What is trauma? When people hear the word trauma they may think of PTSD. That can then make them think of “Big T” traumas including combat, rape, natural disasters, and near death experience. There are also “Small T” traumas. These are smaller “everyday” or less pronounced events and may include bullying, neglect, difficult relationships, and loss. Now I need to say using terms like “big” and “little” in reference to the type of trauma gives me mixed feelings. Depending on the individual circumstances, any of the “Small Ts” I mentioned could be a “Big T.” I do like that describing trauma this way opens the door for people to recognize a multitude of events as traumatic – because they can be. However, I don’t like that it inadvertently has us quantify these events. This is something that we may do automatically. “What I went through wasn’t ‘bad enough’ to be considered trauma.” “Other people have experienced worse.” Trauma is trauma. It leaves a mark. Sometimes it impacts us immediately and sometimes we don’t even realize its impact until later in life.
Experiencing a trauma also does not automatically mean we have PTSD.
The mark left by events that we have experienced doesn’t mean that we are “damaged” or “broken”. It is possible to heal. It is possible to turn that experience into something that makes us even stronger. Things may get harder while we are doing the work. It can be similar to when we clean a cut or a scrapped knee. It stings while we clean the wound. I often use this metaphor to explain what therapy can be like for clients.
How do we heal? The specifics of how to start may depend on the event. It’s important for the person to re-establish safety. When a person has been impacted by trauma they may feel unsafe in their body and in relationships. A person may need medical care. They may need to physically get to a safer place and in contact with supportive people.
To heal we need to reconnect to our body. See, our system has this fabulous coping skill of disassociation. We all do it. Have you ever zoned out? Have you ever been driving somewhere then poof you’re there and barely realize the time went by? These are just a couple every day examples. There are many ways we dissociate. Another example is when a person feels like they are outside of their body watching themself. Also, sometimes when someone is experiencing trauma their system checks them out (it’s almost like they aren’t even there) in efforts to protect them from feeling and thinking everything associated with what’s happening. Sometimes our system gets so good at doing this that it happens all the time…. Sometimes when we don’t want or need it to. That’s why we need to find a way to get back in our bodies. Some of the ways we can do this are through meditation, grounding exercises, and physical exercises like yoga or cardio.
To heal from trauma we need to find a way to make sense of it and process what happened. Two amazing therapeutic approaches that I use with my clients are EMDR and IFS. These are both evidence-based practices. Research has shown that they work. But for me it’s more than just the research that makes me believe in them. I’ve seen it work with clients that I’ve supported in therapy. Additionally, I experienced my own healing through EMDR and IFS when I was the client on the couch. Next, I’m going to share a bit about these approaches to explain how they help individuals heal from trauma.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of trauma. When a traumatic event happens that memory can get stuck. All the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations we had got stuck in time. When that memory is triggered we can get flooded with emotions and get overwhelmed. It’s almost like it’s happening again. EMDR helps an individual to process what has happened so that the person is in a more balanced state and grounded in the present. When the person thinks of the event, it’s a memory that doesn’t overwhelm them. There isn’t the same charge.
IFS (Internal Family Systems) is a form of therapy that uses the language of “parts” as a working metaphor for our internal experiences. We use this language every day. After a stressful day, part of me wants to go workout and part of me really just wants to go to DQ and get a soft serve. We all have parts. Our different parts are trying to help us out. Sometimes they are helpful and sometimes they get stuck in roles that aren’t helpful. Maybe we have a people pleaser part that is often sacrificing our own needs to make sure people around us are happy. Maybe we have a part that believes the quickest way to deal with feeling overwhelmed is to drink a bottle of wine or get high. These parts are doing what they think is best to help protect a part that feels vulnerable. This part may feel unworthy of love. Once we get to know our parts we can work creatively to help them find new healthy ways of helping us out. We can help transform that vulnerable part.
What I love about both EMDR and IFS is that they help us get to a place of deeper healing. There are many types of therapy that can help us learn about ourselves and gain helpful skills. Some tools only take us so far though. We don’t just want to put a Band-Aid on a wound so that it doesn’t get dirty or infected. We want to no longer NEED the Band-Aid because the wound has HEALED.
Thank you for taking the time to read my first blog. Please feel free to leave a comment. Let me know if you relate or if you have questions.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Month. This is a topic that I’m passionate about. It’s why I’ve decided to start blogging at this specific time. My intention is to do a series of blogs this month related to the topic of Sexual Assault.