Here is how I think about trauma. 

It's packaged in a language intended to be accessible to people who are skeptical of trauma-narratives. It kinda skips over all the actually hard parts because I don't feel like dealing with that today, and many of them are sort of private and involve other people. I realize that makes it fairly abstract and maybe hard follow. Tough nuts?

I suppose worth saying explicitly: I think my experience with trauma was relatively simple, and I expect people with more complicated and long-lived trauma experiences to need pretty different frameworks. YMMV. 

But if you're skeptical that "trauma" is a useful pointer for "what sort of things are going wrong?", I think this may give you some useful hooks for thinking about whether it applies to you.

Trauma Advocates circa 2019

Around 2018-2019, there was a fairly common set of memes in my local social group around processing trauma. There were some people who had noticed:

  • They (and many people they talked to), felt very stuck, demotivated, unhappy or unproductive in mysterious ways.
  • They eventually came to believe that this was downstream of trauma they had experienced awhile ago (often in childhood), in ways that shaped what stories they felt allowed to tell themselves, and what sort of motivations they were allowed to have. Their motivations were a series of spaghetti code built on top of said trauma.
  • Notably, it had not been salient to them that they were experiencing trauma for most of their adult life. But they eventually hit on a realization that they'd been ignoring their emotions, while thinking they were awesome at emotions. Unlocking this realization made them happier and more fulfilled.
  • They observed at least some other people for whom the above story was clearly true.
  • They observed that many rationalists-in-their-neighborhood seemed to have at least some things in common with the story (i.e. mysteriously unmotivated, anxious, etc).
  • They went around diagnosing people as traumatized. Such as me.

And I reflected a bit, and I was like "I... I dunno man. I've thought about it a bunch. I just... really don't seem very traumatized?"

One argument about this resulted in my blogpost Strategies for Personal Growth. I noticed me and a friend were talking past each other a bunch about self-improvement, and I kept talking in the frame of "what skills can I gain and how can I gain them?" and they kept talking in the frame of "how can I heal?". It took me awhile to understand that we were coming at this from two frames, and this made sense because we were in different life-trajectories where (AFAICT) it really did make sense for me to be focused on gaining skills at the time, and it really made sense for them to be focused on healing.

Then, the pandemic happened.

Trauma from the perspective of the Robot Utilitarians

And everyone I know suddenly had to deal with many important pillars of their life getting ripped out at once, and having to make very stressful negotiations with their roommates and coworkers where people had different needs, different epistemics on "how dangerous is covid?" and different preferences on how to resolve disagreements on covid policy.

I had a really intense experience with this. A few months into the pandemic, I found myself waking up once a week crying in the middle of the night. And eventually I was like 


"this is a trauma. I did not have A Trauma before, but I got one now."

And I queried my Spirit of Humanity shoulder advisor and was like "hey I seem traumatized now. What do I do?" and the Spirit of Humanity said "obviously seems pretty important to work through your trauma so you can be healthy and happy and whole."

And I was like "ugh, that seems like a lot of work." and then I queried my Spirit of Robot Utilitarianism shoulder advisor and was like "hey Spirit of the Robot Utilitarians, what do you think about me having A Trauma? What if I just ignored it and powered through?"

And the Spirit of the Robot Utilitarians said "If you don't process your trauma, you could bury it deep inside and just focus on getting work done. But, if you ever got a total of three traumas, you'd probably become a broken shell of a person and then you wouldn't be able to serve the Glory of Great Robot Utilitaria. So, maybe prioritize processing and dealing with it before two more traumas happen and you end up tying yourself in a knot you can't untangle?"

Hmm, good point, Spirit of The Robot Utilitarians.

So, I worked on processing my trauma, which involved talking through it with friends and figuring out what I was upset about. I did some focusing, and eventually found a felt sense about what felt so awful, and articulated it, and then once I articulated it clearly it became fairly natural to grieve and let it go. Sorta. 

I think I approximately half-way processed that trauma, such that I was down to .5 traumas. So I could afford to get 2.4 more traumas without becoming a broken shell of a person.

The rest of the pandemic passed without further trauma-related-stuff.

