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. Let’s take a closer look at trauma and what it does to people.
Getting a Better Understanding of Trauma
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
There are, of course, effective therapies that can help. They include the following:
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.
Get Help Today
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.