What a week. You'd have to be living under a rock if you haven't at all tuned in to the tumultuous news cycle in the US. Those that are survivors of trauma (specifically sexual assault and other forms of abuse) are incredibly triggered, and those that provide psychotherapy for trauma survivors are, well, ..busy (understatement). It is a time of tremendous shifts, it's a time of political divisiveness and upheaval, some say greater than that of the era of the Civil War. I don't doubt that. And it is through adversity that profound transformation and transcendence can and does occur (cue in silver linings here).
Politics aside, we must collectively focus on how to heal the traumatized brain. In the latter three posts, I wrote extensively about the brain mechanics of trauma. I shared information about our wonderful amydalas, hippocampi, prefrontal cortex, and hypothalamus, among other miraculous brain components. We know how the brain scatters traumatic material in different parts of our grey matter, rendering a cohesive narrative approaching impossible for the healing individual. Brain-wise interventions, including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), help the traumatized survivor to develop an adaptive resolution to their trauma in which the "held charge" of the trauma (hyperarousal, hypervigilance, intrusive flashbacks, freezing, numbness, etc), can be desensitized and reprocessed in a cohesive manner (van der Kolk, 2015).
Let us know turn our attention to how we can help our precious craniums heal in the aftermath of trauma. Follow along with me as I discuss five ways to help the traumatized brain heal:
1) See a psychotherapist who is strengths-focused (not victim-shaming/blaming), trauma-informed (has had extensive advanced training in evidence-based modalities to heal conditions like PTSD, C-PTSD), and who is competent and compassionate. It is imperative to work with a mental health professional who is not only licensed in their field (psychology, social work, counseling) but also has advanced clinical training in trauma recovery. Treating conditions like PTSD, C-PTSD, depression and anxiety fall under the category of clinical intervention. Therefore, you need to work with a licensed mental health professional who has the training to address these conditions. Life coaches, although helpful, are not trained to address clinical conditions. It is unethical for a life coach to attempt to treat any of these clinical conditions, as it is out of their scope. Life coaches can provide psychoeducation, coping skills, and resources. Psychotherapists ( PhD, PsyD, LCSW, LMFT, LPCC), do the clinical interventions addressing the delicate nuances of trauma. You would not see a vitamin consultant to deal with a cardiac bypass condition. Within those qualifications, the practitioner must also be strengths-focused, client-centered, and empowering for their client.
2) Physiological release is vital. Those of us in the field of trauma recovery are intimately acquainted with the seminal writings of Bessel van der Kolk (2015) and Francine Shapiro (1992), as well as others including Lenore Terr, Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Pat Ogden, Cathy Malchiodi, among many more. When humans experience trauma, the event is "held" in a somatic (physical) part of the brain that is not accessible to verbal (higher order) understanding or meaning-making of the event. Therefore, interventions often need to begin with "bottom-up" processing (van der Kolk, 2015) where physiological release can safely take place, and after which the verbal/cognitive parts of the brain can then make sense of what happened. Some interventions can include trauma-informed yoga, somatic experiencing psychotherapy, EMDR therapy, exercise in a safe place (i.e. nature/hiking, with safe others), ,mindfulness based practices, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, expressive arts utilizing major muscle groups, music and dance therapy, and other trauma-informed modalities.
3) Expressing the "held emotion" of the event(s) allows the processing and release of traumatic loss to unfold. Behind every traumatic event is a loss of some kind (whether literally to death, to abandonment, separation, a dream, safety, control , self-efficacy)...allowing the client to go to expression of loss, grieving the loss(es) inherent in the traumatic circumstances, is essential to healing. A "safe, holding environment (Winnicott, 1992) allows this expression to unfold, which may come about in expressive arts, journaling, narration of story, music/drama therapy, EMDR, somatic experiencing, and other trauma-informed modalities.
4) When a survivor can release trauma physiologically and emotionally, then they can access their higher order reasoning and understanding of the traumatic event(s). At this point, the survivor can "narrate" their story, either verbally, in written form, or in a visual journal. By cognitively connecting the dots in a solid, cohesive understanding of the chronology of events, the client is able to store the traumatic material in a more adaptive fashion that does not activate the amygdala but instead allows the hippocampus to appropriately file away past events and current triggers. EMDR therapy is magnificent for this type of reprocessing and transcending trauma (Shapiro, 2017).
5) Spirituality helps make meaning of the nonsensical. And I don't necessarily mean a religious institution. A mindfulness based practice of meditation, connection with nature and safe others, meditation, creativity, prayer, all allow a survivor to transcend and make meaning out of adversity (Malchiodi, 2018). Survivors may also connect with safe others along the healing journey who are concurrently healing and evolving through trauma-informed modalities (psychotherapy, meditation, expressive arts, etc) that allow a connection and a decrease of isolation. In turn, communion with safe others allows healing to occur (i.e. support groups, individual psychotherapy). That which is witnessed and validated ceases to exert dominion over the well-being of the individual.
Retrieved from https://www.trauma-informedpractice.com/
Shapiro, Francine (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, 3rd Edition, The Guilford Press.
van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma, Penguin Books.
Winnicott, D.W. (1992). The child, the family and the outside world (classics in child development), Perseus Publishing.