2.9 Traumas

Then the pandemic ended, and it came time to a) integrate back into the rest of the world, b) figure out what the LessWrong team was supposed to do and how to orient to a changing world with dangerous x-risks, and c) figure out what community was supposed to mean, since a lot of my previous thoughts on community felt like they had turned out to be incoherent. 

Somehow in the process of dealing with all that I gained 2.4 traumas. The exact nature of those traumas is bigger than I feel like getting into right now, and maybe they were idiosyncratic to me. It involved reconciling a part of me that really wanted to just have a nice village, and be a humble village priest who helped their local community be nice. And a part of me that felt "man, the village is not safe. I can't in good conscience just stay here having a nice life. The spirit of the village compels me to leave the village and figure out how to help protect the broader world. 

"But, man, something about that feels really sad/bad."

I came into work Monday morning and say "Hey, Oliver Habryka, I now I have 2.9 traumas, and I have an intuition that if I gain a total of 3 traumas I will become a broken shell of a person. So, uh, be aware that might suddenly happen?"

Five days later, there was some minor fight on the LessWrong team about how to build a piece of software, and I gained .1 traumas from it, and then I became a broken shell of a person.

And then I spent all weekend crying in the bathtub, trying to understand what was going on inside me and how to fix it. And I processed it back down to 2.9 traumas, and came back in the next Monday and said "Okay, I hit 3 traumas last Friday, I processed them back down to 2.9 and I'm functional now, but, I think now my primary priority for quite awhile needs to be processing stuff and disentangling all my conflicting motivations and relationships."

A thing that was salient to me as I went about this was...

...some of those other people who got really into Processing Trauma seemed to... end up falling into a Process Trauma Hole and never come out. They seemed (to me) to get addicted to little microepiphanies, and processing emotions for the sake of processing emotions. 

So a thing I decided fairly early on in this process was that I would maintain a day-job. I might take a couple weeks to focus heavily on emotional work, but would be trying to stay connected to my object-level goals and also generally being a productive member of society. (I basically think this worked out)

Traumas vs Knots-in-Heart

In my personal ontology, a trauma is a particular subspecies of "knot in heart."

A trauma is an instance where something hurts you, and you develop coping mechanisms to route around the hurt, but the coping mechanisms limit your action space, blind you to some things, and distort your thinking a bit.

A knot-in-heart is... a more general thing where something is distorted inside you that you have to route around and distort your thinking around, but isn't necessarily about "you were hurt and are trying not to get hurt again." An example of a non-trauma-lump-in-heart is a friendship that you know you probably should end, or a job you should probably quit, but it's too awkward to think about and you kinda bury it down so you can continue interacting in your social scene or day-job.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been carrying around one particular knot-in-my-heart. I had made a fairly conscious choice of "you know, I think I can deal with this knot in my heart later. It clearly affects me when I think about certain types of things, but I mostly just don't think about those types of things and that seems fine?"

(I think this was not fine, but mostly for other people's sake rather than mine)

But post-pandemic, I suddenly ended up with ~5 knot in my heart, 3 of which were traumas, and all of them were kinda interconnected. 

I ended up deciding to unravel all of them at once, even though this was pretty exhausting and scary and involved unmooring myself from almost all of my existing life-narratives at once. (This included "which humans am I close with?", "what does the rationality community mean to me?", "what do I think of myself as being obligated to do?", "who am I, fundamentally?")

Deliberate Grieving and Emotional Inbox Zero

I spent 3 months solidly grieving things. About a month-and-a-half in, I thought "man, I'm so good at grieving now. I should write a blogpost about deliberate grieving."

I had previously read's "Emotional Processing" post, which basically advocated treating all emotions as something you were supposed to react to / deal with in some way. Treat your emotional inbox like a productive employee treats their email inbox and try to maintain emotional inbox-zero. 

That had seemed sort of sensible, but also a pretty big project. 

After the pandemic, since I was processing everything at once, I thought "You know, I think I will actually end up hitting emotional inbox zero in like 3 months. That's pretty cool."

It turned out to take more like 1.5 years to hit emotional inbox ~zero. It turns out processing the end of the world and a reconceptualization of my core identity takes more than 3 months. Who knew. (Most of the heavy lifting for me was done at three distinct events, that were all something close to a formalized ritual with other people. I processed my feelings about x-risk at two small winter solstice gatherings (one at the end of 2021, one at the end of 2022). I processed some other feelings about other stuff with an in-person conversation with someone who had a lot of context and was there to be really supportive of me.

