Dr. Barbara Harris, MSW, RSW
EMDRIA Certified EMDR Therapist, and EMDR Consultant
Specializing in Trauma, Anxiety and Depression
Trauma can be characterized as an event which causes physical or psychological harm. In the case of psychological harm, whether an event is considered traumatic depends on how you are affected by it. There are a wide set of variables which influence how a person is affected (such as: severity of the event, who was involved, what the event meant to you, your personal history, your current resources, etc.). In some cases, such as being raped, or shot for example, anyone would likely be traumatized. In other cases, people may respond quite differently. Some people may be severely affected, and not know it. Other people will display symptoms right away that indicate that they were traumatized by an event. Yet others will seem to bounce back quickly. Often (but not always), trauma results when the event is unexpected, the person was not prepared for it, and it was not preventable. Examples of traumatizing events include:
- injuries due to accidents/falls;
- violence including physical assault, war, sexual abuse, rape, or the witnessing of violence;
- medical procedures,
- devastating illnesses;
- death in the family
- neglect or abandonment in childhood; or
- natural disasters.
Perceived or actual threats to life, to personal safety, or to physical integrity, can be traumatic. A person does not have to experience actual physical harm to be traumatized.
Complex trauma occurs when an individual experiences multiple traumatic events over time, such as in the case of childhood abuse, or being held captive and tortured during war. Complex trauma leads to lasting changes in the psyche, and in actual physiological functioning overall.
Inter-generational trauma occurs when the symptoms of unresolved trauma in one generation surface/are passed on to the next generation.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms you may be suffering from the effects of trauma:
- Shock, denial or disbelief; inability to feel safe; depression, sadness or grief; feelings of helplessness or hopelessness; numbness or uncontrollable emotions including feelings of fear, dread, self hate or rage; loss of motivation or interest in life;
- Nightmares or flashbacks; difficulty concentrating or loss of memory; overly sensitive to your environment or disconnected/numb; having negative view of self, others, or life in general
- Unexplainable physical pains or tension;
- Fatigue, or exhaustion; dizziness or nausea
- Isolating; avoiding certain people, places or things;
- Changes in sleep, weight, appetite, libido (sexual drive);
- Easily startled, nervous or jittery;
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs;
- Aggression and conflict.
Additional characteristics of complex trauma include:
- Inability to control emotions, tendancy towards self harm, or reliving the trauma
- Changes in awareness and attention, loss of memory, feeling disconnected from self;
- Development of a negative self-image;
- Distorted perception of the abuser/aggressor, may assume characteristics of the aggressor, or may feel they deserved the abuse;
- Changes in relationships, and inability to trust others, or be intimate;
- Physical aches and pains without any physiological finding.
These lists do not include all possible symptoms, but provide an idea as to the wide range of reactions to traumatic events. Importantly, trauma survivors are not the only people who experience the type of symptoms mentioned above, however, a professional can help you sort that out.
At a deeper level, people who have been traumatized experience changes to biological processes within the brain. To understand the effect of trauma, at the biological level, we need to understand the physiology of the brain, which has three parts:
- The cortex (the outer surface, where higher thinking skills occur; includes the frontal cortex)
- The limbic system (the center of the brain – emotional brain)
- The brain stem (the reptilian brain – sensory level of awareness)
While daily events are automatically synthesized within the higher levels of the brain – within the cortex – people initially react to traumatic experiences at a physiological level which leads to survival responses such as ‘fight,’ ‘flight,’ or ‘freeze.’ Animals have the ability to ‘shake off’ the after-effects and excess energy associated with responding to life threatening events and carry on with life, however, humans are often unable to do this and become ‘frozen’ or ‘stuck,’ when the excess energy amassed for immediate survival is not released. However, people need to release this energy, and with help, are often able to resolve the trauma.
Unfortunately, we simply cannot think our way out of the effects of traumatic experiences. This has nothing to do with how intelligent we are; rather, it has to do with the fact that what is happening at a biological/physiological level needs to be addressed with interventions which access those levels of processing that are affected, specifically the bodily/sensory and emotional levels, as well as cognitive levels of functioning.
There are at least 3 main aspects to successfully resolving traumatic experiences. First, it involves developing safety and comfort, and includes learning skills to cope with symptoms, and to regulate emotions. Once these are established, then processing of the trauma can begin. Secondly, integration of sensory/bodily memory and emotions with cognitive processes is imperative – therapeutic interventions must include processes which allow for integration of all three levels of experience. Otherwise, the symptoms will likely continue. Last but not least, is the importance of facilitating the ability to successfully maintain healthy relationships, and participate in life activities that are meaningful and rewarding. Achieving these aspects may require attention to:
- grief and loss associated with the trauma,
- self esteem, and behaviors which may inhibit a healthy sense of self
- development of assertiveness, or other social skills if these are not already developed.
The following are therapies I incorporate into treatment of emotional and psychological trauma:
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) involves the use of bi-lateral stimulation (using visual, tactile or auditory processes) and provides the opportunity to gain resolution at the physical, emotional and cognitive levels of awareness. This therapy can assist clients who are ‘stuck’ in traumatic symptoms, through the use of focusing on situations that trigger feelings, or sensations associated with prior traumatic experiences. For more information about EMDR click here.
- One Eye Integration (OEI) helps clients gain awareness of how they process information, and includes skills/tools to successfully diffuse difficult emotions, while working towards integration.
- Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body-oriented psychotherapy which involves somatic processing of negative experiences in order to facilitate healing.
My interest in these particula therapeutic approaches to trauma therapy are a result of my belief in the need to address trauma and healing holistically – by integrating experiences cognitively, emotionally and physically.
- I look forward to hearing from you.
- Dr Barbara Harris, PhD, MSW, RSW