Trauma is an event or circumstance that results in emotional, physical, and life threatening harm. It is important to note that trauma is highly individualized. This means, we all respond to events differently. How we respond is largely based on prior experience. For this reason, one person may demonstrate resilience after an event while another person, exposed to the same event, may develop a trauma response.
“Trauma is a common experience for adults and children in American communities, and it is especially common in the lives of people with mental and substance use disorders. For this reason, the need to address trauma is increasingly seen as an important part of effective behavioral health care and an integral part of the healing and recovery process.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Addressing Trauma in Group Therapy
At Sanford Behavioral Health, we address how past traumatic events influence the development of addiction, eating disorders, and mental health conditions. In group therapy sessions on trauma, residents discuss: What makes an event traumatic? How do we distinguish trauma from stress, and why is this distinction important? How have I used addictive substances or other coping mechanisms to lessen the pain of trauma?
By clinical definition, a traumatic life experience negatively impacts an individual’s worldview. And trauma also affects our ability to carry out daily tasks. Trauma comes in a few varieties. “Upper T” traumas are extremely impactful traumas, like repeated sexual abuse. “Lower T” traumas are less impactful traumas, like a non-life-threatening accident. Additionally, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) splinters into several sub-types. These sub-types depend on the surrounding conditions of the event.
In an attempt to deal with the trauma – in our brain’s attempt to make sense of the event – we develop a particular set of habits. Because the event was so far from what we perceive as “plausible and predictable,” our brain relives the moment over and over, processing what happened and trying to protect us from it happening in the future. This is all well and good, but it can lead to some maladaptive behaviors.
This behavior is characterized by a readiness for action – constantly scanning the environment for danger, tense muscles, and jumpiness. When we are in a state of hypervigilance, our observation exceeds what is necessary. Often, we engage in these behaviors in environments known to be safe. This is because our brain is unable to turn the behavior off. We are vigilant at all times, not only in unsafe or unfamiliar surroundings.
After a trauma, the brain continues to act as if the trauma is still happening.
Our brain lives in the past, somewhat. And for this reason, our behavior and feeling state don’t match what is actually happening in the present. Grounding techniques are a powerful tool in combating trauma responses. Being hypervigilant may have served us at the time of the trauma, but isn’t helpful right now. When our sense of safety is disrupted, it can be difficult to distinguish safe from unsafe. Our brain keeps sending us the message, What if the trauma happens again?
In this way, our brain relives the event over and over. These moments are intrusive and triggered by reminders (like a smell, sound, or place). Flashbacks differ from memories in that they are experienced as real life. Flashbacks cannot be controlled or conceptualized realistically. Often, individuals have no sense of when the flashback will end. In this way, folks feel trapped inside of a seemingly endless, nightmarish moment.
In an attempt to cope, individuals may avoid triggering stimuli (people, places, or things). And avoidance leads to isolation. When we avoid, we lose the freedom to lead satisfying, functional, and fulfilling lives. Individuals may also avoid, or numb, certain emotions. Dissociation is the inability to remain mentally present when recalling or discussing an event. Depersonalization occurs when we’re unable to connect with our physical bodies. These responses create significant impairments in daily living tasks. (Like getting a restful night’s sleep, maintaining a stable home for our children, and performing professional duties.)
Somatic and Mindfulness Treatment for Trauma
Born from the needs of an individual with PTSD, and the nature of the diagnosis, movement and creative therapies are being used to treat survivors of trauma. Somatic (relating to the body) movement and creativity target the limbic system (the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus). An area of the brain that’s less active in traditional talk therapy.
When we’re asked to articulate an idea, we rely on the verbal processing parts of our brain. In brain scans of individuals experiencing grief, trauma, or extreme anxiety, these areas are checked out. Have you ever felt “lost for words” after a tragedy? Engaging in movement and creativity, however, bypass the need to verbally articulate. These activities target the limbic system, where our emotions live.
In this way, alternative modalities of treatment offer highly traumatized individuals an avenue to heal. These type of therapies include:
- Breath Work
Movement therapies can help folks reclaim body access and body awareness after abuse. These practices help clients “stay with” pain in a skillful manner. Other alternative modalities of treatment rely on talk therapy and a supplemental feature. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) helps clients re-experience their trauma while feeling present and safe, creating finality to the event. Art Therapy combines art making and traditional counseling techniques and encourages clients to develop insight.
Addressing Trauma at Sanford Behavioral Health
Research shows that traumatic experiences, epecially during childhood, can cause behavioral and chronic physical health conditions. Addiction, eating disorders, and mental health conditions, have been linked to trauma. At Sanford Behavioral Health, our clinicians understand the importance of addressing trauma, and the challenges faced by traumatized individuals. For this reason, our Residential and Outpatient Programs include materials to help our newly sober clients process the past and live full-throttle in the now.