What is Trauma?
Trauma is the emotional response that someone has to a deeply distressing or upsetting life event. This could be the reaction to an intense one-time incident like a death in the family or a natural disaster, or the reaction to repetitive or chronic negative experiences, like bullying, domestic violence, or combat.
Trauma is subjective. This means that two people can experience the same negative event and one person might be left traumatized while the other person might be unphased. This can make it difficult to define or recognize trauma, as it is a profoundly personal experience that cannot and should not be generalized or oversimplified.
There are, however, a few characteristic emotions that traumatic events will often trigger in people. These include intense feelings of fear, helplessness, and being overwhelmed.
What Are the Impacts of Trauma?
While feeling scared, helpless and overwhelmed seems like a normal response to a distressing experience, sometimes the emotional intensity of trauma can be so severe and pervasive, that it interferes with a person’s ability to live a normal life.
Short-term reactions often include shock and denial. Think about intense physical experiences like getting a cavity filled or having surgery. The dentist numbs you before drilling a hole into your tooth, and a surgeon wouldn’t dream of cutting open your body without first administering anesthesia. A traumatic experience can be just as intense, but that intensity is emotional, and detachment and denial are our bodies’ natural numbing mechanisms to protect us from the full intensity of the pain.
When the shock wears off, which can take anywhere from weeks to years, the more lasting impacts begin to set in. While longer term responses to trauma may vary, common impacts include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood changes
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
These symptoms can fade with time. But they can also persist, and sometimes they become so overpowering that they begin to interfere with personal relationships, day-to-day activities, and performance at school or work. When this is the case, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional.
The cognitive and emotional challenges involved in processing and opening up about severe trauma can make it difficult for some trauma patients to find relief through standard counseling or talk therapy. One alternative that has proven beneficial for such patients is called Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a technique that focuses on the interconnectedness of the mind and body. Unresolved trauma can have subconscious physical symptoms, as it changes the way that a person’s nervous system responds to certain stimuli. When the nervous system isn’t working properly, it fails to regulate emotions, leading to increased feelings of fear, helplessness and being overwhelmed. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy uses mindfulness practices and cautious therapist-patient collaboration to help patients develop control over how they respond to trauma-related triggers.
There are 3 phases in sensorimotor psychotherapy:
- In the first phase, the therapist establishes their office as a place of safety. When the patient feels calm and protected, they can better focus on personal awareness and body sensations. During this phase, the therapist helps the patient enter a mindful state, paying attention to the patient’s breathing patterns, body positions and gestures.
- In the second phase, if the patient is ready to speak about the traumatic event, the therapist will ask them to recall up to a few minutes before the event, prompting them to remember in detail how they felt. If the patient reports anger, or fear, the therapist will ask them how they know that they they feel that way, honing in on where specifically that emotion is felt and drawing out important physical sensations, like a tightening of the stomach, or a lump in the throat.
- In the third phase the therapist helps the patient carry out any defensive responses that they may not have been able to carry out during the trauma itself. Unresolved actions lingering from past trauma can lead to harmful, distorted thought cycles for victims. Maybe the patient froze when they saw a loved one being physically hurt. What would they liked to have done? The therapist allows the patient to symbolically carry out the desired action in a safe environment, free of judgment or fear. This allows the patient to triumph over the past trauma, giving them a sense of power and strength to hold onto.
Through sensorimotor psychotherapy, the therapist helps the client gain a better understanding of how any negative and distorted self conceptions regarding the trauma affect their body, replacing the old feelings with new truths.
How Can Therapy Help Me Cope with Trauma?
During therapy, we work with patients to identify and understand harmful thought cycles and emotional responses. Once a patient can recognize when, why, and how the impacts of trauma are affecting them, we are able to work together to find constructive ways to cope with the stress and manage negative emotions. If you have been dealing with the impacts of trauma and are struggling to cope, you are not alone.
Contact our counseling practice today if you are living in the Ann Arbor, MI area and would like to begin therapy. Our experienced counselors have the tools and knowledge to help you get your life back on track.