Trauma—whether emotional or physical—is a painful, horrifying experience that overwhelms your capacity to cope, and its effects often last for decades. Victims are more likely to be irritable, anxious and depressed…have difficulty focusing…miss work…have financial problems…sleep poorly…abuse alcohol or drugs…suffer from a major health problem…and/or feel suicidal.
There are many ways to be traumatized. Experts estimate that an astounding 75% of us have experienced one or more traumatic events of varying degrees.
Examples: You suffered through a childhood of abuse. Your parents had a bad divorce, or one or both were mentally ill, alcoholic or addicted to drugs. You were raped or sexually assaulted. You were mugged. You killed people in combat and watched friends die. You lived through a natural disaster. You were in a serious accident. You’re a cancer survivor. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine have the potential to leave traumatic scarring on some.
What often gets overlooked: Beyond physical injury caused by the event, trauma leaves an imprint on your body, not just your brain, in the form of heartbreaking and gut-wrenching physical sensations.
For real healing to take place, your body needs to learn that the danger has passed and that it’s possible to live in the safety of the present. Here’s what you need to know to lay the residues of trauma to rest—and recover…
GOALS OF RECOVERY
The challenge of recovering from trauma is to know what you know and feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed or collapsed. For most, this involves four goals…
Goal #1: Finding a way to become calm and focused.
Goal #2: Learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds and physical sensations that remind you of the past.
Goal #3: Finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you.
Goal #4: Not keeping secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways you have managed to survive (for example, by abusing alcohol or drugs).
There are several body-based methods that I have used extensively to help my patients, and I’ve also experienced their effectiveness personally. In addition to those body-based techniques, there are several other approaches that research shows can be very helpful…
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In this well-researched technique, you recall a traumatic event while a therapist moves his/her fingers back and forth in front of you, and you follow them with your eyes. EMDR rebalances brain circuits, allowing you to experience the “true” present without interferences from trauma-related perceptions. It is most effective for trauma caused by a single event in adulthood, such as a car accident, but it can be useful as an adjunctive treatment for people struggling with the legacy of childhood trauma.
Scientific evidence: In a National Institute of Mental Health–funded study conducted by myself and my colleagues, 88 people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were treated for eight weeks with EMDR…an antidepressant drug…or a placebo. At a six-month follow-up, 75% of those with adult-onset trauma who received EMDR had complete relief of symptoms, compared with 0% in the antidepressant group. (We did not keep people on a placebo for the entire study.)
Resource: To find an EMDR practitioner, check the EMDR International Association.
Yoga. Traumatized individuals tend to become overwhelmed by their physical sensations and spend a lot of energy trying to block out what is going on in their bodies. Some do this naturally…others turn to drugs, alcohol or eating disorders. The memory of helplessness during trauma tends to be stored as muscle tension in the affected areas—for example, head, back and limbs in accident victims…vagina and rectum in victims of sexual abuse. Also, trauma victims often are chronically angry or scared, which leads to muscle tension that produces back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain. Yoga, which typically combines breath practices, stretches and meditation, can help people develop a harmonious relationship with their physical sensations, relax those muscles and normalize rage- and fear-causing circuits between the body and the brain.
Scientific evidence: We studied women with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, enrolling them in 20 weeks of trauma-sensitive yoga sessions. Participants experienced significant reductions in PTSD, which was amplified in two subsequent long-term follow-up studies.
Resource: Find a teacher certified in trauma-sensitive yoga at TraumaSensitiveYoga.com.
Neurofeedback. When neurons (brain cells) communicate with each other, they generate electrical pulses—brain waves—that can be detected with sensors on the scalp. One study showed that people with PTSD can have brain waves that lack coherent patterns and don’t generate brain wave patterns that filter out irrelevant information and help you pay attention to the task at hand, which is why lack of focus is a hallmark of PTSD. Neurofeedback helps correct these dysfunctional brain wave patterns.
The method “harvests” a person’s brain waves and projects them onto a computer screen, allowing him/her to play therapeutic computer games with his own brain waves—reducing the brain waves that create fearfulness, shame and rage…and increasing the brain waves that create calm and focus.
Scientific evidence: My colleagues and I first studied 52 people with chronic PTSD from multiple events, dividing them into two groups. One group received neurofeedback, and one didn’t. By the end of the 40-session study, only 27% of those receiving neurofeedback still met the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with 68% of those who didn’t get neurofeedback. Most dramatic was the improvement in executive functioning—being able to plan, be mentally flexible, being able to look at a problem from a variety of points of view and inhibiting their impulses. Another neurofeedback study of foster children with histories of abuse and neglect had similar positive results.
Resources: To find a neurofeedback provider trained in overcoming trauma near you, visit the website of the International Society for Neurofeedback & Research (ISNR.org).
Talk therapy. As you use body-based methods to relieve the physical burdens generated by trauma, you can make better use of talk therapy. You need to acknowledge and name what happened to restore feelings of control. Feeling listened to and understood also changes your body—being able to articulate a complex feeling and having your feeling recognized creates an “aha moment.” Modern-day therapy for PTSD has focused on treatment through prescription drugs such as antidepressants. These aren’t a solution. They dampen the physical systems that create symptoms of trauma but don’t resolve them. The only way to resolve the trauma is to understand and release it at your deepest emotional levels.
Another effective way to access your inner world of feelings is through writing. When you write to yourself, you don’t have to worry about other people’s judgment—you just listen to your own thoughts and let their flow take over.
Scientific evidence: In a study published in British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 88 trauma survivors received trauma-focused psychotherapy. After four months, the participants had better verbal memory, information processing and executive functioning (the ability to plan and make decisions). And in a six-month study on Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, those who wrote expressively about their feelings had greater reductions in PTSD, physical complaints, anger and distress compared with veterans who didn’t write at all.
Look for a therapist who has mastered a variety of techniques—EMDR, psychodrama, expressive writing, neurofeedback and trauma-focused talk therapy. Feeling safe and comfortable with the therapist is necessary for you to confront your fears and anxieties. If you don’t feel that connection or that he/she is curious to find out who you are and what you need, look for another therapist.