Mental health treatment centers understand the importance of dealing with and healing trauma. Things that happened years or even decades ago can have a continuing influence if they’re not addressed and can keep you from moving forward and meeting your goals. Sometimes it’s easy to connect your current challenges to a past event or ongoing traumatic circumstance, but sometimes the association isn’t obvious.
Trauma can be broadly defined as the emotional response to something extremely distressing or disturbing. It overwhelms your normal defense mechanisms and ability to cope. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines it this way, “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Many different types of events may be traumatic. They can be physical, such as being in an accident or natural disaster or experiencing abuse. They can be emotional, such as with the sudden loss of a loved one. Sometimes it’s the ongoing threat of harm that’s traumatic, such as being in a war or living in a community where there’s a lot of crime and violence.
Trauma can involve what didn’t happen as well as what did. Childhood neglect and poor bonding with caregivers can lay a foundation that keeps people from moving forward in a healthy way.
Researchers are helping us understand more and more clearly how trauma affects the brain. The effects are especially pronounced in childhood, when the brain is still developing, but are significant at any age. One of the main functions of the human brain is to help us stay alive. When we experience situations that appear to be dangerous, our brains help our bodies prepare to handle them, which is great in the short term but can have long-term ramifications.
What Happens During and After?
Here’s part of what happens during a traumatic event:
- When we perceive danger, the brain reacts in a fraction of a second to turn on the alarm and flood our body with the chemicals we may need to respond, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
- The adrenaline helps imprint certain memories of the event in the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers danger and emotional significance. The memories are stored as fragments of sensory input, like sounds, smells or images that were part of the experience.
- The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that stores factual, language-based memories and helps us reason and make sense of what happens to us. During a traumatic event, the prefrontal cortex essentially goes offline. While we’re in survival mode, our prefrontal cortex cedes control to the amygdala. Because of this, we often experience a sort of tunnel vision, where certain aspects of the situation register in vivid detail, and other information isn’t processed well.
Here’s what can happen later:
- Sensory input that matches what was recorded by the amygdala during the trauma can re-trigger the alarm response. A sight, sound or smell that matches what was happening at the time can be interpreted as dangerous. Often, we’re not even fully aware this is happening.
- Because the alarm system is constantly triggered, stress hormones continue to circulate. This triggering can lead to hypervigilance, anxiety and a tendency to be easily startled or irritated.
- In an attempt to avoid being constantly overwhelmed, people with trauma histories may try to numb themselves or shut themselves off. This numbing can involve using drugs or alcohol or becoming socially isolated.
- People with trauma histories, especially involving physical harm, may become disassociated, in which they don’t feel present in their bodies or really feel their bodies much at all. Sometimes self-harming behaviors like cutting are an attempt to counteract that.
- Some people will have flashbacks, intrusive memories, or disturbing dreams.
- The high levels of stress hormones and associated physical responses to them can cause medical issues. For instance, when the body feels threatened, blood goes to the muscles and not to the digestive tract, which can lead to gastrointestinal conditions.
- Hormone levels are affected, including levels of insulin and glucagon, which can contribute to diabetes and weight gain. Blood pressure and heart rate tend to be elevated, which can lead to heart disease, and the immune system may be suppressed, which can lead to a wide variety of medical conditions.
Acute, Chronic and Complex Trauma
There are generally thought to be three types of trauma: acute, chronic and complex. Acute trauma comes from a single disturbing event that feels very intense or threatening. It can lead to anxiety, panic, anger, confusion, insomnia, aggression, disconnection, inability to focus, lack of self-care and lack of trust.
Chronic trauma comes from exposure to multiple or prolonged traumatic events over an extended period of time. In addition to the symptoms connected to acute trauma, you may have unpredictable and unstable emotions, flashbacks, and physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.
Complex trauma involves exposure to a variety of types of traumatic events. Often the events involve interpersonal relationships and feelings of being trapped. The effects may be very significant and cause severe disruption to health, relationships, and job or school performance.
Considerations for Addressing Trauma
Whatever the type of trauma their patients have experienced, there are two important things that quality practitioners keep in mind when working with them. The first is that feeling safe is vitally important. When people’s alarm responses get triggered, they’re unable to focus on much of anything except getting back to a place of safety. Good practitioners avoid triggering clients as much as possible, recognize when they don’t feel safe, and know how to help them return to feeling protected and secure.
The second thing that good practitioners know is that traditional talk therapy alone may not be enough when dealing directly with trauma issues. Because the traumatic memories are primarily stored in the non-verbal part of the brain, people often find it difficult to talk about their traumatic memories or even organize the events logically. Sometimes difficult experiences really do leave us speechless.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading expert on ways to overcome trauma, notes that part of the brain called the Broca’s area shuts down during a traumatic experience, both in the initial event and during flashbacks. He states, “Without a functioning Broca’s area, you cannot put your thoughts and feelings into words.”
An article on trauma in burn victims makes the same point: deep trauma healing involves more than simply trying to talk it through. It notes, “Talk therapy works when the brain is on-line and functioning, but when the rational part of the brain is hijacked by the trauma memory, people may not hear words or reasoning or make meaning of events and experiences. When the deeper regions of the brain are in this state of distress, survivors are back in the trauma, and their brain and body seem to be in a time warp.”
Healing Trauma Effectively
So how do you move ahead? What does work? Regularly utilizing practices that calm the brain’s alarm system down is a good place to start. These can include breathing exercises, meditation or prayer, listening to calming music, taking a relaxing bath or rocking in a rocking chair.
As noted, people treating trauma need to feel safe during the therapeutic process. There are a variety of ways that counselors help with this. They teach their clients skills for soothing themselves and returning to a mental place of safety when they become triggered. They monitor for signs of distress. Sometimes they do things like arrange their offices in a way that clients can avoid eye contact if desired since that can feel unsafe and triggering for some people.
Some people need an open office door and an unblocked path to it. When patients feel comfortable enough to tell their counselors what they need to feel safe, it can help the healing process move forward more quickly.
If you’re looking for a specific technique to use to heal your trauma, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) may be exactly what you need. A review of relevant studies found dozens demonstrating positive effects of the treatment for dealing with trauma and noted that the majority found it more rapid and effective than another trauma-focused treatment.
EMDR involves focusing on a traumatic memory while simultaneously moving your eyes from left to right. Although why it works isn’t completely clear, it appears that it helps people access both the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain and integrate the memory so that it can be processed and filed away. It may relate to what happens in the brain during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Mental health treatment centers may also use body-focused therapies like somatic experiencing. Experts explain that common responses to trauma are fight, flight or freeze. Children, in particular, may freeze during a traumatic situation because they realize that neither fighting nor fleeing is likely to work for them in the situation. After the danger has passed, a body that utilized the freeze response may still hold onto the energy built up but not discharged.
Body-focused (somatic) therapies can help people recognize and address the stored energy and reintegrate the brain and body. Because trauma often involves feelings of being trapped, counselors may help people act out running away or fighting back. A counselor will also help you notice where you feel stress and anxiety in your body and can help you use the knowledge as an early warning system. If you become aware more quickly that you’re being triggered, you can address it before it becomes overwhelming.
No matter how distressing the trauma was and how much it has affected your life, it’s important to remember that you did survive and that you have resources to help you move forward. A counselor can help you recognize your strengths and build on them as you set goals and work on achieving them. Your trauma history is part of you and may need to be addressed, but it’s not all of you.
If trauma has kept you stuck, let us help you break free. Our experienced and compassionate counselors can help you be who you want to be and get where you want to go. Give us a call today at 1.844.675.1022.