Contrary to existing dogma in the mental health field, this book posits, trauma survivors have an innate capacity to heal themselves without medical or formal psychological intervention. There is a “healing force hidden in all of us, even if depleted by violence, that is always striving for survival,” writes Richard Mollica, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Mollica bases his theory of psychological self-healing on 25 years of counseling war refugees, victims of torture and survivors of natural disasters. He uses personal, or “trauma,” stories from Khmer Rouge survivors, Bosnian doctors and Rwandan genocide witnesses and applies them to survivors of more common crises, such as sexual abuse, life-threatening illness or death of a loved one by accident or violence.
According to Mollica, victims of violence must play an active role in their healing. Not only telling but interpreting one’s trauma stories is crucial for healing. Understanding the cultural meaning of the trauma, taking a new perspective on it and realizing the motivations of the perpetrators, are necessary to reframe the trauma for the survivor. “Storytelling coaches” can guide survivors in telling their stories without overwhelming listeners with horrifying details. The realization that by telling their story they will pass on valuable lessons in dealing with loss and tragedy also contributes to healing.
Mollica has identified several measures that encourage self-healing: engaging in altruistic acts, working to provide for oneself (rather than accepting long-term handouts), spirituality (but not necessarily formal religion), humor, physical exercise, relaxation techniques and good nutrition. Empathic communication between counselor and client also has restorative power, as does the creation of beauty, e.g., making art, tending a garden, and keeping a journal.