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What Do We Mean When We Say: Trauma Work?

Lots of therapists state they work with trauma, but what does it mean to be truly trauma-informed? How can we approach trauma in psychotherapy?

A therapist talking to a client.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a deeply impactful experience that affects individuals on multiple levels - emotionally, psychologically, and physically. It can result from various distressing events, ranging from sudden accidents to ongoing abuse, neglect, or even subtle, yet cumulative instances often termed "small t traumas."

Often clients will talk about themselves this way, feeling they have something to offer, but also "missing".

Types of Trauma:

  1. Small 't' Trauma: These are the seemingly insignificant yet impactful events that accumulate over time. Examples include constant criticism, parental neglect, or bullying. Though individual instances may not seem severe, their cumulative effect can lead to significant distress and dysfunction.

  2. Attachment Trauma: Attachment trauma arises from disruptions in early relationships, particularly with primary caregivers. This can result from neglect, abuse, inconsistent caregiving, or separation. It undermines an individual's sense of safety and security in relationships, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy attachments later in life.

  3. Developmental Trauma: Developmental trauma occurs during critical periods of growth and development, often in childhood. It encompasses experiences that hinder emotional, cognitive, and social development, such as chronic exposure to violence, instability, or invalidation. Developmental trauma can have profound and lasting effects on a person's identity, relationships, and overall functioning.

Symptoms of Trauma:

Trauma manifests in various ways, including:

  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks of the traumatic event

  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma

  • Hyperarousal or heightened sensitivity to potential threats

  • Negative alterations in mood and cognition

  • Dissociation or feeling disconnected from oneself or reality

  • Difficulty regulating emotions and forming relationships

These symptoms can significantly impair daily functioning and contribute to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse.

Effective Therapeutic Approaches:

  1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a structured therapy designed to process distressing memories and their associated beliefs and emotions. Through bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or taps, EMDR facilitates the reprocessing of traumatic memories, allowing them to be stored in a more adaptive manner. This helps reduce the emotional charge of the memories and promotes healing.

  2. Somatic Experiencing: Developed by Dr. Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing focuses on the body's physical sensations and responses to trauma. It recognizes that trauma is not only stored in the mind but also in the body. By facilitating the release of trapped energy and restoring the body's natural self-regulation mechanisms, Somatic Experiencing helps individuals renegotiate traumatic experiences and restore a sense of safety and resilience.

  3. Internal Family Systems (IFS): IFS views the psyche as composed of various parts, each with its own thoughts, feelings, and roles. Trauma often leads to the fragmentation and polarization of these parts, resulting in inner conflict and distress. IFS therapy helps individuals cultivate self-awareness and compassion while facilitating harmony and integration among their internal parts. By acknowledging and befriending these parts, individuals can heal past wounds and foster inner wholeness.

The Importance of Being Trauma-Informed:

Lots of therapists will talk about working with trauma, but don't integrate being trauma-informed into their practice.Being trauma-informed involves recognizing the prevalence and impact of trauma and adopting practices that promote safety, trust, and empowerment. A trauma-informed approach entails:

  • Creating environments that prioritize safety, predictability, and empowerment

  • Understanding the potential triggers and responses of individuals with trauma histories

  • Avoiding re-traumatization and promoting resilience through supportive relationships and interventions

  • Cultivating empathy, compassion, and cultural humility in interactions with trauma survivors

By adopting a trauma-informed perspective, individuals and organizations can create spaces that facilitate healing, growth, and recovery.

In conclusion, trauma is a complex and multifaceted experience that can profoundly impact individuals' lives. Whether it stems from acute incidents or prolonged adversity, trauma can manifest in various symptoms and challenges.

However, with the right support and interventions, healing is possible. Therapeutic approaches like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and IFS offer effective tools for processing trauma, restoring balance, and fostering resilience. By promoting trauma-informed practices and understanding the nuanced nature of trauma, we can create communities that support healing and empower individuals to reclaim their lives.

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