Working safely and effectively with people who have suffered from a traumatic incident requires a specific skills base and an understanding of the way traumatic events can impact one’s physiology. This is not commonly taught in many counselling and psychotherapy trainings. Knowing how to work with trauma (overwhelm), when it is present in a person’s history, is vital in order to avoid re-traumatisation.
What is Trauma Work?
Traumatic stress is a normal reaction of the mind and body to an overwhelming event. If you have faced a traumatic experience, you may simply feel emotionally numb to begin with, and feelings of distress may not emerge straight away. It may be that later on one develops emotional and physical reactions and changes in behaviour.
Trauma is a mind/body experience even when the traumatic event causes no direct physical harm. The physiological responses to stress and trauma are the same whether we are faced with a situation of real danger or only imagined danger. As long as the incident is perceived as stressful, the brain tells the nervous system to prepare the body for defensive action; our fight, flight response is activated. When flight or fight is not perceived by ones system to be possible, a freeze response can result. All these states involve dramatic changes in, for instance, the heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, digestion and internal temperature control. These changes are normal responses to an abnormal event. Human beings have an innate ability to overcome the effects of trauma, and within a few hours, days or weeks after the event is over the nervous system can restore self-regulation and return these body systems to a normal level of functioning.
Complications occur when one is unable to fully integrate, rebalance and make sense of the traumatic event. In these circumstances it can be difficult to know the event is over and one is now safe. The nervous system may remain activated. Messages from the brain may continue to signal to the body there is threat. Disturbing physical and psychological symptoms result; these can include sleep disturbance, difficulty in concentration, panic attacks, extreme startle reflex, cold sweats, exhaustion. One can feel numb and detached, anxious and unsafe, experience nightmares and flashbacks, need to avoid consciously or unconsciously anything that contains a reminder of the traumatic event.
The term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is used to name a range of symptoms one may develop in response to experiencing a traumatic event; an event that is or is perceived as threatening to one’s own life or physical integrity or of someone close to you, or that you witness. The kinds of events that can lead to traumatic stress include events and experiences that are beyond our control, and which may fill us with fear or horror, and can cause extremely disturbing psychological symptoms. Just hearing news of events, such as the London bombings in July 2005, can have a lasting effect. Being present in, or witnessing, events such as road accidents, assaults may also cause deep emotional injury and reactions may follow can seriously hamper and interfere with your life.
In working with a past trauma it is not necessary to remember a traumatic event or speak about its details. What is important is to regain a sense of control over one’s life. Reducing disturbing symptoms, re-establishing a sense of safety and calming the activation of the nervous system will help ones physiology and brain recognize the event is over. All of these will help improve the quality of one’s life. ‘Trauma is a fact of life, but doesn’t have to be a life sentence’ (Peter Levine).
I completed Babette Rothschild’s Somatic Trauma Therapy training in 1999, and have attended seminars run by Peter Levine, Stephen Porges and Janina Fisher. Babette Rothschild, Stephen Porges, Peter Levine and Janina Fisher are leading pioneers and experts in the field of trauma. Their work has been fundamental to furthering an understanding of how to work safely and effectively with people who have suffered from trauma.
I have been teaching trauma skills to professionals for the past five years.