I’m often asked how trauma can be treated. Should it be talked about? Ignored? Pushed aside through distraction? Or should it be faced head on? What is it about trauma that can make healing so difficult?
Trauma changes us. It shifts our understanding of our surroundings and robs us of the idea that the world is safe. For most people, it serves a very important purpose to be able to separate one’s self from the imminent danger that lies all around us. We think, “That wouldn’t happen to me. It must have been something they did to bring it on.” It’s easier, safer, to think we are different, and we often hold on to whatever detail separates us from the person or people who were harmed. But, when trauma hits us, it jolts us into the reality that we are all vulnerable, mortal, and surrounded by unpredictability.
Before discussing treatment, it’s important to understand what happens when we are traumatized. When we are in danger, our biological fight, flight, or freeze response is activated. This reaction serves a very important purpose—to keep us alive. Our senses are heightened, adrenaline soars, and systems within the body that are not useful are dampened, all for the purpose of survival.
After the danger is gone, what we hope will happen is that we can resume normal functioning and get back to who we were before. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. With trauma, the threat lingers in our memory in a way that evokes a physical reaction similar to the reaction that happened when the danger was still real. When triggered by things that mimic or remind us of the traumatic event, the physical experience of being traumatized can happen again, which causes our bodies to think we are still unsafe, still in harm’s way.
It is important to note that not all trauma is the same. There is traumatic injury, psychological trauma, and emotional trauma, trauma that occurs regularly over the course of days, months, or years, and trauma that occurs only once. There are community traumatic events, like a plane crash, and individual traumas. There are different traumatic events that happen during the course of a person’s life, and each of these, as they go unresolved, becomes more complicated to treat.
Without finding insight and resolution after trauma, the pain and scars left behind continue to leave their mark. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appear, such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, irritability, emotional numbness, fear, etc.
Over the short term, untreated post-traumatic stress leads a person to be easily effected by triggers on both a conscious and subconscious level. Getting into a car might lead to sweating, increased heart rate, and an intense fear of crashing. A person who was attacked at night might avoid going out after dark or have difficulty sleeping.
Over the long term, these symptoms will become a part of the traumatized person’s reality. They might be out of touch with their emotions and unable to feel not only “bad” emotions (i.e. anger, sadness) but also “positive” ones like happiness and excitement. Eventually, it might be hard to draw the connection between one’s trauma history and their current experience in the world. For example, a person who is addicted to alcohol might not realize that their addiction is covering a painful experience they never dealt with. Someone who has generalized anxiety probably wouldn’t assume that it is connected to a traumatic experience at birth.
So, what does all of this have to do with trauma treatment? It is important to understand what makes trauma different before you can feel equipped to select the right mental health professional to help you work through trauma.
There are many different modalities in therapy—some that ask the client to tell their story, some that aim to change behavior by examining thought, others that incorporate the physical or somatic response, and still others that use mindfulness. Rather than explaining each type of therapeutic approach, I want to focus on the most important aspect of therapy—the therapeutic connection.
A good therapist should recognize that the most important aspect of their job is to help you identify where your pain is and hold it for you while you learn—with help—how to heal from it.
So, what does a “healed” trauma survivor look like? With the right treatment, a healed person is a person who can approach life with joy and positivity. It is a person who understands what they have been through but not necessarily why. It is someone who is in touch with his or her thoughts and feelings and knows what they are experiencing while it is happening. It is a person who can acknowledge what has happened and incorporate it into the story of who they are rather than letting the traumatic event control and define their life.
The bottom line is that trauma shouldn’t be ignored or shoved aside in the hope that it will get better over time. I learned early on in my career that time does nothing but pass; it is our hard work and willingness to face our pain that allows us to grow and heal. And, the more traumas a person experiences, the more at risk they become for developing PTSD and having difficulty coping.
If this article teaches one thing, I hope it’s that trauma is something that happens to us—all of us—and our reactions and symptoms do not make us weak or different, they only show that we were vulnerable and are in pain. Something has happened and it has left its fingerprint, a permanent mark that reshapes and changes the person left behind in its path. But, this doesn’t mean we are destined to live as a shadow of who we once were, it simply requires the bravery of asking for help.
Melissa Porrey, MA, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor who works in the fields of grief and trauma, has worked with veterans and civilians, and currently works with trauma patients at a hospital. She also has a BA in journalism and has published articles in several magazines. She is looking to combine her two passions: people and words. Read more about Melissa at Linkedin. [EN | DE]
I’m often asked how trauma can be treated. Should it be talked about? Ignored? Pushed aside through distraction? Or should it be faced head on? What is it about trauma that can make healing so difficult? [Read more...]
Consider the following scenarios: A car crash unfolds before your eyes. You feel lucky to not have been involved, but you see injured passengers being hauled off in ambulances and smoke and metal scattered all around you. [Read more...]