A Matrix Approach to Working with Trauma Activation in Groups

by Raven Wells
with Amina Knowlan | July 2007

In order for our emotions to become a gift to those around us, they must become freed from the imprints of memories, they must become pure response to the now.
— Arjuna Ardagh,
The Translucent Revolution

Tremendous advancement has been made in recent years in understanding the effects and treatment of trauma in individuals. While this important information filters its way into the mainstream, we still have very few maps or effective models for working with trauma on a group level. In the previous ezine article we said we would next address the distribution of trauma roles. Before delving in to that topic, it is worth revisiting some definitions and distinctions regarding trauma.

Defining Trauma

A useful distinction to make right away is the difference between trauma and traumatic activation. In a workshop setting it is common to label an event as traumatic when often it would be more accurate to name it as traumatic activation. Trauma occurs in an individual or group when an event occurs that is beyond its capacity to deal with and is on some level a threat to its survival. The newer an organism is, the less capacity/resources it tends to have, to deal with events. Leaving a child alone can be life threatening while leaving an adult alone can be pleasurable. Unresolved traumatic events often lead to traumatic activation occurring at later times. Traumatic activation can be thought of as having life threatening responses to non life-threatening situations.

Triggers and Traumatic Activation

In acute circumstances we create episodic memories and triggers (or loose associations) to go with them. Episodic memories are a unique way of storing mental, emotional, and physiological responses as if we were paused inside specific moments. Simultaneous with forming an episodic memory, we create a loose association with the circumstances that can later act as a trigger. Any future circumstance that loosely resembles the original threat has the potential of triggering the stored responses from our past. A 'hand-shy' dog flinches in response to the association with the previous hand that struck it, not the current hand that extends to it. 'Triggered', 'hijacked', 'traumatically activated', 'episodic memory', 'trauma vortex', - all these are similarly used terms. They point to the phenomena of feeling pulled into our responses from a previous traumatic event as if it were happening in the current moment. We actually loose our capacity to distinguish the past from the present. As Amina said in the previous ezine "When trauma fields and roles are activated in any group context, we are no longer really in the room with each other in the present moment. We are emotionally, psychologically and physiologically in our personal biography and ancestral lineage, expecting to be mistreated or injured in the historical way."

Group Level Activation

Group responses to trauma run parallel to individual responses. Like individuals, groups can get triggered and lose their capacity to distinguish the past from the present. When traumatic activation occurs in a group event, individuals, pairs, and subgroups take on various roles on behalf of the group. Once someone has played a traumatically activated group role, they tend to get habitually triggered into some version of that role in future group contexts.

One of the clearest identifiers of individual or group level traumatic activation is the feeling of losing choice. Trauma involves a loss of choice or response, being overwhelmed. Traumatic activation involves feeling choice-less when we are not.

Matrix approach to Traumatic Activation

The following steps represent a brief overview of how we work with trauma activation in Matrix group contexts. These components are not linear (i.e., they do not necessarily occur in this order). They are not distinct nor is the list all inclusive. They are meant to offer a map that can only hint at the complexity of working with trauma activation in groups. It is also essential to understand that in Matrix contexts, long before we enter into charged territories we attend to creating a ground of health by cultivating connections between all members of the group. These connections form an interconnected web that acts as a shore to return to when the waters get turbulent. The groundwork laid early on is as or more important than the following components.

1) Name and Witness the Trauma Field from the Past

Ideally in a Matrix context, when traumatic fields arise we name them. The first step in disengaging from traumatic fields is to distinguish the present from the past. There is an important difference between witnessing our activation in the present moment and being drawn unconsciously into choice-less states. Naming the current responses as reactions from our past engages a capacity to witness ourselves in the present.

2) Reconnect in Present Time & Return to Ground of Health

Once the activation is named, the next step is rediscovering the present connection we lost when we mistook the "other" for a player in our story from the past. The act of choosing to switch directions is dismantling to the feeling that we've lost choice about what's happening between us. Often we return to the ground of ordinary life and filling in our knowing of each other. Questions like, "Tell me one thing you loved about your week," bring people back into the room with each other in present time.

3) Identify the Various Trauma Roles taken on by Group Members

When some individuals are activated into the 'victim' role, typically other members are taking on the 'rescuer' or 'bystander' role. Others may identify with the person who has been identified as the 'perpetrator,' or the cause of the distress. If these roles stay static or habitual, the group can become fragmented, polarized or frozen. Naming the many players in the territory already begins to distribute the trauma field among more people-rather than having it run through one person or pair.

4) Identify the Territory

Sometimes naming the territory or theme of the activation is helpful. A little exploration can aid in clarifying the past from the present. For example, the activation may result from a time when there was a difference in role power, or when there was an accident. It may be in an arena where an entire race of people suffered horrific injustice. It may include sexual harassment or be related to gender and sexism. Identifying a territory has the impact of spreading the group field off of one individual, pair or subgroup.

5) Distribute the Roles & Bring Other Versions into the Room

This is the pivotal Matrix intervention. For someone who habitually freezes into a bystander role, it may be important to find her voice and name her vulnerability-perhaps in a related territory. Another individual, who classically assumes the rescuer role, may discover that he splits off from feeling the vulnerability of a group member who has a physical disability. With closer reflection, he may realize that this split stems from the impact of being raised by a parent who had a debilitating physical impairment or illness. As a child, he lived with the ever-present threat to his parent's life. Rather than get stuck in the helpless victim role, he took refuge in the rescuer role. Here is the key: when he can feel his own feeling of powerlessness from the past, the person who was originally in the victim role, will predictably feel less emotional activation or charge. It's as if all of the emotional vulnerability was left to run through one person. When these feelings of vulnerability are distributed as others 'take their part' of that role or territory, the amplification drops out of the first person. In Matrix facilitation, we don't stop with one person or one pair. We invite other versions and other pairs to take their part of this territory or this role. With more channels open between more pairs of people, the heightened charge of the trauma activation simply diminishes because it has more 'pipes' to go through. Entire fields of trauma activation can thus be sequenced through the nervous system and body of the group. Amazing Grace....

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