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Working With Trauma

Trauma is a hot topic in the world of mental health and rightfully so. According to one fact sheet compiled by Mental Health America, the cost of certain forms of traumatic experience on the health care system is between $333 billion and $750 billion dollars annually. Co-occurrence of trauma and other mental health issues, such as substance abuse, is extremely prevalent, and it is likely that every individual will at some point experience some form of traumatic event. In regards to mental health, trauma is a pandemic issue–the effects on ourselves, as well as our communities and families, cannot be avoided.

Fortunately, recovery from these experiences is a possibility, and although support from a psychotherapist may not always be necessary, it can certainly be quite helpful.

Because traumatic experiences are very much present in our communities and everyday lives, the subject certainly warrants serious discussion. Clients and professionals alike are constantly referring to this concept, as well as to triggers, symptoms, and diverse ideas on how to recover from traumatic experiences, and often, mental health professionals swear by certain rigid structures for approaching trauma in the therapeutic process. For this reason, it is crucial to create a simple and more universal way to approach this topic, as well as to understand the truths about trauma informed psychotherapy and the relevance of its use.

Accordingly, any one singular approach may not apply to every individual and to every traumatic experience. As with any form of psychotherapy, the intervention must be tailored towards the unique individual and his or her specific needs. It seems that this individualized approach, while maintaining some understanding of the origins and facts associated with the psychology of traumatic experiences, will prove most beneficial to trauma survivors.

In general, trauma is accepted as being a deeply distressing or disturbing emotional experience. Accordingly, when we think of traumatic events we often picture horrible abuse, tragic deaths, or extreme violence. These events are certainly extremely traumatic, but trauma doesn’t always require the shock factor that is generally associated with this concept.

Instead, as defined, trauma is simply any event that is experienced as being deeply distressing or emotionally disturbing.

This might include various forms of tragedy, abuse, or even unfortunate relational experiences that can range from abandonment, to dependency, to the inability to have one’s physical or emotional needs met. For example, parental divorce, economic hardship, car accidents, illness, or even the death of an acquaintance can all be extremely distressing.

Any of these events have great potential to cause profound distress, which in turn allows for traumatic experiences of the past to have lasting emotional and behavioral effects. These past events can truly impact our self-perceptions, experiences in relationships, and overall perception of our world. In this sense, working with trauma is very much a psychodynamic process; in fact, we aren’t always fully aware of certain traumatic experiences and may instead be suffering from the often unconscious residual effects.

The psychodynamic work of healing trauma can be done by becoming conscious of the impact that the experience has had and by working through the experience by being present with any associated thoughts or feelings.

In working through trauma the goal is to alleviate these negative effects by cautiously examining the experience and the associated perceptions. As with any therapeutic process, patience is key, along with strict efforts to prevent any re-traumatization for the trauma survivor. With time, we can learn to cope with any lasting feelings of anger, guilt, shame, or anxiety, while also learning to challenge any negative self-perceptions that the traumatic experience may have triggered.

It is also important to understand that every detail of the experience does not require dissection, but instead we can work with the traumatic experience to navigate and recover from associated emotional and cognitive responses. For example, thoughts related to a poor self-image, or feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame may need to be processed as they relate to these experiences. However, although your therapist can certainly listen to whatever you feel you may need to share, it is not necessary to go into every gritty detail of the experience.

With this approach we can decrease the likelihood of any re-traumatization while working to improve a variety of possible symptoms, including anxiety and depression. In fact, if you or someone you know is suffering from any of a wide variety of psychological symptoms, examining past trauma with a trained therapist will certainly be beneficial.

Every individual has likely experienced some form of trauma and no one is immune to the effects of these experiences and the extent to which we work with our past experiences has a great impact on our ability to discover wellness in our lives.

Just as the traumatic experience is unique for every individual, the process in overcoming the associated difficulties must be unique as well. By acknowledging the impact of past events on our current life experience we can take additional steps towards personal growth, well-being, and empowerment.

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