I eventually wrote the blogpost on Deliberate Grieving but felt kinda embarrassed about how confident the first draft sounded. 

The moral of the story?

I dunno.

Trauma is a useful frame, but, don't follow it off a cliff.

You can fix your emotional problems/confusions, but it'll take awhile.

Interleave your emotional processing with other stuff. It seems healthier to me, although to be fair I didn't really compare/contrast this with other approaches.

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30 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:11 PM

Even though I think there's value in the "healing" frame, I also liked this counterpoint to it:

“Healing” requires an ideal form to move towards

How is that form chosen?

For things like “I sprained my ankle” the obvious answer is to move towards the form of your able-bodied self, v familiar 
For things like “i have a disorganized soul and disregulated inner drives”

The form you choose to move towards can be much more arbitrary 
“No mark of health to be well adjusted to a sick society” and all that

Do you move towards a form that can function socially? Or a form that can meditate on a mountaintop? What are you aiming for? How did you choose the bullseye? 
This isn’t academic,

A lot of people take time away from their previous life “to heal”

And end up becoming something unrecognizable, strange, and let’s just be perfectly honest: it’s very often unclear if there’s much upside to the “healed” version of them 
“I undid all the conditioning society wounded and scarred me with. That’s why I now live under this tarp in the woods, drinking rain water and covering my head in sap to protect my thoughts from faerie sprites” 
“I spent my whole life under the thumb of authoritarian control freaks—my mother, my principal, my boss. Then I left and took time to heal; now I live how *I* want, scamming money off of older divorcees and travelling the world” 
“Healing” as a concept in spiritual/self-help/therapeutic circles is often colored with a lot of “awayness” and very little “towardness”

Intention is vague if present at all. 
Very often, the idea is “the important thing is following technique X—from there you’ll transform, and you can trust that transformation”

But that’s not enough. It’s clearly, obviously not enough. 
And the closer we get to an intention that makes real sense and has real telos,

The less sense it makes to refer to it as “healing” 
You want to infuse your soul with divine connection? Excellent, I love it. Why does the word “healing” apply to that?

You want to feel calm and comfortable and connected as a baseline state? Sounds great. Why is that “healed”? 
The answer seems fairly obvious,

If you can confidently assert that your preferred direction/intention is “healing”

That comes w a whole narrative-world that gives *your* intention precedence and primacy. 
It muddies the water, disguising how arbitrary your particular intention is.

If it’s “healing”, then it’s not uncertain and arbitrary—it’s a return to proper function. To original function. It’s what you (and everyone else) we’re always *supposed* to be like 
“Healing” provides a narrative that lets you brush off the need for narrative.

You don’t have to answer any questions about why you’re choosing the intention that you are—no more than someone w a broke arm needs to answer questions about why they want their bone to mend 
There’s a lot of sloppiness here.

When it’s normal to have zero need to even think about why you’re going in the direction you are, there’s a lot of ways to lie to yourself 

There are many things in my life that I’ve chosen for shitty reasons.

Emotional stuntedness, trauma, heartbreak, peer pressure, limited imagination, inertia,,,

But I was able to follow some of them longer than I should have, by not feeling any need to inquire into them

“Healing” is a non-answer, in most cases. It doesn’t make sense, outside of a few v limited contexts, as more than a rhetorical device for credibility-laundering.

If you can’t explain to yourself why the things you’re doing are “healing” rather than “exploring” or “floundering” or sth else, maybe don’t use the word or frame. It invites incoherence


This is an interesting perspective. The advice at the end is certainly all things I’d endorse.

I’d caution anyone against taking this sort of ontology too seriously, though (especially people who find it appealing!)—things like this (conceptual ontologies of psychological phenomena, which are grounded in nothing but subjective experience and introspection) are the epitome of “you could think of it as”.

Interesting, this is not really how I think about trauma at all! Or if it is you've framed it in a way that I never would have.

I tend to think of trauma as things that happened in the past that led to stuck memories that are strongly immune to updating. When things happen that will create stuck memories it's not very clear that that's what's going to happen; it's only well after the fact that it's clear something is stuck. Thus there's no sense to me in which these things have to be processed, they just are.

