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The word trauma is heard quite frequently these days. You can hear folks say this person was traumatized or an event was a traumatizing experience etc. However, trauma has a very specific definition in which a set of circumstances must be present. Having a frightening experience is not necessarily the same as a traumatizing experience or event.
What is trauma?
Any event or experience in which the following occur:
It is frightening.
It involves actual or perceived threat of physical death, serious injury or emotional annihilation to you or to someone else or something else that you care for such as a pet.
You feel and/or are powerless and helpless to stop the experience or event.
It is sudden and unexpected.
As you can see from the above definition almost all of us have been traumatized at some point in our lives.
Trauma can be divided into two general categories:
Little (t) traumas and Big (T) traumas. Sometimes little (t) traumas can be experienced as Big (T) traumas but Big (T) traumas are never little (t) traumas.
Examples of a little (t) trauma - getting fired from your job or having your car stolen. Both of these events can be experienced as Big (T) traumas.
Examples of Big (T) trauma - rape, unexpected death of a love one, natural disasters such as a tsunami, war. As you can see Big (T) traumas have a significantly greater level of intensity and impact on the person.
It is really important to note that all mammals including humans have a built in natural mechanism to recover from many types of traumatic events. However, the most severe types of trauma such as rape or war overwhelms the healing and recovery capacity of almost all humans.
If you previously experienced traumatic events your capacity to heal and recover tends to decrease. This is especially true if you have not had the chance to heal and recover from a previous traumatic event.
One’s capacity to heal and recover is also reduced if one is constantly experiencing traumatic events. In other words, if you’ve experienced traumatic events in the past your risk increases that future traumatic events will have a larger impact on you. This increases your risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is the most severe trauma response or anxiety disorder.
Counseling for Trauma - How I can help
Two overarching goals of trauma counseling:
Help you transform your life from surviving and barely managing to living and thriving.
Heal and recover from emotional wounds that perpetuate unhelpful behaviors and patterns.
Education about trauma.
Defining trauma. Bringing into the awareness traumatic events and experiences as the person is able. The person begins to understand and acknowledge that they have experienced trauma, that it’s unresolved and it is negatively impacting their life.
Learning to identify how trauma has changed and impacted the person. Identifying and learning to recognize trauma based responses. These include biological, emotional and cognitive responses such as shaking (biological), sweating (biological), racing heart (biological) unwanted beliefs such as “I can’t trust anyone” (cognitive), the world is dangerous (cognitive), feeling afraid in certain situations (emotional), angry outbursts (emotional).
Healing and Recovery
Using counseling modalities and other activities including:
3. Interpersonal Neurobiology
4. Internal Family Systems Theory
5. Mindfulness practices
6. Reading books on trauma, listening to podcasts about trauma
7. Body movement such as Dance Therapy, Trauma Informed Yoga
Trauma has both biological and emotional impacts. Many of the responses or symptoms after a traumatic event or experience are to be expected and are completely normal and acceptable. These eventually lessen and go away after several weeks.
If the responses and symptoms do not lessen after several weeks professional help is needed as it is unlikely that the symptoms will simply go away. Obtaining professional help can prevent you from becoming stuck in a “trauma response cycle” in which your life become quite unhappy, difficult and challenging.
How does trauma effect a person?
The impact of trauma goes into our brains and our bodies. When we experience a traumatic event the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks into high gear. The sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system is responsible for our freeze, flight, fight response - most commonly known as “flight or fight” response.
The “flight or fight” response is located in our emotional brain or the limbic system of the brain. This part of the brain is mostly unconscious and houses our amygdala. The amygdala is our danger detector. Once the amygdala sounds the danger alarm the rest of the body instantly gears up for survival action. The brain and body act as one in order for us to survive the traumatic event or experience.
During a trauma event or experience many biological process start to occur such as increased heart rate, increase production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin along with a ton of other biological interactions designed to get us out of danger. However, these responses cannot be sustained for long periods of time and eventually the body and brain decreases this activity.
Biological Responses to Trauma
Emotional Responses to Trauma
Several emotions occur when we start to experience a traumatic event:
Confusion or disorientation
Feeling alone or isolated
Feelings of detachment or dissociation or a sense of leaving one’s body
Both the biological and emotional responses to trauma as it is happening are completely automatic. We have no control over how we respond. For example, we can’t will our hearts to beat more slowly or will ourselves not to be shocked.
For most people, it is easy to understand how experiences such as getting into a car accident or being in war can be traumatic. However, a far more common experience of trauma is called developmental or relational trauma which occurs in the context of relationships.
What is Developmental or Relational Trauma?
You most likely have heard the question “What happened to you as a child?” This is a developmental trauma question although most people don’t think of this question in this way. Another way of asking this question is what went wrong in a person’s upbringing that is causing the person’s inappropriate behaviors or negative reactions?
Developmental or relational trauma occurs when those in charge of our well being, when we are children, fail at their job. Here are some common ways that the relationship between the child and their caregivers fail which results in developmental or relational trauma:
Physical abuse and neglect
Hitting, punching, kicking, being spat on, inadequate feeding, withholding necessary items such as food and water, lack of warm clothing, no bed to sleep in, isolation.
Emotional neglect, maltreatment and abuse
Name calling, bullying, threatening to harm, injure or kill the child or a loved one of the child such as a sibling, mother, friend or pet. Isolation, withholding love and affection, being told you are not worthy of love and affection, that you are worthless, you will not amount to anything, or you're not good enough.
