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Processing Trauma

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Traumatic events can result in severe emotional and mental unresolved anguish leading to mental health and substance abuse disorders. Many individuals may not be able to function within a healthy relationship or feel as though they are worthy enough to thrive in society. Individuals often seek treatment not for their trauma but for other issues that prevail within their lives secondary to their history of trauma. For example, an individual may seek therapy for their eating disorder, depression, or substance abuse disorder only to discover that these disorders occurred as a way to cope with their past traumatic events. An individual may seek marriage or family therapy because of conflict patterns that are occurring in their relationship, only to discover that these conflicts are directly related to unresolved emotions associated with a traumatic event, and yes, some individuals do enter therapy strictly to process their emotions related to a traumatic event. Regardless of why the individual entered treatment, whenever there is past unresolved trauma, there are multiple approaches therapists will take when treating an individual with a history of trauma, regardless of their primary presenting disorder. 

How traumatic events are processed 

As a traumatic or distressing event occurs, it may overwhelm normal coping mechanisms, and as a result, the memory and associated stimuli are inadequately processed and stored in an isolated memory network. It is almost as if the brain is rewired to focus only on the traumatic event and its associated emotions as if the event was constantly on repeat in the brain. When this occurs, these memories will have lasting effects and will be repeated over and over as if the individual is re-experiencing the trauma for the first time because the sounds, smells, images, and feelings were not adequately processed and stored. 

Goals of trauma therapy 

There are many different types of trauma therapy approaches; however, the goal of all of these approaches are for the individual to recognize their emotions associated with the traumatic events and to be able to process the traumatic event fully and its effects in a safe manner. Over multiple therapy sessions, the overarching goal is for the individual to no longer have any negative emotional ties to their traumatic experience, and to be able to release the stress and negative survival energy in the body and replace it with positive thoughts and affirmations. The most crucial goals of trauma therapy are: 

  • To face the reality of the past event without getting stuck in it
  • To reduce or eliminate trauma symptoms
  • To work towards shifting focus from the past to the present
  • To improve daily functioning
  • For there to be an awareness of hereditary trauma.
  • To reclaim your personal power
  • To overcome addictions associated with traumatic stress
  • To gain skills that prevent relapse

It may get worse before it gets better 

Trauma therapy will open up past wounds and will trigger hurtful memories that may cause a lot of deep pain. These feelings and memories must be acknowledged before any healing can occur, and therefore the initial stages of therapy may be excruciating for the individual; however, over time, it will get better. 

Types of trauma therapy 

Somatic experiencing: Somatic experiencing focuses on the physiological responses that occur when someone experiences or remembers an overwhelming or traumatic event, in their body, rather than only through the thoughts or emotions connected to it. In other words, human emotions can turn into physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, sweating, trembling hands, or muscle aches. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing:  

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an eight-phase treatment technique that is used by therapists and includes brief, interrupted exposures to the traumatic event, eye movement tracking, and recall of feelings and emotions associated with a traumatic event. After successful treatment with EMDR therapy, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal is reduced. 

Exposure therapy:  

Exposure therapy is a component of cognitive behavioral therapy that works to re-experience the individual’s past traumatic event in order for them to overcome their trauma. The hope is for individuals to dissociate their thoughts, feelings, and emotions from that particular sense of smell, sight, location, or memory. By confronting feared situations, thoughts, and emotions, a person can learn that anxiety and fear will lessen over time 

Trauma-informed care:  

Trauma-informed care does not necessarily address the specific traumatic events at hand but work to provide safety, trust, peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and equality for all victims of trauma. Trauma-informed care or trauma-informed approach can be executed in any type of mental health setting and is distinct from trauma-specific interventions or treatments that are designed specifically to address the consequences of trauma. Trauma-informed care works to address specific mental health issues, such as depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, or anxiety while recognizing how trauma can affect each individual and their recovery from an addiction or mental health disorder.

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