“I Have Trauma? No Way!”
As a therapist I hear this statement frequently, and yet in my experience, most people have at least some degree of trauma lodged in their nervous system. Big traumas, like rape and war, will remain in our conscious awareness and are generally acknowledged by society as trauma. However, there can also be smaller and more insidious traumas that, although they might have happened long ago, still affect us in our everyday lives. These traumas often lie just below our conscious awareness. They can be harder to pinpoint but they still have far-reaching effects on our quality of life, such as compromising our sense of safety in the world or our ability to relate to or trust others.
These more insidious traumas will often run us from behind the scenes. Traumas that go undetected and undiagnosed can have long-term detrimental effects on many aspects of our life. Or they can simply feed an ongoing sense of worry or hopelessness that hums in the background. A hum that we’ve grown so accustomed to that we consider it normal.
I hear from many clients who are frustrated because, although they’ve had years of therapy and have many insights and understandings into their issues, they still feel completely stuck with them. This is where I first suspect the effects of unacknowledged trauma. Until underlying traumas are named and dealt with, surface symptoms will continue unabated.
In my experience, while cognitively understanding your issues can be helpful, it can only take you so far. In order to really shift or change long-standing patterns of behavior, it’s important to take the emotional deep dive into what’s going on beneath what your rational cognition is telling you. In this case, something like EMDR1 (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Depth Hypnosis, Somatic Psychotherapy or, more recently, Medicine Work2, are best because these modalities allow you to bypass the rational mind and go into the emotional and physical experience instead. Because trauma is stored in our muscular and cellular memory, not our rational cognition, this step is essential in resolving any trauma. In a sense, you have to go back into the trauma, at the emotional level, in order to rewire it. These modalities allow you to do just that.
Take my client Angela* for instance. She was a high-functioning, successful executive who on the surface seemed to have it all. However, she struggled in her personal relationships and could not seem to keep close friendships or sustain a romantic relationship. She had tried many years of cognitive behavioral therapy and, while she understood many aspects of her “trust issues,” she still felt completely stuck in terms of being able to form long-term, close, supportive bonds.
She was starting to date again after a long break but it was painful and discouraging. She decided to use EMDR to explore yet another date that didn’t go the way she had hoped. She wanted to uncover what exactly was blocking her from having a relationship. While she had really liked her date, she had found herself acting distant and aloof. She was distressed and annoyed with herself for acting this way but reported feeling like her behavior was out of her control. She couldn’t stop herself from acting this way. Unsurprisingly, this person was not interested in a second date. Angela was dismayed but didn’t blame her; she wouldn’t have wanted to go on a date with the Angela who showed up at the first date, either! When we talked about this during her session, we discovered that underneath her aloofness was a lot of fear. Angela decided to explore this fear more deeply using the EMDR.
During the EMDR, Angela reconnected with an incident in the second grade when a best friend had suddenly dropped her for someone new. This had been completely unexpected. Angela couldn’t get her former friend to take any interest in her and she was devastated. On top of this, at home her parents were fighting over her dad’s recent affair. Angela had no one to turn to or even talk to. She felt completely alone and overwhelmed by her feelings. She decided to focus on an area she felt she could control and excel in: her school work. She didn’t give any more energy to forming friendships, because in her seven-year-old mind, this involved unreliable people who could hurt you and bring up overwhelming feelings of helplessness. While her excellent grades gave her a sense of control and self-esteem again, no one saw at what cost this was gained, least of all Angela.
Angela had completely forgotten this incident from her childhood. Reconnecting with it as an adult was powerful. She realized that she had decided at seven years old that close relationships were not a good idea and could only hurt you. She decided she would get her sense of worth through working hard, and so she excelled. While Angela figured out a smart survival strategy at age seven, she didn’t realize the decision not to trust or let anyone in too close was still running her and operating in the background as an adult. This decision was stopping her from being able to truly thrive in her relationships.
Reconnecting with her seven-year-old and starting to do the emotional repair work allowed Angela to move forward in her ability to trust again and form close bonds. The quality of her life improved. Now she was truly able to thrive—not just at work, but in her relationships as well.
While Angela’s story makes rational and cognitive sense, the real work and healing had to happen at the emotional level in order for her to be able to move past the trauma. This is where finding a therapist or healer you can do the deep dive with is essential. EMDR, Depth Hypnosis, Somatic Psychotherapy and Medicine Work are all modalities that will allow you to access the emotional body where trauma is stored. With the right guide and using one or a combination of these modalities, you will be able to release and move past these traumas to reclaim the life that is your birthright!
* Client’s name changed in order to protect confidentiality.
1. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) – EMDR is one of the most researched methods for working with trauma and is very popular, particularly with insurance companies, because of its high and rapid effectiveness rate. People report improvement in as few as 1-3 sessions. For more about how EMDR works, read how I used it to help someone with her eating disorder: https://ondinawellness.com/using-emdr-to-address-eating-disorders/
2. Medicine Work – A fast-developing area in the field of psychology that focuses on trauma resolution involving the careful use of psychedelics, including, but not limited to, MDMA, LSD, Ayahuasca and Psilocybin. For more information on the exciting research happening in this field go to hVps://maps.org/research. For an example of research being done using MDMA for trauma resolution at John Hopkins University, click this link: https://biomedicalodyssey.blogs.hopkinsmedicine.org/2017/10/ecstasy-and-agony-accepting-mdma-assisted-psychotherapy-as-a-breakthrough-ptsd-treatment/