There's something else, which I don't really have to deal with any more, that looks more like what you're talking about: new stuff happens that violates my expectations and meta-expectations about the world, and then I have to spend time letting my mind work through what the new evidence means and maybe deal with some emotional stuff caused by those expectations being forced to change.

(To be fair, though, I'm a bit weird in that I've meditated a lot and that's changed me in important ways such that you might say I've mentally refactored away lots of my technical debt. Memory reconsolidation was also really useful here for clearing out traumatic things so that they were no longer stuck.)

(I also note that I use trauma just to refer to these stuck memories, and not to big things that are supposed to be Traumatic.)

I think "stuck memories immune to updating" is something that I'd expect to happen if you let [the-sort-of-thing-I'm-talking-about] sit rather than get processed. A commenter on FB noted that "This feels like a pretty good ontology for un-complex trauma. I did a CPT for PTSD program recently and was pretty amazed (and a bit envious) of how much it helped people who had uncomplex traumas" (while going on to note that people with complex traumas have a different thing going on).

i.e. it seems like the central reference class for "trauma'd people" are people who had a series of experiences long in the past they barely remember. But, those people had to have had that experience "recently" at some point. If it happens when you're a kid you probably have way fewer tools for processing it healthily.


Not sure if this is contra your phrasing or not, but: based on how I use the english language, I think it makes sense to use the word trauma for specifically things that hurt/are-distressing/disturbing/scary. (i.e. google dictionary says "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience" which roughly matches my experiences). 

I think insofar as there are stuck-memories-that-don't-update that aren't rooted in something unpleasant, (but which maybe share important structure with a common way that distressing things cause stuck-memories) I'd come up with another word for that. (dunno what psych literature says, but if there's jargon that departs a lot from common usage while being relevant to common usage, I think that's a recipe for unnecessary confusion)

(I can imagine people, maybe meditators-in-particular, for whom "hurt/distress" isn't really a coherent category, and once you See The Matrix it makes more sense to think in terms of surprise/model-violation/resistance-to-update. But, like, I'd guess the "hurt"/"not-hurt" distinction is still pretty relevant for most people?)

(I say all this still thinking it makes sense to have a conception of little-t traumas that might have had an outsized impact despite not seemingly like they should have been particularly big deals.)

I think "stuck memories immune to updating" is something that I'd expect to happen if you let [the-sort-of-thing-I'm-talking-about] sit rather than get processed. 

If someone has a relative who dies and they are very sad the next week, no doctor would diagnose them as depressed. The person would only be diagnosed as depressed if they don't process the experience.

If you let these things sit, the body engages in a process to disassociate the experience which reduces the emotional input a bit but which then also makes updating harder. 

It's useful to distinguish "bad experience that's in the state of being processed" from "bad experience that's outside of processing". Gordon seems to use trauma only to refer to the later category and you seem to want to include the term to cover both. 

I disagree with the notion that we should come up with different words for things which share underlying structure but which don't conform to our expectations about what "trauma" looks like, or that we should treat "meditators who have Seen The Matrix" as weird edge cases that don't count and should be ignored when coming up with language.

The alternate perspective I offer is to view the successful meditators as people who simply have a more clear view of reality and therefore a better idea of how to define terms which cleave reality at the joints. The reasons it's important to cleave reality at it's joints are obvious in an abstract sense, but less obvious is that by doing this you actually change how pain is experienced and it doesn't require years of meditation.

My favorite example of this is when my kid cousin burned his hand pretty bad, and I found him fighting back tears as everyone tried to console him and offer ice. No one had any idea that their understanding of pain/suffering was meaningfully flawed here because the kid was clearly a central case of their concept of "hurt" and not some "meditator who has Seen The Matrix". No one saw their own responses to the situation as "trauma responses" because "it's not overwhelming" and "just trying to help, because I feel bad for him", but their actions were all in attempt to avoid their own discomfort at seeing him uncomfortable, and that failure to address the uncomfortable reality is the exact same thing and led to the exact same problems.

