Trauma and therapy
Trauma as an individual experience
There can be a huge gap between an external event and internal experience when it comes to trauma, considering the differences of every individual's perception of and response to a 'traumatic event'. Many often remain silent as a traumatic experience is too overwhelming or words cannot capture the magnitude of the experience. It is important to understand that symptoms as flagging-up of the self to communicate that something needs to be attended to rather than just as the psychological consequences of a shocking experience. An apparent lack of symptoms can be a result of dissociation as defensive efforts to survive from trauma. Some people experience flash-backs, nightmares or loss of memories. Many become anxious, lethargic, mistrustful, irritable or psychologically numb. These symptoms are all relevant to their defences (not to re-experience the trauma). However, often the defences themselves can be problematic as in alcohol or substance dependency.
Trauma without a bang
We may easily sympathise with people who have had a traumatic experience in an atrocious war or someone has been subjected to gruesome abuses. It may be that we can as an outsider empathise with them by imagining the impact (shock, pain, confusion, shame, guilt...) it could have had on us if we had been in their situation. However, there are situations where we become less understanding or even puzzled. For example: a university student remembered she was crying as a young child, running after her older friend as she had snatched her doll away. Her father saw her crying and called her 'stupid'. She stopped crying as she felt 'stunned' by her father's damning remark and 'the labelling' became to represent a knot of psychological impasse for her; and a middle-age man's nightmarish memory was about the moment when his mother 'blanked out' at him while having a chat in the kitchen on one of ordinary weekends when he was in his early teens. While not disregarding the importance of understanding of their vast personal histories, these examples are to illustrate that trauma can be a highly subjective experience, depending on an individual's psychological make-ups, maturity and the context of an event. The problem often is that it can be more difficult for people to seek out for help when they feel their traumatic experience would be taken as trivial or insignificant.
How does therapy help people with trauma?
The basis of exploration in therapy is that what is not understood tends to be acted out. Trauma is the heart of the problem in many cases. When unprocessed feelings are expressed, listened to, understood without judgemental assumptions, trauma's bestial grips lose its strength and it becomes memories of the past weaved into a tapestry of one's life story instead of being ever ongoing happenings or bolstering unhealthy defences. The journey of recovery itself can be arduous and it needs to be taken carefully. When a patient is too fragile or a therapist are not robust enough to hold a patient safe in a therapeutic relationship, the patient can be exposed to re-experiencing the trauma.
Trauma is to be understood and the journey of working it though is to be witnessed in a therapeutic relationship. It can be said that therapists are there as a companion, who goes on the journey together as a sufferer themselves not as a doer 'to cure it'. Jung captures this in his concept of a 'wounded healer'. Empathies and insights from integrating (often their own) tragic and difficult past are the wealth of skills and aptitudes for therapists. In this regards, I would go as far as to say that therapy can also revive a sense of community or belonging we all need to live life from the utter isolation of a traumatic experience and its aftermath.
Related articles from our experts
- From trauma induced complex PTSD towards healing
Zara Eadie MSc, BSc (Hons), MBACP, Dip Integrative Counselling, Guildford6th June, 2017
- Trauma and children – the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack
Alison Moore Registered BACP & MNCS Accredited Counsellor; Supervisor5th June, 2017
- The psychological effects of traumatic events such as the Manchester bombing
Vickie Norris MSc, (join me at free talk on CBT 26th June in Epping)24th May, 2017
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