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Healing Historical Trauma Through Promoting Traditional Culture in Mainstream Medicine

Medicine, like politics, is often a matter of perspective; for many cultures illness is caused by being out of balance emotionally, spiritually, mentally or physically. Trauma, too, can cause imbalances that lead to physical illness by disrupting the body's natural rhythms that maintain wellness. So argues Leslie E. Korn, author of a new book entitled "Rhythms of Recovery: Trauma, Nature, and the Body," published and released this year by Routledge.

And, unfortunately, all too often the healthcare industry is of little help. “In my experience I observed that the physical and mental health professions are very compartmentalized in our approach to treatment. The physical health people treat the body and the mental health people treat the mind but nobody [other than those we call ‘healers’] really helps the client integrate and understand how the symptoms, the discomforts or distress that they’re experiencing are a whole [system],” Dr. Korn explains.

Courtesy Heta Melantie

A six-month old child sits in a Finnish maternity box. Some of the clothes were not included in the government package.

Written for clinicians and laypeople alike, the book’s purpose is to make those connections. The writing is technical enough for highly educated healthcare professionals while still being accessible to the non-professional. Its format includes participatory exercises for therapists and clients that are synced with a partnering website (provided by the publisher), designed to increase self-awareness of both for a more effective therapeutic relationship.

The book comprehensively describes the ways the autonomic nervous system is affected by traumatic events and manifests as dysfunctional behavior patterns and/or physical illness. For example, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is linked with dissociative psychological states like amnesia, eating disorders and self-injury, as are a multitude of physical ailments such as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, addictions and sleeping disorders. With appropriate screening, seeing mental or physical disorders in this light allows practitioners to treat them as spiritual problems, opening the door to the effective use of alternative therapeutic approaches. They can include touch therapies, yoga, acupuncture, nutrition, meditation and ceremony.

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In addition to integrating mental and general healthcare modalities, what distinguishes this book is its recognition of the role of culture and historical trauma. For American Indians the history of genocide and colonization has resulted in what psychologists call postcolonial stress disorder, which occurs not only on an individual but community level and often goes unacknowledged.

“I wanted to deconstruct this ideology of diagnosis which continues to be victim-blaming and exists outside the cultural epoch in which they’ve been formed. They’re conditioned, culture-based responses and I wanted to shake up people’s ideas about these diagnostic categories and these rigid approaches to treatment. The concept of ‘normal’ is a social ideology that causes further consternation and dichotomies for indigenous peoples and people in particular who grew up in a traditional community or who still have traditional values,” Dr. Korn told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Dr. Korn has a private practice in natural medicine specializing in the treatment of mental health, cognitive function, chronic illness and pain. In addition to Rhythms of Recovery, she is also the author (with Dr. Rudolph Ryser) of Preventing and Treating Diabetes, Naturally: The Native Way (DayKeeper Press).

Trauma can be transmuted, Dr. Korn contends. A passage from the book describes it this way: “Integrative posttrauma therapy emphasizes a comprehensive perspective of whole human development and functioning, including body/mind/spirit and gender and culture-specific issues, multiple styles of communication, active engagement and empathic expression, activism and advocacy…and the transformational potential of trauma,” (pg. 143).

For Native people the transformational power of trauma can be found in traditional ceremonies and rituals. From a Western scientific, biological perspective, the positive effects of ceremony lay in its ability to trigger hormonal responses in the brain that can break harmful autonomic nervous system patterns created by trauma. Although the healing effect of ceremony is far from a new concept for Indian people, Rhythms of Recovery helps to bring understanding and legitimization of traditional healing practices into the conventional model of medicine and mental health. One of the enduring legacies of colonialism has been the demonization of Native religions and spiritual practices which were outlawed during the assimilation period. Today, Native ceremonies such as the sweat lodge are further delegitimized in the public’s eye when people are injured or die as a result of misappropriation by unqualified, non-Native scam artists.

Originally from Boston, Korn was first introduced to indigenous cultures when at the tender age of 20 a personal quest took her to a small, rural village in a tropical region of Mexico where there were no doctors, no roads or electricity. Afflicted by a variety of jungle diseases, it was the “curanderas” (traditional healers) who treated her and taught her the ways of natural medicine. Within her 10-year stay there she established a health center and learned a host of other alternative healing methods, but she eventually returned to school in the U.S. and earned advanced degrees in public health, health psychology and behavioral medicine. She has been dividing her time living and working in the U.S. and Mexico since the 1970s. Her private practice focuses on natural medicine with a specialty in the treatment of mental health, cognitive function, chronic illness and pain.

Rhythms of Recovery: Trauma, Nature and the Body is available through