Trauma therapy can diagnose and treat subclinical and clinical trauma- or stress-related disorders, such as Acute Stress Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It addresses the effects of traumatic experiences on our mental health at the levels of emotions, cognitions, body, and behaviours.
During a traumatic incident, we are confronted with a threat to our safety. Our brains go into survival mode. They withdraw processing capacities from non-essential brain regions, such as higher cortical areas, and direct them to deeper brain structures involved in our survival responses, such as the limbic system. Our thoughts may slow down or feel distant. Hormones are released to activate our fight-flight response and optimize our bodies to survive the imminent threat. We may feel intense panic, anger, or even detachment and numbness. We might find our body almost automatically makes a choice for us: we flee, or we fight.
These intense responses during the traumatic experience can get stored in our thoughts, feelings, bodies, and behaviours even after the danger has passed, and can be activated again later on by associated triggers. For example, after surviving a car crash, we may find that subsequently cars, the sound of horns, the screeching of wheels, or the smell of fuel can trigger a similar survival response as we experienced during the actual crash incident. Such trauma-related symptoms can severely disrupt our mental health and wellbeing.
Trauma therapy can help to reduce trauma-related symptoms. It does so by first raising awareness and understanding of our trauma response and clinical symptoms. This can help us to get a better understanding of what is happening for us and can reduce fear of the symptoms themselves. It also lets us observe and identify how our trauma response may be driving some of our unwanted thoughts behaviours. It is essential to prioritise our recovery and self-care during the period after a traumatic incident.
Trauma therapy provides a space for us to make sense of our confusing or conflicting feelings following trauma. Common feelings include distress, sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, emptiness, detachment, guilt, or shame. It is important to sit with and explore each of these feelings. This is done together with a mental health professional to ensure they do not become overwhelming, scary, or isolating, and that we can tolerate their intensity. Identifying what our feelings are telling us is key to understanding them and being able to process them in a healthy way.
Trauma therapy can also help us make sense of our thoughts
and slowly construct meaning from the trauma we went through. Many people find it healing to let their trauma experience and growth guide and support others. For example, people who have lost loved ones to illness may decide to start a foundation to help others with the same disease, or people who have survived tragedies may become motivational speakers to give others hope. The first step toward constructing meaning and healing from trauma is to examine how the experience has impacted our beliefs and what our narrative of it is.
Trauma therapy can help reduce our physiological reactivity. Our bodies feel unsafe and hypervigilant after trauma. Our brains main job is to keep us alive and so it may be more sensitised to potential threats in our environment following a traumatic event. Sometimes a small trigger can re-activate survival mode and pull us back into the past when the trauma was happening. It is crucial to make our bodies feel safer and more grounded in the present in order to reduce physiological reactivity. Trauma therapy can provide strategies to achieve this, including grounding, breathing, and mindfulness exercises. Some trauma techniques even directly target the processing of traumatic physiological responses, including EMDR Therapy and Somatosensory Therapies.
Trauma therapy can allow us to recognize and adjust trauma-related behaviours that are damaging to our wellbeing. After trauma, our survival mode may be re-activated leading to fight, flight, and even freeze and fawn behaviours. Fight can manifest in enhanced conflict, arguments, anger outbursts, and aggression. Flight can manifest in avoidance, escapism (e.g. drugs, alcohol), pushing people away, and playing out patterns of instability (e.g. frequently changing jobs, countries, or partners). Freeze can manifest in detachment, isolation, loss of interest or motivation, and a sense of emptiness. Fawn can manifest in people-pleasing, self-sacrifice, and loose boundaries. While we may experiencing any of these behaviours from time to time, following trauma, individuals may get stuck in these patterns, which can lead to worsening of their mental health over time. Trauma therapy can guide us to break such patterns and also help us to exercise regular self-soothing, and self-care.
Written by Dr Esslin Terrighena.
If you think you have gone through trauma and want to find out more how trauma therapy can help, please book a consultation on (852) 2521 4668 or firstname.lastname@example.org.