It's worth noting that they were doing it because they didn't know better and not that they didn't have the mental strength to resist even if they did, but it's exactly that "Well, it doesn't count as trauma because it's not that intense" thinking that allowed them to keep not knowing better instead of noticing "Wow, I'm uncomfortable seeing this kid injured and distressed like this", and proceeding as makes sense. In that case, simply asking if it the pain that was distressing him is all it took for him to not be distressed and not even perceive the sensations as "painful" anymore, but you can't get there if you are content with normal conflations between pain/suffering/meta-suffering/etc.

When people don't see themselves as "trauma limited" it's sometimes true, but it's also often that they don't recognize the ways in which the same dynamics are at play because they don't have a good reference experience for how it could be different or a good framework to lead them there. Discarding "intuitive" language and working only with precise language that lays bare the conflations is an important part of getting there.

I think I missed the problem in the case of the burned-hand kid – what was the issue in this case?

He was essentially gaslighted into thinking he had to sit there and suffer about it, rather than saying "oops" and laughing it off.

He already knew how to relate to pain pretty well from his older brothers playfully "beating him up" in what is essentially a rough game of "tickling" that teaches comfort with mild/non-harmful pain. In fact, when I stopped to ask him if it was the pain that he was distressed about, his response -- after briefly saying "Yeah!" and then realizing that it didn't fit -- was that when he feels pain his brain interprets it as "ticklish", and that it therefore it didn't actually hurt and instead "just tickles".

Everyone else was uncomfortable for him though, and while he was prepared to laugh off a burn that was relatively minor all things considered, he wasn't prepared to laugh off a strong consensus of adults acting like something definitely not okay happened to him, so as a result he was pressured into feeling not-okay about it all.

...some of those other people who got really into Processing Trauma seemed to... end up falling into a Process Trauma Hole and never come out. They seemed (to me) to get addicted to little microepiphanies, and processing emotions for the sake of processing emotions.

Personally most of the emotion-processing stuff that I do tends to be aimed at specific internal or external goals, like fix anxiety X or become capable of doing Y. I do think that there's also value in doing emotional processing for its own sake, since that can help reveal issues one didn't know were issues, but it's good to keep checking whether you're making progress on your Xs and Ys. Endless processing can also be a way to avoid facing the actually really hard issues while focusing on something easier, and that becomes easier to notice if it's clear to you that you're still stalling on your goals. 

My most memorable example is one occasion when I managed to take a significant amount of time off work and also found an introspective technique that seemed to work fantastic. Everything felt so much better.

Until I needed to return to work and most of the gains seemed to vanish.

Now I do think that the technique did work. It wasn't only that I got to take some time off: that by itself wouldn't have allowed me to feel so much better.

It's more that returning to work triggered some traumas and issues so strong, they shattered the gains.

As a somewhat similar experience, I was unemployed for most of 2021 and that allowed me to feel truly satisfied. Only, it wasn't long-term sustainable and it was enabled because I had no job and also felt like I didn't need to achieve anything else. Once I get back to work, that triggered other issues and made me less happy overall... but with more long-term satisfaction about doing something right and not just being happy because I'm sitting at home doing nothing.

That said, I do definitely also agree with some of the other commenters on some kinds of endless processing coming from the fact that the stuff is simply very deep and huge to work through.

And to be clear, I don't think that the progress would need to be short-sighted. It doesn't mean every session with one's therapist (or whatever) should immediately translate into being able to do something more. Progress can be "there were 12 things about the thought of doing X that gave me overwhelming anxiety and prevented me from even trying it, and now there are only 11 such things".

The main thing is that if I care about being able to do X, then my progress comes from actually trying to tackle X, as opposed to feeling better because I am - say - just going on endless silent retreats where I feel better because I can just meditate and do nothing else. (That is not a criticism of silent retreats. I've found them to have some value and may go on future ones. It is a criticism of the failure mode where you use them to avoid your problems and never even ask the question of how to translate the gains into real life.)

And I also don't think that I was making a mistake when I spent most of 2021 unemployed. It was necessary for me to reorient, catch some breath, and get a sense of what the heck I want to do with my life. A person does also need to take breaks and just rest.

