What is trauma?
It is commonly known that a negative event in someone’s life can be traumatic. What makes one experience traumatic and another one not? There roughly three main components.
- The event is particularly terrifying
- People believe they could be seriously injured or killed
Unlike a non-traumatic event, a traumatic experience doesn’t seem to get logged in the to past. Part of us is stuck in that event, and so the fear doesn’t go away. So, trauma is not just something that happened to you, it is the imprint left by that experience. It affects your mind, brain and body. It changes how we try to keep ourselves safe in the present. It changes what we think about, how we think about it, and it changes our ability to think.
There are different kind of events that can cause trauma.
- Getting a terminal health diagnosis
- A Severe accident
- A physical or sexual assault
- A deep betrayal
Trauma makes it difficult to trust again. It might be specific to the type of person that assaulted or abused you. It might be the activity you were engaging in when the trauma happened like driving or dating. It can damage your sense of self, and the way you think and feel about yourself.
Traumatic events are very difficult for children. Children hold their parents and guardians in high regard, and if those people who are supposed to protect you, abuse you, your young brain must make sense of it. Commonly children conclude that there must be something them, why else would they deserve to be treated this way. After an experience like this intimacy is difficult. It is hard to believe that you would be accepted and loved if people knew the real you. Many traumatized people try to be what others want so they to avoid rejection, but deep down they still feel isolated because no one even knows or has accepted who they truly are.
This way shame and trauma combine to make life very difficult. It puts people in hyper-alert safety mode. Things that wouldn’t normally frighten us cause us to panic. Other’s find their mind takes them out of certain situations to soften the potential blow from another traumatic event. These triggers are sometimes so distant from our conscious mind we have no idea where they come from.
We can develop a sharp inner critic that is stuck trying to use the strategies you used to keep yourself safe in the past. This inner critic can be harsh and unrelenting.
One way we learn to cope is to numb actively or inwardly. Active numbing would involve any coping activity that provides some escape from the pain and fear. This can include relatively benign activities like physical exercise, work or scrolling social media. It can also include more risky activities like casual sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and use of pornography. The inward numbing comes from the minds attempt to cope with the pain by disconnecting from all or most feelings.
For trauma to be resolved the parts of us that hold that trauma need to come out of the past and in to the present. People need a safe space to risk being known.
In his fantastic book on Trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Vander Kolk points us to a handful of activities and approaches to therapy.
- EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
- Self Leadership / Internal Family Systems
Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation are helpful in reconnecting to our body and learning to treat ourselves with self-acceptance and self-compassion. They help regular our nervous system to bring down the sense of alarm. I personally find Mindfulness an essential part of my life as it is very effective in relieving anxiety, helping me focus and be a more productive person.
EMDR is an approach to therapy that has proven to be effective for trauma. It was discovered by accident when a psychologist discovered that rapid eye movements brought significant from your distress. This was explored and found other types of physical movements helped loosen things up in the mind making it easier to reprocess traumatic memories. It is a departure from traditional talk therapy, but it works.
Neurofeedback happens clinics with specialized equipment that can observe and show you what is going on in your brain. It helps you target specific brain wave frequencies and becomes kind of a game as you learn to prioritize certain frequencies over others.
IFS – Internal Family Systems
Self-Leadership or Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an evidence based, paradigm shifting approach to therapy that recognizes that we have more than just a unitary mind. We have parts that have different roles. Our core-self is more like the captain of a ship with a crew. Some parts hold the trauma deep down in the bottom of the ship. Others do what they can to ease the pain of those wounds. Other parts try to keep us safe and manage our lives.
Self-leadership is about helping the wounded parts heal, the coping parts find the best way to do their job and let the parts that keep us safe unwind unnecessary fear and easy up on the self criticism.
IFS is so ground-breaking that it is being adopted by more than just therapists. Coaches, spiritual directors, teachers, doctors, and even business specialists integrate the principles of IFS in their work.
While there are many factors that go into speed in which therapy works, I’ve personally observed IFS to be more effective than traditional talk therapy approaches to trauma.