Hope for Trauma Victims

Because of memories of fear, panic and terror, trauma victims may wonder if they will ever feel normal. In fact, some individuals struggle so much to believe that they will ever be normal again that they can become consumed with finding  a way to heal and recover. It is at this time they need to have hope…hope that they can survive and recover from their traumatic episode.

Dr. Bruce Perry’s “Rat Hope” Story

cute rat
Dr. Perry explains how research proves a rat's brain can become imprinted with hope in a traumatic situation.

At a seminar held in Trenton, NJ on April 7, 2009, Dr. Bruce Perry retold a story he often presents that he calls Rat Hope. The following is a paraphrase of that story.

Researchers have found that when a rat is placed in a vat of cold water, it will swim frantically for a specific amount of time, around 40-45 minutes, until it gives up and drowns. Researchers also found that when a rat is placed in the vat of cold water, swims around frantically but is rescued after 10 minutes or so, dried off and returned to its cage, when it is placed again weeks later in a vat of cold water, it will continue to swim for several hours before drowning (because hope has burned into its brain that allows it to hang on much, much longer than a rat who never experienced being rescued).

Besides feeling very sorry that rats had to die in order to conduct this research, the message is powerful: once the brain learns that safety and rescue exist, it can hold onto that memory and hope though it continues to struggle, because it knows these exist.

A story of encouragement

Grieving African American boy
The Rat Hope story should encourage all of us to appreciate that our efforts to provide safety and rescue those in horrific situations has great value because it can instill hope.

Dr. Perry shares that rat brains are similar in many ways to human brains, and he believes that the story of Rat Hope mirrors what could happen for human beings. He tells the story to encourage all of us to appreciate that our efforts to provide safety and rescue to those in horrific situations has great value because it can instill hope. Even when we know that a child or adult will continue to be in a dangerous, unhealthy, abusive or potentially traumatizing situation, those times when we offer respite and rescue, even when temporary, have the power to instill a level of hope.

Therefore, it is important for us to recognize that once we discover a child who has been traumatized (or is currently being traumatized) we need to remove him/her from that situation.  Even removing the child for a short season is helpful to enliven his/her hope and resilience.

A child gives a daisy
Hope would provide a new resolve to recover from serious traumatic events.

The victim needs the hope of protection, a degree of normalcy, and the potential of a safe place to live. And we need to be vigilant with this assistance so that our children are given every opportunity to find respite from traumatic incidences or events in their lives. Giving them that reprieve can help them gain the hope to actually survive their trauma.

Note that we do not ever want to tolerate a child being traumatized by anyone. We know that serious traumatic events have life-dominating consequences to children even into the adult years. However, if we can provide them with hope, we know that they are better able to process the grief and loss associated with trauma. Hope would provide a new resolve to recover from serious traumatic events.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Deepening Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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