Out-of-the-box advice for veterinary professionals dealing with traumatic experiences

October 21, 2019
Hilal Dogan, BVSc, CCTP
Hilal Dogan, BVSc, CCTP

Frequent Fetch dvm360 speaker Dr. Hilal Dogan practices medicine in Denver, Colorado. She started the Veterinary Confessionals Project as a senior veterinary student at Massey University in New Zealand.

What might coping with stressors in veterinary medicine look like if we allowed our physical response to trauma to take its course, rather than suppressing it?

There is an overwhelming energy associated with survival. Think of a deer in the peak of hunting season, when shots ring out. The gunshot incites a violent movement, but once the deer is in a safe place, it will tremble and shake-moving traumatic energy through its body.

Humans, however, often suppress overwhelming feelings associated with trauma. There's a gap between the body's response to stress and the emotional and physical manifestation we allow to occur.

Connecting the mind and body to cope with the stress of trauma was a topic at the annual International Trauma Conference, held in Boston in May. There, Michael Mithoefer, MD, a psychiatrist in South Carolina, emphasized the importance of “body work,” meaning physical, vibrational and expressive movement, for healing traumatic stress.

“If you are looking for a place to start, start with breathwork, specifically holotropic breathwork. This is a type of breathing that is relaxing but uses hyperventilation to move energy,” Dr. Mithoefer said. “You are depleting your brain of oxygen and blowing off excess carbon dioxide, so oxygen is more tightly bound to hemoglobin. Your body goes into respiratory alkalosis-and arterioles contract. You get less oxygen to the brain which stops the brain attention and shifts to physical attention. You are able to move out of your mind and into your body.”

Reconnecting with your body

Peter Levine, PhD, has spent 45 years studying psychological trauma and believes in the importance of restoring your connection between your mind, body and spirit to heal from trauma.

He is particularly involved in the applications of a technique he has created called "somatic experiencing." Somatic experiencing helps people identify where trauma may be stuck or frozen in their body and allows for movement of that energy to exit the body. This is done by being able to access body sensations, finding where you are tight or where you have collapsed. Dr. Levine outlines this in detail with specific exercises one can complete on their own in his book Waking the Tiger.

After years of treating trauma, Dr. Levine found that post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear. Little time is allotted for the working through of distressing events, and we are routinely pressured into adjusting too quickly in the aftermath of an overwhelming situation. While Somatic Experiencing is a specific form of therapy, the necessity to reconnect with our body as a means of healing is evident.

The mind-body-spirit connection

While the techniques mentioned here are specific to trauma therapy, almost every traumatologist advocates for the use of yoga, meditation, tai chi, acupuncture, art therapy, aromatherapy, martial arts, theater, music and even virtual reality as adjuncts to healing from trauma. They all on some level will end up employing you to use your breath or get in touch with your physical body.

Ultimately, traumatologists have acknowledged that there is no one way to heal from trauma, but rather a multimodal approach that is tailored to the individual using known techniques is best.

Frequent Fetch dvm360 speaker Dr. Hilal Dogan, a certified clinical trauma professional, practices medicine in Denver, Colorado. She started the Veterinary Confessionals Project as a senior veterinary student at Massey University in New Zealand.