3 common techniques for processing trauma
Trauma is a concept from psychology that has become popular in the colloquial language in recent years. Normally, trauma is associated with the symptoms experienced by someone who had a terrible and traumatising experience, such as a natural disaster, sexual abuse, or war. But trauma has many faces and is not only the result of such extreme circumstances. The death of a loved one can be experienced as a traumatic event, or a car accident, or a difficult labour. Many life experiences can be traumatic depending on the circumstances surrounding the events and our resilience and interpretation of such events. When assessing trauma, three things must be taken into consideration:
1) Trauma means a lack of integration of a past traumatic event and a sense that the event is still happening now.
2) The extent to which an event becomes traumatic depends on an individual’s subjective interpretation of such event.
3) An individual’s recovery from trauma depends on the type of trauma and his/her past childhood experiences.
Once-off or developmental trauma
Normally, when someone contacts me because a traumatic event happened to them, I consider whether they wish to treat a once-off event (an accident, a sexual assault, etc.) or whether they wish to look at their developmental trauma (childhood sexual abuse, abusive parents, etc.). I also need to know their family history. This will give me an idea of the type of work involved and the length that this client would need to work on her/his healing.
If you need to process a once-off trauma, and you had a good enough childhood, with parents who felt safe and were there when you needed them, some techniques can be used that would help you move on with your life in a relatively short period of time.
If you suffered trauma in your childhood or have unresolved attachment issues from childhood, it would be harder to process the once-off event that brought you to counselling, or your childhood issues. It will take longer, often years, during which you will need to process your trauma by looking at your attachment deficiencies, your regular dysregulation, and constant thought intrusion and emotional overwhelm. Once you are more in control and know how to manage your emotions, thoughts and impulses, then the same techniques can be applied to eliminate the sequels of the traumatic events.
This is an extremely popular technique among trauma therapists. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It is a fairly new treatment that uses a person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to process the traumatic event. It has grown in popularity for the treatment of PTSD. Before and after the intervention, the therapist will ask you to rate the level of distress. The idea is that it will be reduced after the treatment. During the treatment, most EMDR therapists will ask you to follow their hand movements right to left with your eyes, but if that does not seem to work, there are other EMDR techniques that would facilitate transforming your disturbing emotions. I never used this technique, so I cannot make a personal comment about it.
EFT or Emotional Freedom Techniques, also called tapping, are widely used, not only for the treatment of trauma, but also of many different fears, anxieties and irrational beliefs. An EFT therapist will also ask you to rate the level of your distress and would check if this level has changed after the intervention. The treatment consists of tapping specific points in your face, and upper body while recalling distressing experiences. The points correspond to some of the meridian system points, used in acupuncture. The tapping calms down the amygdala in your brain and facilitates the processing of traumatic events. Some of my clients have experienced miraculous recoveries in a short period of time, while others do not feel anything at all, and need other techniques.
3) Rewind technique
I have recently trained in this new modality. It works very well if you have experienced a once-off event and you have a solid background and support around you. During the treatment, you will be asked to recall the traumatic event with all the details as if you were watching it on a movie. Then, you will be asked to get into the movie and rewind the event without much detail in a fast way. It sounds simple, but it has profound effects. Some of my clients reported a reduction of their PTSD symptoms after using this technique.
There are, of course, other ways of processing trauma, with each generation of therapists discovering new methods, and new research brings light to what is needed for healing to happen. The main goal for all the modalities is that you would feel the traumatic event as part of your past, without its memory interfering with your present reality. To do this, recent research has shown that your prefrontal cortex needs to be active during the processing of memory. This means that you need to be aware of what is going on inside you and being able to change it. You need to be driving your own body with your full attention, not let the body drive itself in “automatic pilot”.
Does talking about it help?
Talking and thinking about the event does not necessarily solve it. It might make things worse. The past is never going to change, so your focus needs to be in your present reality. You can learn how to lessen your activation when you are triggered in normal life so that your body knows that it is now safe to relax. Your trigger is not a real danger, only a memory of something that was dangerous at some point in your life. Then, you can process your memories while relaxing your body, so that you do not feel overwhelmed any longer. You will only remember what you wish to remember at the time you choose. This means that now you will have available all the energy that you used to spend on avoiding triggers and managing overwhelm. You can use all of that energy to create a new life for yourself.