What does trauma therapy involve?
As a survivor of trauma, it is not a coherent story that needs to be told but a nervous system that needs to be rebalanced. Trauma can leave us feeling too much or too little, hypervigilant or shutdown, alarms burning throughout our every nerve, or ice-cold, numbed and flattened.
So, when you meet with your trauma therapist, they will help you to become curious about what is unspoken and felt as much as what might be verbalized. That is why EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy) is particularly effective for trauma, because you do not need to retell the story of your trauma. Unlike other approaches to counseling and psychotherapy, which often make use of the rational brain, what is involved with trauma, and therefore the healing process, includes parts of the brain that cannot rationalize, that cannot verbalize.
Trauma is a felt sense (often of overwhelm), and so healing is also a felt sense. When you start to heal, the nervous system can feel balanced again, and your bodily responses are proportionate and appropriate. Until then, the slightest thing can trigger your nervous system: A smell, a sound, the sight of something, the touch or taste of something; any of these can make past very much present.
When past is present, your brain’s alarm system becomes activated, and you fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. These are protective modes because your nervous system senses that it is unsafe. Your rational brain might disagree, but it has gone offline for a while, so you are not able to connect with someone, focus on your work, engage with your children, or enjoy that long-awaited holiday.
Awareness is a really big step in trauma therapy. Just to understand your body and mind a little bit more can allow for self-compassion, which is a great healer in itself. Once you know why you are sweating so much, or shaking, or you have a blank mind, or your partner seems distant, it can be really helpful to go a bit more gently with yourself. Another important part of going gently is to accept what is going on, with a sense of curiosity and compassion. Our brain and body is functioning in a certain way for a very good reason, so once we are aware of how it functions, we must accept that this is what it is doing. Only when we are accepting of ourselves can we hope for change, but change must be gradual and gentle. If we don’t go gently, we can end up re-traumatizing ourselves.
Going gently can involve a concept Peter Levine called pendulation; we pendulate between, or dip in and out of, the activated parts of our body as we become more familiar with how our body and mind is responding to these triggers. To pendulate, we need resources to keep our nervous system balanced. A trauma therapist will help you discover resources you already have, or help you to create new ones. By resources, we mean experiences when you have felt safe and calm. As an EMDR therapist, I use slow eye movements to reinforce those resource experiences.
Taking that first step and meeting with a trauma therapist can seem daunting. Why should we trust someone we barely even know? But the good thing about trust is that it is something that is earned over time, it is not a given, simply because of someone’s job title, professional experience, or even the broadness of their smile on their website. Go gently and listen to your body and mind. There may be questions you want answered before you disclose anything, and you might want to check that they are affirming and validating as they claim to be.
Get in contact if you need to discuss this.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Explore Transform LLC
Counseling and Psychotherapy in Bergen County, New Jersey
+1 (201) 779-6917
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