Aboriginal healing practices for loss and trauma: Bruce Perry

Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist, is the Senior Fellow (and Founder) of the ChildTrauma Academy in Houston, Texas, USA.

Examination of the known beliefs, rituals, and healing practices for loss and trauma that remain from Aboriginal cultures reveal some remarkable principles.

Healing rituals from a wide range of geographically separate, culturally disconnected groups converge into a set of core elements related to adaption and healing following trauma.

These core elements include an overarching belief system—a rationale, a reason for the pain, injury, loss; a retelling or re-enactment of the trauma in words, dance, or song; a set of somato-sensory experiences—touch, the patterned repetitive movement of dance and song—all provided in intensely relational experience with family and clan participating in the ritual.

The most remarkable quality of these elements is that together they create a total neurobiological experience influencing cortical, limbic, diencephlalic, and brainstem systems (not unlike the pervasive neurobiological impact of trauma):

  • Retell the story.
  • Hold each other.
  • Massage, dance, sing.
  • Create images of the battle.
  • Fill literature, sculpture, and drama with retelling.
  • Reconnect to loved ones and to community.
  • Celebrate, eat, and share.

These Aboriginal healing practices are repetitive, rhythmic, relevant, relational, respectful, and rewarding; they are experiences known to be effective in altering neural systems involved in the stress response in both animals models and humans. The remarkable resonance of these practices with the neurobiology of trauma is not unexpected.

These practices emerged because they worked. People felt better and functioned better, and the core elements of the healing process were reinforced and passed on. Cultures separated by time and space all converged on the same general approach …

While these therapeutic practices may not at first seem “biological”: be assured that they are not only likely to change the brain, but they will assuredly provide the patterned, repetitive stimuli required to specifically influence and modify the impact of trauma, neglect, and maltreatment on key neural systems.

Bruce Perry, in Malchiodi, A 2008, ‘Creative Interventions and Childhood Trauma’, in Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children, The Guilford Press, New York, pp. ix – xi)

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