Hey, thanks for writing it up! I like the term "emotional inbox". I suppose an average person (on LW) does not even realize they have such a thing. Or that they would be better off clearing it. A lot of non-normies also have childhood baggage they tend to ignore. Happy to hear that what you did worked for you. A lot of others would likely need some professional help (EMDR/ART are my favorites).

Did you ever figure out whether any parts of your new ~3 traumas were somehow in fact downstream of past unprocessed traumas that you didn't understand? Or was this really just new stuff happening to you, and you were correct to believe that the 2018 trauma advocates weren't talking about anything related to your life?

To the best of my knowledge they were all new. I assume some early childhood stuff shaped my personality somehow or other, and presumably some of it wasn't healthy, but it hasn't stood out as an obvious thing to go back and re-process.

Thanks, I appreciate you writing this, and I appreciate you sharing about this in public. I'm somewhat excited to see how this conversation might develop more centrally in rat discourse. I think there's currently some major incommunicable cruxes surrounding these questions, and I've had a lot of conversations about this domain with people who are squarely rats, but mostly auxiliary to rat discourse in a way that's frustrating.

I have some critiques:

  • I think this is a plausible contour of how things might go for people who started out relatively healthy, who experience a substantial disturbance and then work to return to something about as stable as their previous configuration. I don't think this is a good point of reference for people who began this process quite disturbed and have been so for quite a while. 
    • Indeed, you refer to people trying to address a morass of confusing and illegible motivational/emotional/etc issues, whose situations I don't think are described well by this sort of story. I currently have the most weight on Mark Lippmann's work in this domain, over any other framework, traditional or modern. (Warning: I don't actually recommend his writing to almost anyone, unfortunately.)
    • There's some very important questions around how or why people are apparently getting stuck on this emotions/trauma stuff, and whether they should actually be regarded as stuck. This also trades off sharply depending on whether they're doing vital work otherwise: I hold people working on x-risk in an almost unique category in this respect, where to me even if they might seem to have tons of un-worked-out stuff, I lean towards preferring they continue their work rather than investing hard in healing.
  • My impression, from <20 conversations with you ever, is that you have obvious-to-me stuff, that probably remains largely untouched by the emotional work you describe having done. To be clear, this is completely blameless, and should not be a source of shame. However, from my perspective this mostly negates your judgements about what is right or advisable in this domain.

Lastly, and I think you're not much to blame for this either: 

  • It's not clear to me how we should be having these conversations in public. I'm pretty frustrated by a bunch of "Works On My Machine™" posts about this topic all over the internet (and just as well in print), and I'm pretty confused how these conversations should even work, especially in our discourse. 
  • There's some problematic epistemological questions relating to claims about phenomenology and psychology, and I don't think that the existing literatures (modern western psychology, or any of the traditional contemplative schools) have resolved them. For that matter, the techniques and models from the existing literatures mostly aren't great either, so I'm hardly saying something like "there are established models, please go read these textbooks and stop posting quack physics."

My impression, from <20 conversations with you ever, is that you have obvious-to-me stuff, that probably remains largely untouched by the emotional work you describe having done. To be clear, this is completely blameless, and should not be a source of shame. However, from my perspective this mostly negates your judgements about what is right or advisable in this domain.

FYI I'm happy to have this kind of comment on this sort of post, I think it's useful context to have. (It seems probably good for us to actually chat about it at some point, and that probably would be more fruitful as a private convo)

I appreciate and encourage the "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" nature of this blog post. I also appreciate and encourage the "write similarly to how you'd talk to friends in real life" nature.

I really appreciated how this balanced your personal experience with the model building. I like the model a lot more than a model that arrives seemingly ex nihilo. (On no, this is why self help books are written this way isn't it? I'm also just now realizing that the biggest thing I dislike about most self help books is that the author does this pattern but usually exclusively with other people's problems and not their own).

Samskara theory from classical yoga traditions is (partially) the idea that by default people spend a lot of extra effort reacting to a mashup of the present and the salient bits of the past that are trying to do transfer learning but in practice winds up with a traffic jam of competing constraints. One of the big ideas is that digesting experiences fully is a skill that can be trained like any other and that with such training you eventually hit an inflection point where you process things faster than they come in and will eventually hit what's being referred to here as emotional inbox zero. The constraints idea is also why you wind up with this limit where tangles get exponentially worse when added together. The wicked tangles paralyze you along exactly the degrees of freedom you need for processing.

