My Therapy for Trauma & Abuse

Trauma therapy: Physical, Sexual, emotional abuse

If you have been the victim of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or other horrific experiences, then you know the long term effects these experiences create. You also may experience yourself at times as “different” from other people who have not experienced your trauma. At best, family and friends are supportive but their understanding of how you feel is limited. At worst, you are told (or tell yourself) that you should “get over it.” You might then feel shame or embarrassment and that somehow you should be over your the traumatic experiences. This just isn’t true. The experiences you endured and that continue to haunt you are not easily resolved. Trauma creates chronic and complex problems. Your emotional injuries and suffering need to be respected for their complexity and require a comprehensive treatment approach (brain, mind and body sensations). My approach is based upon the most current research and treatment approaches for traumas. Below is a brief introduction on the ways I think about and work with trauma issues.

What do you mean by trauma?

Like many therapists, my definition of a traumatic event (a single or repeated exposure to real or perceived threats to safety) is based more on the person’s experience and symptoms rather than the event itself. This is because similar events can have very different long term consequences for different people. There are many variables that can make something traumatic for one person but not another. Many times the failure of family and the social environment to respond adequately through support, empathy and protection creates more emotional suffering than the traumatic events. Rather than attempting to define what types of incidents are traumatic (many of which; however, are obvious), my focus is on your unique emotional suffering create by the trauma.

How is trauma therapy different from therapy for other issues?

Neuroscience, and trauma research are changing the ways we think about and work with trauma issues. This is an important and truly ground breaking time for trauma work. We are beginning to understand how the instinctual brain systems that help people survive trauma (through flight, fight and freeze responses) can work independently from the thinking brain. As a result, therapy for trauma survivors must address both instinctual brain responses and thinking responses. We do this through both thinking and talking about your trauma and exploring the emotions and body sensation you experience both in and out of your sessions.

What does this type of therapy look like?

The psychotherapeutic relationship between the client and therapist is the frame for this work. (For a description, see the section on psychotherapy). Psychotherapy provides a safe place for you to explore past trauma in the “here and now”. For many individuals, just talking about their trauma can trigger “flashbacks” in which they experience emotions or body sensations of the past trauma. In these instances (which you most likely are already experiencing) the trauma can feel more like a current event rather than past memory. In treatment, we look for and work with these emotions and body sensations. Our goals are to help you understand, tolerate, soothe and reduce these feelings. We also work to reduce the fight, flight and freeze responses that you experience even when you are not in a life threatening situation.

What is this work like for a client; what do they experience?

To heal from your traumatic experiences, you will need to feel some (but not all) of the emotions in sessions. Our job together is to explore and address these emotions in ways that are bearable. This leads to insight, change, and healing. We help you learn how to both reduce and manage the emotions and body sensations that are the reminders of your trauma. In addition, we work toward revising the stories of your trauma. Many times these stories have been watered down (e.g., “it really wasn’t that bad”) in an effort to keep intense emotions from surfacing. Unfortunately, the emotions still surface and you may now blame yourself for not being tough enough as you have made your trauma sound less severe. The work can be difficult, at times, almost unbearable, but not impossible. By exploring your trauma with an attuned therapist, you can learn how to contain, understand, and take control of your past.

What if I can’t handle this work? What if it is too intense for me?

If you think about it, sometimes the memories and symptoms you already experience are intense and feel almost unbearable. Presently, you may look toward one of your coping strategies to get away from the intense emotions (e.g., alcohol or drugs, isolating from people, medications). A better approach could be to experience these emotions in therapy sessions with a trained therapist. By attending to your thoughts, feelings and body sensations we can help you reduce the impact of your “there and then trauma” in your “here and now life.”

Why should I trust you (or anyone) that we can change the impact my trauma has on me?

As with most important relationships, trust is something that evolves. This is one of the reasons short term or brief therapy for intense trauma issues is less effective. The revealing of some of the parts of the past trauma takes time. So far in your life there has been only limited (if any) relief from the pain and suffering created by your trauma. My approach is based upon our most current understandings of trauma which incorporate the brain, mind and body in the treatment of trauma.