Turning towards trauma

Peter Levine, author of ‘Waking the Tiger’ and a renowned trauma expert, states that “Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. Not only can trauma be healed, but with appropriate guidance and support, it can be transformative.” This rings true for me when I work with clients challenged by trauma. Psychotherapy and counselling can provide a safe relationship with a trained mental health professional in which an individual can address trauma they have experienced which causes disruption in their life, even after the trauma might be long passed. There are many different approaches to therapy and, when I work with clients, I ensure that we work together in collaboration to find the approach that suits best for them. No one thing can work for all people all of the time. This approach reflects how unique we all are in our lived experiences even though we have humanity in common.

Trauma can be a disturbing and overwhelming event that infringes upon a person’s sense of control and may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation into their current reality and move on with their life, leaving the event in the past. When most people think about trauma, we tend to think about life-changing one-time events. Such as those who have been exposed to war, car crashes, natural disasters, violent attacks, crime, physical or sexual abuse, terrorism and catastrophic accidents. These can be the most profound and possibly the most debilitating experiences a person can experience in their lifetime and can be referred to as big ’T’ trauma, events that a person experiences as life-threatening.

However, a person does not have to undergo an explicitly distressing event for it to affect them. An accumulation of smaller or less pronounced events can be just as, or sometimes more so, traumatic, which can be referred to as little ’t’ trauma. These are events that may not be life-threatening in a single moment but can cause significant repetitive distress. Ultimately, any event or repeated situation that causes distress, threat, fear and/or a sense of helplessness qualifies as trauma. Trauma can have serious mental, physical, and emotional impacts on people, negatively influencing daily functioning and relationships. Traumatic stress is widely recognised in research as being associated with a higher risk of suicide, anxiety, depression and co-occurring issues, including substance abuse and eating disorders.

Yet to say “I experienced a traumatic event” or “something traumatic happened to me” really does not explain or do justice to the impact of trauma on an individual. Trauma is not the event itself or what has happened to an individual – if it was, then an individual could go on with life carefree after dealing with the trauma in the moment. Unfortunately, trauma is a challenge because the effect that the event can have on an individual’s mind, body and, in some cases, their belief system, is disruptive to living. In his book ‘The Body Keeps The Score’, Bessel Van Der Kolk states that “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present”.

So, an individual experiences a traumatic event/s and although time has passed and they may be safe in the present moment, the impact of the event/s has left something of a signature within their mind and body. From a neuroscience perspective, the person’s nervous system remembers the danger of trauma and anything that is perceived to even remotely resemble that danger in the present results in the nervous system reacting. Reacting out of place and out of time. That nervous system responds to keep the individual safe without consideration for current circumstances. This can be frightening and extremely disruptive to going about one’s daily life. 

In any type of trauma, the opportunity for an individual to react or respond fully and appropriately is usually robbed. This fact leaves a person with an experience that is put upon them and with no way to run away, fight back or even collapse. When the mind and body cannot do what it is naturally built to do, that is to survive, then the natural cycle of response and reaction can become stuck or incomplete. Usually this leads to the above, an individual being stuck in what can be the powerful and potentially overwhelming state of trying to battle trauma, even though the event itself is no longer happening. This can be scary and confusing, as it is a chronic state of feeling unsafe; and when it becomes too much to handle, then it is our natural urge to soothe ourselves.

This is when further challenges can occur, an individual might find soothing ‘in the bottom of a glass’. Some might turn to porn or unsafe sexual behaviour. Others might find solace in gambling, shopping, drugs, the gym or food. Isolating oneself or becoming a workaholic are quite possible. The list is endless and reflects the ingenuity of how we as humans can find ways to survive even if they cause us issues. Those issues might be much more palatable and manageable than reliving a response to trauma, or even reliving the trauma through flashbacks, that feels so outside of one’s control and overwhelming. It is much easier to control addictive behaviour to regain control of life…until it isn’t! Then the impact of trauma is paired with the impact of unhealthy coping mechanisms, a situation that can be undone through opening up to a therapist. As Janina Fisher, trauma expert, psychotherapist and author, says “Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings”.

In a way, I am not sure that I could fully express the impact trauma can have on an individual even if I could write about it every month for the rest of my life. Trauma can make an individual into its servant in many ways. The sense of powerlessness, fright, terror, helplessness, hopelessness and having boundaries crossed are all part of the impact. This can lead to feeling isolated, alone, angry and a plethora of many other feelings individually or all at once which can be confusing. To make a brave choice to address this and reach out for support via therapy is something that can combat the impact of trauma from the minute a person sends a text, email or makes a call to enquire. Choosing to choose oneself and invest in one’s future is a radical act that can fly in the face of trauma; it can be challenging to do so, full of fear of judgement and more, but it can be inherently healing to do so too. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma-related challenges, then I would encourage you to take the step and choose to reach out for support. I offer a free 30 -minute consultation call to all potential clients to get a sense of me and if I am the right therapist for them. As I wrote above, we all have humanity in common and connecting safely with another person who is trained to facilitate improved mental health, growth and integration can be the wisest investment an individual could make. It must be stated that there is no quick fix and there are no ‘cures’ for trauma. Some individuals are successful in resolving and integrating the impact of trauma on their lives, while others find significant improvement in their quality of life. Regardless, one thing is for sure, when trauma is on the table, avoidance does not work. As Robert Frost writes in his poem A Servant To Servants, “the best way out is always through”.

For more information on Leo’s services, phone: 085 1300573 

email: info@leomuckley.com 

web: www.leomuckley.com 

social Media: @leomuckleypsychotherapy

Leo Muckley

Leo Muckley, MSc in Counselling and Psychotherapy, offers psychotherapy and counselling sessions in person in Glengarriff and Skibbereen, online and also by walk and talk. He is a member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP). www.leomuckley.com