Also from Yoga we have the idea that a lot of this processing can be done purely physically/somatically, which can be dramatically less tangled than engaging with all the mental contents. I've taken to calling the endless therapy loop as the Integration Trap, and liken it to whack a mole. If you aren't improving your digestion skill then you are constantly firefighting rather than actually decreasing the rate of new moles popping up.

Yeah I know the somatic stuff works well for some people I know. I haven't currently gotten much out of it when I've tried it. (I resonated with Scott Alexander' recent "are woo-nonresponders defective?", where, like, it's totally a plausible hypothesis that I do have some kind of hangups that prevent me from getting value out of somatic stuff that I'd ideally overcome. But, also maybe people just vary?)

Traditional yoga again has arguing takes about this, with some schools claiming that it should work for everyone if you just 'do it right' or 'just punch harder' etc, and other schools claiming that such practices are basically...not useless per se, but unlikely to do much dramatic for people who haven't had certain prerequisite experiences (and for some people this seems to be never).

FWIW I think a lot of "somatic stuff" that's around is either poor quality or comes with very poor pedagogy. In my model there are also subtle and (even for many teachers) commonly illegible prerequisites. Also filtration processes on students and schools, people writing books, etc. 

Also, my take on ACT therapy is that a significant part of the functional juice there is around untangling skills in general (shame at not having them/gained them at the 'correct' developmental age and context, paralysis at certain situations, etc.) after which you have a meta-tool for everything else. I think this is super relevant b/c I claim public school is giving most people some skill acquisition related trauma.

On the topic of meta tangles more generally, I think one of the reasons these sorts of things are so perennially difficult is that on the margin noticing certain things serve as an infohazard for your current way of life (imagine yourself in the same situation of needing months to years but having children and a strained marriage). The system, on some level, notices this and shuts things down because they are too mission critical to have a code refactoring done on them in production.

Also from Yoga we have the idea that a lot of this processing can be done purely physically/somatically, 

Do you have recommendations on what types/names of yoga to try out for this?

I would expect that it's more important to have a quality teacher than the specific label that's used. 

If you want to look for labels "Somatic Yoga" might be one. 

Hatha or whatever is fine, it's just a focus on training the nervous system rather than muscular strength. Going slowly and paying attention to the breath and heart beat are very helpful. Trauma releasing exercises might also work but I don't have experience with them.

I think there's often a language/terminology challenge around these areas. For instance, at different times I had a grade 3 ankle sprain after endurance training, and a grade 2 wrist sprain after a car crash - those are clearly acute trauma (in the medical meaning of the word) and they do require some mix of healing to the extent possible for recovery of physical function. 

But I've always found it tricky that the same word 'trauma' is used for physical injuries, past bad experiences, and as a broad description of maladaptive patterns of thought and behavior. 

It's a broad word that people use in different ways.

Two things I've found useful.

(1) Highest recommendation for Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By (1980) which looks at conceptual metaphors:

From Chapter 7, "Personification":

Perhaps the most obvious ontological metaphors are those where the physical object is further specified as being a person. This allows us to comprehend a wide variety of experiences with nonhuman entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities. Here are some examples:

- His theory explained to me the behavior of chickens raised in factories.
- This fact argues against the standard theories. 
- Life has cheated me. 
- Inflation is eating up our profits.
- His religion tells him that he cannot drink fine French wines. 
- The Michelson-Morley experiment gave birth to a new physical theory. 
- Cancer finally caught up with him.

In each of these cases we are seeing something nonhuman as human. But personification is not a single unified general process. Each personification differs in terms of the aspects of people that are picked out. 

Consider these examples.
- Inflation has attacked the foundation of our economy. 
- Inflation has pinned us to the wall.
- Our biggest enemy right now is inflation. 
- The dollar has been destroyed by inflation.
- Inflation has robbed me of my savings. 
- Inflation has outwitted the best economic minds in the country.

I think a lot of discussion around the word "trauma" follows these characteristics — the challenge is, a lot of times people move between a literal well-scoped definition of trauma, say the medical one, and a more metaphorical/ontological description. People often do this without noticing it.

