The topic of trauma and therapy has been more prevalent in the media in recent months. However, the understanding of what is trauma and trauma-informed therapy may be at its early stage of conception. We also realized that there are many misconceptions about the word trauma. Some may broadly use the word trauma to describe just about any form of stress and distressing events or encounters. Others may associate it with only soldiers who have been diagnosed with PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder). In this article, we would like to clarify the common misconceptions about trauma and share the importance of trauma-informed therapy.
But first, what exactly is therapy?
Therapy is a safe and confidential space for an individual or a group to process their personal challenges, experiences, feelings, and emotions with a professional. The therapist works closely with the client to understand their situation, set therapy goals, and guide them through the healing process. Individuals may come forward for therapy for various reasons (ie. Trauma, relational challenges, grief, anger management, etc). It is important for individuals to see a therapist who understands their challenges and have knowledge on how to support them through their therapy journey.
The meaning of the word ‘trauma’
In our previous article, Understanding Trauma and How Art Therapy Helps with Healing, we quoted Dr. Daniel Siegel, where he shared that trauma refers to an experience that overwhelms one’s ability to cope.
What he means by that statement is that every individual’s ability to cope with a traumatic event is dependent on their past experiences, culture/belief systems, the kind of resources available within and around them, and more.
Trauma can be a life-changing event as it shapes how an individual views the world around them; how they cope with stress; affects their relationships, how they feel about themselves, and how they portray themselves to others. There is no hierarchy in their suffering and no two individuals experience trauma the same way even if they experience the same traumatic event. This is why it is important for treatment plans and therapy goals to be crafted based on the individual’s needs.
The physical, psychological and emotional symptoms following a traumatic event
Traumatic symptoms can be experienced by the physical, psychological, and emotional parts of the self. A common misconception is that only those who receive a clinical diagnosis such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, experience these traumatic symptoms. Many individuals go undiagnosed as they do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis, but they indeed experience these difficult symptoms in their day-to-day lives. These symptoms may even affect their ability to properly function in their daily activities.
Below is a list of symptoms that are commonly experienced, and while this list is not comprehensive, it may also differ for every individual. If you have any concerns, it is best to speak to a mental health professional or you can book a session with us to further explore your concerns.
- loss of appetite
- heart racing
- weight gain/ weight loss
- Too much sleep
- Lack of sleep
Psychological and emotional symptoms:
- low motivation
- constantly on heightened alert (fight and flight mode)
- easily distracted
- frequent mood swings
- anxiety and fear
- feeling disconnected from others
Trauma affects stress responses
Trauma affects the functioning of an individual’s brain and nervous system, which in turn affects the individual’s ability to respond to stress (fight, flight, and freeze response).
Often we’ve seen, that those who experience these traumatic symptoms struggle to regulate their emotions. Their body may either be on high alert (fight or flight) or trapped in the freeze mode, so as to protect themselves from their perceived impending danger. Their behavior may seem defensive and anxious, causing them to withdraw or lose interest in their everyday activities.
In order to support those suffering from these traumatic symptoms, we must focus on resolving the root cause using trauma-informed approaches rather than focusing on “fixing” just the behavior or symptoms.
Seeking help with trauma-informed therapy
Trauma-informed therapy is an approach that recognizes that trauma can result in an individual developing certain behaviors as a way to cope with the pain.
A trauma-informed therapist understands that trauma does not define an individual. Focusing on just managing anxiety and negative coping behaviors of an individual is insufficient for their holistic recovery.
Trauma-informed therapists cater to a client’s holistic recovery by actively working on empowering the individual so that they can reconnect with who they truly are and lead a better quality of life.
Good practices of a trauma-informed therapist:
- Understand that coping strategies (positive or negative) serve an important purpose for clients who experienced trauma.
- Ensure that the therapeutic environment is safe and confidential.
- Focuses on addressing underlying issues that may have caused surface-level behaviors.
- Work on regulating the nervous system’s response to triggers.
- The therapist and client are in partnership to work towards healing. The client plays an active role in their therapeutic journey (i.e. defining therapy goals).
War, death, abuse, assault, or neglect are not the only events or incidents that contribute to trauma
When a person reaches out for psychological support from a counselor, psychologist, therapist, or any other mental health professional, they may be unaware that what happened to them is related to trauma.
Often, people relate traumatic events or trauma to major incidents such as war, death, abuse, or sexual assault. In fact, any event can be considered traumatic, when it makes a person feel that they or their loved ones are in danger or in deep distress. This sense of danger continues to stay with them even after the traumatic event has ended.
Some examples of traumatic events could include:
- losing a pet
- failing an exam
- parental separation
- witnessing a car crash
- and many more
The above examples may seem like a small life event to some people, but for others, due to the difficulty to cope with the stress, they may start to adopt negative coping strategies or develop certain behaviors (ie. social withdrawal, isolation, being extra cautious, etc) to help them manage their trauma symptoms.
Why do some people not seek help or support after they have experienced trauma?
While there are many reasons people do not seek support after experiencing a traumatic event here are some of the common ones we’ve come across.
- Because of the various misconceptions about what is trauma, many people don’t recognize that they are experiencing traumatic symptoms and therefore don’t actively seek help.
- Some may dismiss or undermine their struggles without understanding the long-term negative effects of these symptoms and behaviors.
- It is normal for some people to take time to be ready to face their trauma and begin their therapeutic journey.
- The lack of knowledge on various types of therapy services available is also a contributing factor.
How does a trauma-informed therapist approach trauma?
Trauma-informed therapists, do not work on eliminating the client’s unhealthy coping strategy at the start of the therapy journey. They believe that coping strategies, whether healthy or unhealthy, serve a purpose in helping the clients cope with their pain. Removing unhealthy coping strategy at the beginning without equipping them with new/healthy coping strategies, may cause the clients to feel lost.
For instance, it is often seen that those with drug addictions have experienced trauma either in their childhood or at some point in their past, which acts as the key factor that led to drug consumption as a coping strategy. Hence, when working with a client struggling with drug addiction, trauma-informed therapist first seek to understand the circumstances leading to the drug consumption. Through the sessions, develop ways to process and heal from the pain. Thereafter, they can also work on strengthening the client’s identity and improve their overall quality of living.
Therefore, a trauma-informed therapist does not just focus on the addiction behavior. Rather they focus on working with the client to uncover the healthy individual beneath the addiction behavior. So that the client can feel confident to take charge of his or her life once again.
Empowering clients through their therapy journey
To develop confidence and allow the healthy individual to surface, the therapists involve the client throughout the therapeutic journey. From setting their treatment goals to identifying support systems, and taking charge in the transformative process. The therapist works hand in hand with the clients to uncover the layers to their challenges. At the same time, bringing the unconscious behavioral patterns/negative coping strategies to their awareness. With this awareness, the clients are empowered to work through their challenges and create new meaning in their life.