Trauma Symptoms and Treatment
“Trauma is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence”
– Dr. Peter Levine
This is the first of a two part series about trauma and its treatment. We will define trauma, discuss the importance of conceptualizing what it is to us, and express just how common it is to experience trauma. I focus mostly on the work of Dr. Peter Levine, an expert in the field of trauma, to describe the symptoms you may experience if you have lived through a traumatic event. Acknowledging your own trauma is the best way to face it head-on to get the help you may need.
The Prevalence of Trauma
Trauma is a word that is very stigmatized, and that is very sad because it is usually highly treatable. Let me start with a disclaimer: Trauma work can be a real trigger for people, especially if your therapist is not experienced in working with trauma. The American Psychological Association, in a recent article, estimates that between 57-94% of all people have experienced trauma in their life. To translate that, 1 in every 2 people, have been exposed and in more generous estimates, 1.9 out of every 2 people have experienced trauma in their lifetime. Remember, this does not mean that you are traumatized, but it certainly deserves our attention.
What is Trauma
Trauma can be described as so many things. Levine gives a brilliant and succinct definition. Trauma occurs when a person experiences a feeling of extreme overwhelmedness mixed with a feeling of total helplessness. The younger you are, the more traumatic things appear, and the more helpless you really are. Trauma is something happens to ALL people, but it impacts each person in his or her own way.
Dr. Peter Levine enumerates symptoms that may point to the fact one has experienced trauma and that it remains with them:
- Intrusive imagery/flashbacks
- Extreme sensitivity to lights and sounds
- Exaggerated emotional and startle responses
- Shame and lack of self-worth
- Reduced ability to deal with stress
- Difficulty sleeping
- Relationship issues
- Dissociation, long periods of zoning out, ruminating on pain and past
Remember that these symptoms do not mean that you are “traumatized”, but they simply warrant further discussion. When I have clients who tell me that they have severe depression, anxiety or relational issues which they have sought help for, but were not successful, I often ask about traumatic experiences in their past.
Trauma, unfortunately, is an experience had by most. Each of us have traumatic events that have happened either in childhood or in our adult life that form or shape part of who we are. The key is to not let our traumatic experiences and feelings dictate the rest of our lives. Trauma treatment is not one-size-fits-all and often talk therapy can backfire and retraumatize the person. I will share with you four steps that can help you recover from your trauma and will explain how your healing only begins with a willingness on your behalf.
4 Aspects of Your Recovery
If you or a loved one are suffering from the effects of trauma, which I mentioned in the last article, know that help is available. You may have heard that trauma is hard to treat, or perhaps even impossible, but it is simply not true. I have never met a trauma client, whether suffering from PTSD, childhood trauma, war trauma or any other form, who was not able to be helped. But it all starts with motivation and willingness.
Step 1: Selecting a Therapist and Modality
A lot of therapists don’t have specialized training in trauma. I am not questioning their intentions, however, let me put it this way. Can a primary care doctor diagnose and operate on cancer? They are doctors, but it’s simply not their specialty. When you have an issue, you want to see someone who specializes in that exact area. Your primary care doctor may be a nice lady, but if you have a complex heart issue, she will responsibly refer you to an appropriate cardiologist.
Oftentimes, recounting trauma can retraumatize you, and worsen the effects. I see time and again how people finally come to see myself or someone trained in trauma and report that they were not helped by other modalities in the past and often felt worse. This is unnecessary suffering and can be avoided by spending more time researching appropriate treatment modalities and therapists.
Some effective modalities that I use are:
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). You can find more info about it on EMDRIA.org. The main gist of EMDR is that it stimulates REM sleep while awake, thereby allowing for an expedited trauma processing opportunity. This allows the client to reset their belief system and move towards a more adaptive response.
- Another modality that I use and am fond of is that of Somatic Experiencing. TraumaHealing.org has a tremendous amount of information on Dr. Levine’s form of treatment.
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy by Dr. Pat Ogden, is another modality which holds great power in trauma recovery work.
- Yoga is very effective in treating trauma. Interestingly, it incorporates many of the concepts of the above mentioned modalities, including: internal stabilizing, rhythmic and bilateral movements, somatic awareness and sometimes social contact.
Step 2: Stabilization
Rushing your healing and progress will backfire. Going at a slow pace is the fastest and best way to treat trauma. After you find the therapist and modality that you think will work for you, the focus is on how to find a safe place within and how to stay in that place. This will form the foundation for all future work, even if you become triggered and upset. You will have the internal keys to self-regulate and self-soothe.
Step 3: The Work
Our brain does a great job protecting us. However, the warning systems and defenses which we possess, can often times backfire. We find this by many unfortunate vets who have memories of explosions and get activated when they hear the noise of a car turning on. This hypervigilant response is in fact a powerful defense mechanism which the brain has developed to protect the person. Therapy actually revolves around disarming the response. This is the first point of contact. I often say that whenever we are hysterical (about an issue), it is always historical. When we figure out what the trigger is, we can then begin to disarm it.
Step 4: Go All The Way to The Finish
Don’t be afraid to do the work. Or, rather, I should say, be afraid, but do it anyway. Every single client of mine starts off with fear. “I don’t want to have to relive the trauma, or talk about it or think about it.” We can’t blame them for that. I always assure them that we often don’t need to relive or even talk about it again, and certainly not until they are comfortable. When they do get to the other side, which most do, through persistent work, they always look back with amazement, that they are now relieved and look at the trauma in such a different way.
So many things will change as you take your life back. Healing and repair puts you touch with your resources. Remind yourself that you can and will go from living life just trying to survive, to instead be able to thrive.
4 Books For More Powerful Info
- TraumaHealing.org – Website about trauma healing with information from Dr. Levine
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy – Dr. Pat Ogden’s website aboMind_Your_Mind_Ep_018ut how sensorimotor psychotherapy can help with trauma