For instance, I can talk about the acute trauma of the wrist injury from a car crash, and everyone will largely understand what I'm talking about. But the same word 'trauma' will often be used if I had described some fear or aversion of getting into cars going forwards. I don't have one, but if I did, people would refer to both the wrist injury and the thing which caused the aversion to cars as 'trauma' — which seems somewhat confused to me. Clearly a wrist injury needs healing, in the biological and medical sense of the word healing. 

Does an aversion to getting into cars need "healing" in the same way? I mean, maybe, if you've got a definition of "healing" from neuroscience around how incoming information is processed and how chain reactions of synapses firing in response to a stimuli that produces a maladaptive behavioral pattern is classified as "healing." But - like, probably not. "Healing" in that context is a metaphor.

For my part, and just speaking for myself, I think the term "extinction" — though less in line with the current cultural milieu — is a much better word than "healing" for removing maladaptive emotional and behavioral patterns.

In my way of thinking about it,

  • A traumatic wrist injury is repaired by physical healing.
  • An irrational aversion to getting in cars is repaired by extinction of the behavior.

How to do the latter — talk-oriented therapies, exposure therapy (which is typically recommended for phobias), practice and training on implementing good patterns in similar situations to ones where you've displayed undesirable patterns of behavior, cognitive behavioral therapy if you're ruminating too much, etc - well, unfortunately there's no consensus currently on what works the best for any given case. 

But I think starting with a model of "I need to heal" is questionable. Relatedly, I'm also skeptical of using the word "heal" for biochemical imbalances — for biochemical-based depression, for instance, I think "I need to get my hormones and biochemistry better-regulated to remove depressive symptoms" is a a mix of more actionable, more accurate, and more subjectively empowering than "I need to heal from depression."

Anyway, this goes strongly against the current cultural milieu - and I haven't been maximally precise in the comment. A lot could be nitpicked. But I think extinction of maladaptive thought patterns and maladaptive behavior patterns is more easily accomplished (and a more accurate description of reality) than healing; likewise, "regulating" seems more accurate than healing to me on biochemical based phenomenon. 

It's been useful for me to think about it this way, and sometimes useful for other people. Though, different things work for different people - so add salt liberally. Regardless, Lakoff's Metaphors is extremely relevant the topic and highly recommended.

You assume that problems are very dualistic, that they are either a physical or a mental problem. Dualism is framework that has some appeal but there's no inherent reason why it has to be true.

Many people who use the word trauma refer to somato-psychological issues. If we take the car crash, there's a good chance that it results in changes in fascia and those changes also relate to phobia.

That's why many people believe that bodywork is useful for dealing with traumatic experiences. 

On the contrary - this is a strict materialist perspective which looks to disambiguate the word 'trauma' into more accurate nouns, and replace the vague word 'heal' with more actionable and concrete verbs.

A phrase like biochemical-based depression looks accurate and actionable on the surface but there are good reasons why there's no biochemical-based depression in the DSM. The DSM is created by the need for categories that are practically useful for psychiatrists. Biochemical-based depression isn't a category that's actionable for professionals. 

Even if the trigger of a depression was biochemical-based, making an assumption that you just need to change biochemistry and not anything more "mental" to get back to the status quo after being for months in the mental habits of depression is wrong. In some instances, the person might handle the mental changes without outside help but that doesn't mean that changing mental habits is not needed.

A trauma is an instance where something hurts you, and you develop coping mechanisms to route around the hurt, but the coping mechanisms limit your action space, blind you to some things, and distort your thinking a bit.


You can fix your emotional problems/confusions, but it'll take awhile.

But how?

This is not a very good LW comment, but, I’m interested in talking about this with you some time if you’re up for it.

It generally had to do with me trying to navigate a part of me that really wanted to just have a nice village, and be a humble village priest who helped their local community be nice. And a part of me that felt "man, the village is not safe. I can't in good conscious just stay here having a nice life. The spirit of the village compels me to leave the village and figure out how to help protect the village. But man something about that feels really sad/bad."


Had a similar realization recently. It sucks. I was really lucky¹ to have access to competent emotional support when I did.

¹ not in fact luck, but skilled organizers who were prepared-in-advance for an increased likelihood of such events AT their event.


Typo, should be conscience