Trauma: The Importance of Treating Lingering Psychological Wounds
If you were born before 1995, you likely have a vivid memory of September 11, 2001.
I remember waking up and preparing for classes (I was finishing my undergraduate degree in psychology) when I received a phone call from a friend. She told me to turn on the television.
I was unprepared for the horrific image playing out in front of me over and over: passenger airplanes slamming into the twin towers. I was stunned.
The rest of the day felt surreal. I don’t remember my classes (they may have been canceled). At the time of the attack, I didn’t know anyone in New York City. I didn’t have a personal connection with 9/11, beyond being an American citizen. But my view of myself and my safety in the world was forever altered on that day. Altered is the keyword.
This change happens, on a deeper scale, when a person experiences a personal trauma.
The Situation May Only Last A Moment, But The Psychological Trauma Is Ongoing
When a person’s physical, emotional, or psychological safety is threatened, it changes how they view themselves in the world. The situations may be different, but the impact of a traumatic event can leave a person feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and disconnected. This can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and self-judgment. How we respond can mean everything. People often develop unhealthy coping strategies like a reliance on alcohol, drugs, or food. They may find themselves beginning to isolate or avoid situations that used to bring them joy and happiness in an effort to protect themselves long after the threat has passed.
Why Do Traumatic Experiences Have Such A Profound Emotional Impact?
When a person experiences a situation that they perceive as traumatic or dangerous, their body’s limbic system is activated. The limbic system is the system responsible for protecting us from danger. It’s often referred to as the “animal” part of the brain. It doesn’t rely on thoughts, planning or reason. It’s reactive and reflexive when triggered.
If a person has an experience that they perceive as traumatic, that memory can also be maladaptively stored. When a person is in a situation that reminds them of the traumatic event, the limbic system can be retriggered, sending them back into that “fight or flight” response. We’re effectively producing false positives to protect ourselves!
Our experiences can cause brain circuits to change and send us into this fight or flight response before we even have a chance to think things through or ask ourselves if we are in real danger.
Fortunately, we have good, evidence-based interventions available to address these physical and psychological misfirings.
Effective Evidenced-Based Treatment For Trauma
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR):
EMDR is the “gold standard” for treating trauma-based disorders, such as PTSD. It is also effective for reducing anxiety, and improving performance-enhancement. The therapist uses “bilateral stimulation” to reduce the emotional triggers of a memory so that the client is able to process the traumatic memory in a healthier way. When a person isn’t constantly flying into that “fight or flight” response by the limbic system, they are in a much better position to apply coping strategies and think rationally about situational stressors.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is another widely accepted, effective form of treatment. It focuses on a person’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings and identifies inaccurate patterns that keep them stuck. The goal is to disrupt a person’s unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors and improve the client’s emotion regulation skills.
Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy:
Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy is a powerful tool to help clients move past specific fears. The process involves gradually exposing the suffering person to traumatic memories and triggers while they are in a safe place, like a counseling office. The therapist helps the client deal with any distressful feelings that arise by helping them use coping strategies to bring on feelings of calmness and security.
Group Therapy is a way to help a person suffering from trauma not feel isolated and alone. A traumatized individual may feel like their loved ones won’t understand how they are feeling. They may not share their experiences due to concerns of judgment. Group therapy can be especially useful in helping a person find connection, understanding, and community surrounded by people going through similar emotions.
There Is Hope
If you have experienced an extremely stressful or disturbing event that has left you feeling helpless and emotionally out of control, you are likely carrying the burden of your traumatic experience. Unfortunately, these issues are not likely to improve through avoidance or self-isolation. But there is hope. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in getting your life back.