You don’t have to have been exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence to suffer from psychological trauma.
What is Psychological Trauma?
Trauma is technically defined as experiencing or personally witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. Trauma also involves hearing about such an event happening to a loved one, or repeatedly experiencing aspects of a trauma, like first responders (ambulance, police, firefighters) have to do.
In actual practice, many clients experience trauma symptoms in response to adverse life experiences that may not be death, injury or sexual violence, such as childhood neglect, unsafe childhood environment, long-term separation from a parent, or serious illness for example.
Common Trauma Symptoms
An experience becomes traumatic when it becomes fixed in our experience and manifests as negative beliefs about ourselves, and negative emotional states.
Symptoms may include intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss, feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance and avoidance of situations that remind us of the event, to name but some.
As a result of trauma our sense of self, our confidence, and ability to function in the world is adversely effected. Although a trauma may have happened in the past, it can feel as if we are currently at risk.
What Causes Psychological Trauma
Theories of how trauma develops focus on how we process our experiences. If the traumatic experiences are not processed adequately at the time, they become stuck in our system as memories that can be activated by a present situation that has some similarities to the original events.
Because these memories are stuck, they never get to heal. Flashbacks and nightmares are thought to be unconscious attempts by our minds to reprocess the stored material.
The two evidence-based therapies that are recommended for post traumatic stress disorder are CBT, and EMDR.
The advantage of beginning with EMDR is that it is able to quickly desensitise old stuck and painful memories, and reprocess them so that blocks are shifted, and the natural healing processes are restored. It is able to do this without the individual having to re-experience or relive the original traumatic events, thus making healing much easier for the client.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitising and Reprocessing, and the name gives us clues as to how it works.
Bilateral eye movements (most commonly eyes moving from side to side) are utilised, and appear to flush up stuck memories, and make them available for reprocessing. This is something akin to the eye movements in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which are needed to help process our daily experiences.
Once reprocessed, old memories are no longer able to cause distressing emotional states in the present. This first stage of the therapy is accompanied by real emotional and physical changes, such as the return of a feeling lightness of mood, or the release of years-old tension held in the body.
CBT does the same reprocessing, but by repeated exposure to the original traumatic material, so it takes longer, and may feel very emotional for the client. For all this it works no better than EMDR.
A later phase of EMDR is however quite similar to CBT. As a result of our traumatic experiences we may not have adjusted very well to life’s demands. We may have come to believe that we are not capable or adequate in some way. These beliefs need to change in order to to come through the traumatic experience with a capacity to find real wellbeing again.
EMDR does this by reconnecting the old traumatic memories with the network of adaptive resources that we have already developed successfully in other areas of our lives. It does this spontaneously, without any effort or struggling. Sometimes CBT can also be helpful. CBT stands for Cognitive and Behavioural Therapy, and helps us understand how what we think about creates our feelings and drives our behaviours.
Sometimes as a result of prolonged aversive experiences, we have not learned the skills that we need to emotionally survive, or the ways of thinking that can produce states of wellbeing. In this case, new skills and new ways of thinking about things are needed, and utilising CBT is very helpful.
Author: Paul Carver, Bsc, Msc, PG Dip Health Psych.
Paul Carver is a Brisbane psychologist with a very wide range of experience, focused on bringing the very best evidence-based treatments to his clients – including how to overcome psychological trauma and find emotional wholeness.
To arrange an appointment with Paul Carver, freecall Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on 1800 877 924 or you can book online.
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- Hensley, J.H. (2016). An EMDR Therapy Primer.Springer Publishing, NY.