Traumatic experiences—old or new—can upend our worlds in so many different ways. The emotional and physiological effects of trauma are challenging in and of themselves, and often they create an escalating feedback loop that can become all-encompassing and overwhelming.
When the effects of trauma start to feel like dominant forces in our lives, it can feel as if the trauma is more than just an experience or experiences we’ve had . . . it can start to feel like who we are. Experiences like sleep disturbance, generalized anxiety, a heightened startle response, rumination, irritability, sadness, physical aches and pains, suicidal thinking, decreased enjoyment of previously cherished activities, anger outbursts, and a wide range of other symptoms can result in the feeling that we are a different person from who we were before the trauma occurred.
It’s true that trauma can have significant effects on the brain and the body, and can meaningfully alter certain physiological processes that are inextricably linked to emotional and mental experiences and states. However, the same malleability that enables trauma-related changes to take place also enables healing and recovery to be achievable.
An individual who has had a bicycle accident and broken a leg usually thinks of their leg as being broken, but rarely will consider themselves to be broken by virtue of the impacted limb. They can separate the injured leg from their “self” and they usually have decent confidence that the broken leg A) is completely repairable; and B) doesn’t indicate any kind of greater implication for their individual being.
It’s hard for most people to consider trauma as a similar sort of “injury” to a broken leg, however, because the internal nature of the emotional and psychological aspects are a lot harder to get some perspective on because they are internal and therefore harder to point to. It’s a little bit like wearing those purple tinted sunglasses without realizing you have them on . . . you would just take it at face value that everything looks a little purple. Similarly, it may be hard for individuals experiencing the aftereffects of trauma to “see” that the experiences they are having are a function of the traumatic experience on the body and brain, not just The Way Things Are or Who I Am.
There are incredibly effective, well-researched, evidenced-based therapy protocols for treating trauma so that symptoms can be identified as such and the individual can regain their sense of themselves and their identity independent of the traumatic event. Typically, trauma-specific psychotherapies such as Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) are paired with medication protocols so that individuals have an opportunity to get the maximum net effect out of their treatment.
CPT is an evidenced-based protocol that was developed and researched with active duty military personnel who experienced conflict trauma, and victims of assault. CPT is a 12-session protocol facilitated by a trained therapist. The goal of CPT is to help patients identify the aspects of the trauma that have created “stuck points”, which are the parts of the experience that the individual is having the most trouble coping with and creating the most disruptive thoughts, feelings, and secondary trauma symptoms. EMDR is another evidenced-based treatment for trauma, in which the certified EMDR therapist helps patients use gentle sensory experiences (such as watching an electronic light sequence or soft tapping) to defuse trauma triggers. And ART
There are additional trauma therapies available, some of which have more empirically validated (scientific) evidenced behind them than others. If you or someone you know are considering engaging in trauma therapy, make sure that you are receiving treatment from a licensed practitioner who has appropriate certifications in the specialty they are providing. Licensure standards vary from state to state, and some certifications are national or even international. You can do a quick google search to identify the kinds of licensure trauma therapists need to hold in your state and then verify the good standing of any professional’s license through your state’s professional licensing/regulatory agency.
In addition to state licensing as a therapist, you can check with organizations like EMDRIA (EMDR International Association, https://emdria.site-ym.com/search/custom.asp?id=2590 ) or the CPT page (https://cptforptsd.com/cpt-provider-roster/ ), which are two reputable organizations with whom some certified practitioners choose to be affiliated. Not being affiliated with these organizations does not necessarily mean that a provider has not been certified in these areas.
Professional trauma treatments delivered by experienced, trained professionals are highly effective, especially when combined with appropriate medication therapies that help “reset” the body’s flight-or-fight system which frequently becomes hyperactive after a traumatic experience. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your PCP or your therapist about seeking professional trauma care in your community that is appropriate for your needs. Transforming the pain of trauma is more possible than ever before.