In a few days, I’ll be starting a new session of the phase of group we call Trauma & Recovery. Every time I begin this group, I sense caution, apprehension, and even dread in the room. The idea of treading into the parts of our life story that involve trauma seems counterintuitive to many.
It’s not unusual for me to hear things like:
- “Why in the world do we want to go back to that terrible stuff?”
- “Doesn’t that just make it worse – to open up that can of worms?”
- “I really think it’s better to keep the door closed on the painful parts of my life.”
I get it. I remember my own fear and questions as I started the journey of recovery in my own life.
So, what’s the answer? What do I tell my clients when they ask why they should look back to move forward? The full answer is complex, involving brain chemistry and physiological body responses, and fills volumes of research annuls and textbooks. But a core truth is one that escapes many. Trauma may have occurred long ago – but it doesn’t just disappear. Trauma is impacting the present.
Let’s pause and define trauma, as just that word can raise all kinds of questions and feelings. Trauma encompasses a broad range of experiences. It may be the “big-T” type which might include overt physical abuse, sexual abuse, a severe car accident, or a natural disaster. Or it might refer to “small-t” traumas that can include repeated and even chronic incidents of verbal put downs, the disregard of someone’s reality or feelings, or the absence of the necessary nurture, comfort, and protection due a child.
It is not the event itself that creates trauma but the feelings that fire in the body associated with the event. Big terrifying events like a car wreck, physical or sexual abuse can overwhelm the body so much that the natural fight/flight response is unable to function and the body instead moves into a state of freeze or shut down. This state of freeze blocks the body from releasing the emotions and can become a chronic state that the person is stuck in. This chronic state of freeze often shows up as dissociation or a cutting oneself off from the body.
For others, trauma is experienced as chronic events that leave the body constantly revving up into fight/flight. When this happens repeatedly or chronically the body’s natural ability to calm itself down and return to a balanced state becomes compromised. Instead individuals will find themselves either chronically over-activated (anxiety, stress, irritability, rage) or chronically under-activated (depression, exhaustion, numbness) as the body has lost the ability to regulate itself automatically.
So, when my client asks why should I go back there to the painful stuff, the answer is because it’s affecting you now. The strategies you developed (often unconsciously and automatically) to cope with the trauma are now causing you problems in your adult life. The brain-body responses are reacting to things in the present as if the trauma of the past was still happening.
If you stop and think about what issue brought you into therapy you will probably notice that that issue can be described as a symptom of not being able to adequately regulate yourself due to past traumas. Here are some areas of life that are often affected by unresolved childhood trauma:
- Relationships with your spouse, kids, parents, and friends
- Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety etc.
- Taking care of your physical health
- Job and career success
- Sense of security
- Spiritual health
At the end of the twenty weeks of my Trauma and Recovery group, I no longer feel the apprehension and discomfort in the room. The clients have let go of some shame, found understanding, and experienced kindness and care as they’ve shared things they never talk about. While the journey of healing has just begun for some, they experience first-hand, that getting in touch with the past and working through old pain, allows freedom from the power of trauma over our present.
Written by Cheryl Schenck LPC, CSAT