Why Trauma Therapy?
When we experience a trauma, our limbic system, the part of our brain that regulates our emotions and our memory, can become overwhelmed. As a result, our body’s ‘alert’ system can end up stuck on high. You can experience the world assuming ‘threat’ is around every corner. You can feel like you have to be watching at every moment because if you’re not, something catastrophic will happen. You can feel like enjoying the moment isn’t safe because if you let your guard down, the other shoe will drop. You can find yourself unintentionally in conflict with someone as a way to push the threat away. In essence, your system can end up scanning your world for danger at all times, even when danger isn’t present in that circumstance. Often if you’ve lived in this state of being on guard for some time, your system can become exhausted because living like this is incredibly difficult and highly demanding.
In response, your system can be in various stages of shut down. You might find yourself isolating or feeling not present. You could struggle with memory and wonder what’s happened. Maybe you feel numb and flat, or disconnected or separate from yourself and those around you. You might find yourself automatically assessing situations as dangerous, reacting, and then calming down and realizing they maybe weren’t as dangerous as you expected them to be. Then you can feel embarrassed by how you reacted. It is important to know that your limbic system does not consider whether you will feel proud of your response when it responds. It only cares about getting you away from what it determines to be a threat.
When trauma hasn’t been dealt with, it does not completely resolve itself over time. The initial intensity following the trauma might settle somewhat. And, if it does seem to settle on the surface, reactions can start to show up in ways you don’t recognize as being linked to the trauma.
For example, let’s suppose you are mugged at gunpoint on a dark and stormy Monday night by a tall female in a red hat. Imagine you are in the Superstore parking lot loading your groceries into the car at the time and your partner is calling you on the phone. You can hear the phone ringing but you are in the process of giving this person your money, jewelry and groceries. This threat to life could overwhelm the limbic system and leave you always watching the world around you or shutting down.
You could have a lot of different residual effects and there is no one size fits all in terms of exactly what happens to your system next. You might find for the next few weeks you don’t want to go out at night, or you might be looking over your shoulder at every turn. You might become hypervigilant about your teens leaving University at night. You might all of the sudden notice your body getting anxious or sweaty every time you see a red hat or every time someone calls your phone. You may find some of your most common reactions settle over the next few weeks and then several months later, you might find you feel sick on Mondays. Or, if the incident happened in the spring, you might find next fall, at the first sign of the dark and stormy weather, your nervous system starts to be reactive. You might find, you suddenly start to feel scared and jittery around tall women. Or, you might find you are scared to leave the house all together.
Very often, because our responses might not make sense, because we don’t like our responses, or because we have received criticism for not being over it from the outside, we can start to be hard on ourselves for not being ‘over it’ or hard on ourselves for our reactions. This compounds the challenges.
What we know about trauma is that the body remembers some of the specific details in a concrete and tangible way. We cannot predict which ones it will remember and often people feel frustrated by the things that their system ‘on alert’ responds to. Sometimes we are completely unaware of the ways in which the trauma is impacting us. Often any reminders of the trauma become scary and we work hard to push them away and bury them. We can avoid anything that reminds us of the trauma: physical places, body sensation, emotions and thoughts in an effort to protect us. Then, over time, our system can begin to attribute danger to more and more things and our ability to feel safe in the world can continue to diminish.
The purpose of trauma therapy is to support you to understand how your system works, and to help you learn how to work with the symptoms so you can bring your system back to a sense of equilibrium. This can help you feel safe in the world again. Once you have come to a place where you are safe enough to be with your reactions and to come back to safety and stability, then trauma therapy helps you go back to explore the traumatic event itself. This is a process over time. Trauma therapy helps you match the story of what happened, with your bodily sensations, emotional reactions, with your experiences at the time. We know that going back and exploring the trauma can feel unbearable. We do it together, slowly and carefully, in a clinically facilitated way.
When trauma has been processed, symptoms reduce and your daily life can start to feel less out of control and more pleasurable.