’s turn of phrase, “Use a compassionate mind.”

Threat trumps safety,” Benjamin had said; something in what he has just experienced has plummeted him deep into his pain. He’s “lost it”, for now anyway.

The principal gently looked back into his eyes and past his steely glare. This total stranger, spilling anger and venom and wrath and pain with everyone watching could receive from her compassion or ire, either a rebuttal or a balm that might somewhere heal just a tiny part of his wounded self. It was in her realm of choice. The fellow travelers were staring impassively forward, ears tuning in, eyes looking away. Like people do when they see pain in others.

She held her gaze, carefully.

“I apologise, sir. I see that this really upset you and I am sorry to have provoked such distress in you. I am sorry. I really am.”

The lady alongside peeked from her headscarf to share a sweet smile and a wink in solidarity. She could see with her heart and not only her eyes. “Don’t worry. And… I’m sorry,” she mouthed silently, in support of the peacekeeping efforts and as if representing all Londoners. With that whisper of allegiance, she gracefully disembarked the bus.

Back to the war zone.

“You can $%* off, you can. You’re lucky this time. Lucky.” His eyes flared.

Hold him with compassion.”

Her heart beat was steady, albeit her breath was shallow. She did not look away. He moved to leave the bus. On dismounting, he stood in the road and stared at her through the window, pointing his finger in continued warning. Admittedly, she was pleased when the bus advanced enough that she could lose contact. She took a deep breath. She also resolved that she might not be a good hostage negotiator after all.

Why share this anecdote?

It needs to be shared because the truth is each of us carries a trauma, big (T) or small (t), if there is such a scale. Any one of us could be that man on the bus or the delegate put to the test. Each of us brings our many selves to every interpersonal transaction– the hurt self, the wise self, the angered self, the traumatized self, the child self, the loving self, the threatened self, the powerful self, the rejected self, the ‘normal life’ self. In a split second, our past traumas and wounds can be triggered, unknowingly and unwittingly, even by total strangers and random environmental cues. In that instant, our bodies will decide how to respond – fight, flight or freeze. It is what bodies do to survive.  In that moment, we may behave in ways we shouldn’t. We may attack. We may dissolve. We may not even recognize that our behaviour has perpetuated a cycle of pain, and wounded others. At the conference, aside from all the theories and data at play, the learning was to acknowledge that all persons have a past, a history and a story, including ourselves. All have work to do to deal with their stories, or risk that they will act on the basis of pain and behave like that man on the bus. And yes, that means therapy, in whatever form.

It needs to be shared because schools have an obligation to provide a safe harbour for children, a respite from a harsh world. Remedial schools need to prioritise their mandate to be a haven for those needing to heal what it is was to struggle when all around them seemed to succeed in class. Children with learning disabilities need a place to mend and recover and mount their strength to go back again later. It is intrinsic to the work of such a school.

It needs to be shared because it is not just individuals that carry a story peppered with troubles. Families do too – down generations – and so do communities. There is an intentional, collective response to be had, each on our own and all of us together. You may be traumatized. Your child may be too. We may be traumatized. Our children may be too. South Africa certainly is.

It needs to be shared because we can heal our pasts. As individuals and as communities, our wonderful personal and/or collective psyche provides mechanisms for wholeness and well-being. We may need help with procedures and to get our thoughts ordered, but we are equipped with cognitive control. With this control, we can consciously choose how we see and perceive others, how we value our fellow man, how we show others compassion, how we know and confront ourselves. To be sure to deploy self-regulation, we need to exercise awareness of self and acknowledge the journey of others.

We must engage self-care, mentoring, social and emotional support, empathy and compassion. We need to seek it. We need to offer it. That’s the crux of the lessons from London.

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