My approach to therapy begins with the starting point that most, if not all, mental health issues can be traced back to trauma in some form. Whether that trauma is due to a “traumatizing event” like a car accident or death of someone close, or due to “complex trauma” in the form of childhood abuse and neglect which may or may not include violence, or “developmental trauma” which can fall anywhere on a spectrum from abuse to fairly normalized parenting styles that inhibit the range of self- acceptance, awareness and expression. We all seem to intuitively understand that the environment and history of our families as we grow up impacts our social and emotional health as adults, and now science is beginning to understand the different mechanisms of how this happens. Epigenetics has been illuminating how traumatic events in generations past can change an individual’s dna which can then be transmitted to subsequent generations. The field of Interpersonal neurobiology is showing how our brains develop differently when we experience adverse experiences, while at the same time demonstrating that our brains and nervous system, thanks to neuroplasticity, are constantly able to change and adapt. Which means that healing is possible throughout the lifespan.
What is trauma? In our common usage this word has become a catch-all term to refer to any negative experience. Sometimes it can be useful to refer to an event as traumatic. But for the purpose of identifying the psychological effects of trauma, I’d like to define the term with a little more precision. When I use the term “trauma,” I am referring specifically to the lingering impacts of past negative experiences (either relational woundings or event based shock traumas) on the nervous system and psyche.
When we have trauma in the body, there are a few different constellations of symptoms. We can persistently find ourselves in a state of high (hyper-) or low (hypo-) arousal and can find it difficult to remain in a state of calm vitality. What it looks like in day to day life when someone lingers in hyper arousal is that one might be prone to anger, agitation, anxiety, low tolerance of frustration, feeling “stressed out” all the way to the more extreme states of panic, rage and aggression. On the low end of the arousal spectrum, hypo arousal, we find symptoms like fatigue, withdrawal, depression, feeling foggy or “stuck”, to the more extreme states of despair, indifference and dissociation. The underlying common emotional experience to many of these states if that of fear. In and of itself, fear is not a bad thing. Our bodies evolved this mechanism to increase our survival and provide us with an evolutionary advantage for survival. Yet, now in the modern world, we have been socialized away from the natural process of discharging the hormones that flood our bodies when we experience fear. Thus we experience the persistent states which we have come to label, anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc.
Treating these chronic states of arousal (aka trauma) can take time and deep attention to the sometimes subtle places where safety gets lost in relationship. Especially when there is complex trauma, (when an individual has experienced a mixture of both relational and shock traumas). Nobody can do this work alone. Together we work to create safety in the therapeutic relationship so that the body’s nervous system has an opportunity to settle. Then, with attunement and compassion, we re-train the nervous system to trust that the world can be safe again. We also discover your capacity to create safety for yourself so as you go out into the world, you have the security of knowing you can handle whatever comes.