This includes inappropriate touching with clothing on as well as being made to perform in sexualized ways even in if there is no physical contact.
Never knowing what will cause an angry and aggressive reaction in the adult. One day split milk can be greeted with a gentle “it’s ok, just clean it up” and another day it leads to a severe beating.
Lots of confusion about what is happening in the home. Who has which role and under what circumstances. Witnessing domestic violence, the effects of drug and alcohol misuse and abuse, no adult leading the household.
The parent/caregiver is unable to see and accept the energetic qualities of the child. For example, the parent who wants their quiet reserved child who likes to read and write poetry; the parent/caregiver wants this child to sing and dance in front of everyone. Or the reverse, the parent who wants their child who loves to play soccer or basketball to learn to play the violin or paint.
As you can see there is a lot that can go awry in childhood. Now, some of you reading will probably think that this is all too much or overboard and that you experienced some or many of these things and you are fine. If that’s the case, this is great news for you.
However, many people with the above experiences are currently living with the effects of developmental trauma and don't know it.
You are probably experiencing developmental trauma if you struggle with the following:
Low self esteem and low self worth
Engage in constant negative self talk or putting yourself down
Find it difficult to maintain friendships
Struggle in romantic relationships
Find it difficult to trust others
Are a “nervous Nelly” and don’t understand why
Just plain old harsh and mean aka anger issues
If you have not healed and recovered from trauma, your functioning and quality of life is below your true potential. By quality of life, I mean are you happy, content, do you enjoy your relationships, your job, do you treat yourself and others with love, respect and compassion? Do you have a sense of emotional safety?
What does living with unresolved trauma look like?
Well, it tends not to be pretty on the outside and definitely not pretty on the inside of a person.
Often persons with trauma also receive diagnoses of the following but the trauma gets missed:
Difficulty with relationships
However, upon closer and detailed examination significant unresolved trauma can be identified which have resulted in the above issues.
Here are some examples of trauma that often go unrecognized:
A 35 year old woman is a very nervous driver. She may tell everyone that she’s fine and just a nervous driver. However, deep down inside she has flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of the severe car accident she was in when she was 21. Flashbacks and intrusive thoughts are two of the symptoms of trauma.
A 25 year old man is very depressed but he has never told anyone that one of his older brother’s college friends raped him when he was 14. Traumatize people can also appear depressed.
A 45 year old woman over eats a lot or “loves food” but carries around guilt and shame from being physically and emotionally abused by her step mother. Guilt and shame in the form for self blaming is often a part of the trauma cycle.
A 27 year old man uses cocaine and pills to dull the pain from being emotionally neglected and physically abused as a child. Many people use drugs and alcohol to dull the emotional pain that results from trauma.
The most severe response to trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After a person experiences a traumatic event the person’s central nervous system works on healing itself. A normal part of trauma healing and recovery process includes intrusive memories of the event, flashbacks or nightmares, difficulty sleeping and poor appetite.
Most people tend to recover from single event trauma. However, if the symptoms continue to occur with same frequency, intensity and duration after 30 days the person is most likely developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - PTSD.
What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
When the central nervous system is not able to heal itself and the person develops PTSD life becomes quite challenging. The time period is at least 30 days after event before PTSD can be considered as an option.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a complicated response to a traumatic event in which the autonomic nervous system has gone offline in very extreme ways.
PTSD wreaks extreme havoc on the person’s life and their relationships. PTSD can result from traumatic events such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, rape, war, terrorist activities, sudden death of a loved one or finding out about an emotional or physical affair.
A person may have PTSD for years which is known as chronic PTSD. A person’s PTSD may stem from multiple events and experiences in the past, present and ongoing resulting in complex PTSD.
PTSD must be treated by an expert and is highly unlikely resolve on its own. Unfortunately, many people with PTSD can appear to be living quite normal lives but inside they are suffering quite horribly emotionally.
How long will trauma counseling take?
It truly depends on the type and nature of the trauma that you have experienced. One common theme that trauma survivors request is “quick treatment.” The simplest explanation is that your central nervous system has been accustomed to operating in survival mode for a long time and it’s very resistant to change the ways you have been using to survive.
Trauma treatment tends to include several types of counseling modalities. These include learning to recognize distorted beliefs and thinking, retuning your physiology through mindfulness practices and somatic psychotherapy.
Trauma counseling can be difficult and challenging. However, the emotional freedom and life transformation that occurs when a person heals and recovers from trauma can be unbelievable.
A few of the biggest challenges of treating person with trauma
trauma survivors often want a quick fix
want to only think about issues and not feel
are often stuck in trying to please others with the hopes that pleasing others will cause the other person to respond in a specific way that the traumatized person hopes for which will then heal their emotional trauma wound.
These hopes and patterns of beliefs are often a direct result of the traumatizing experience.
For example, a person who has unresolved trauma, may try to please another person or try to get that person to do a particular thing. The person with the trauma will have the distorted belief that if the other person does that thing then the person with the trauma will say to themselves this means "I am lovable" or "I am worthy" etc.
Many traumatized people are stuck in variations of a very unhelpful emotional loops.
Traumatized persons also spend a lot of time secretly blaming themselves and engaging in very negative self talk.
Trauma counseling proceeds through a different route of helping you to understand how trauma interferes with your life and coming up with new effective, compassionate ways to heal and recover and transform your life beyond your wildest imagination.