In my therapy room, I have sat across from many clients who were looking for a solution to moving forward from the effect of their painful past. What is considered “traumatic” largely depends on how significant the experience was to the person. Some examples of potentially traumatic experiences include:
Death of loved one
Breakups/divorce of own or parents
Abuse (sexual, physical, emotional)
Racism and discrimination
Trauma is an emotional response to any event that is significantly distressing and overwhelming to our brain. The memory of the event contains thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations - it is what is happening in our body. Upon traumatic events, the memory gets stored as fragments and in an unadaptable way. When these memories go unprocessed and do not get reconsolidated in an adaptable way, our brain is not able to differentiate between the past and the present. Our brain then begins to filter our present experiences through those fragments, leaving us in a constant state of shame, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness.
The signs of unprocessed trauma include:
· Negative beliefs about self
· Risky/Addictive behavior (e.g., substance use, partying, and having risky sex)
· Poor boundary setting (not being able to say “No”)
· Physical pain
The way we respond or cope with such devastating and overwhelming events can vary and is influenced greatly by many factors. Some examples are:
Early childhood attachment with primary caretakers:
If you had parents who were emotionally unavailable, absent, and/or verbally and physically abusive, your childhood experience is likely the root cause of challenges you face day today.
Individual’s socio-cultural history:
You perhaps grew up with a lack of exposure to emotional expression due to socio-cultural expectation. For instance, people who grew up in a collectivist culture, which is a common culture practiced in East Asia, learned to suppress emotions to promote conformity and better relationships.
Association of strong feelings with the past traumatic events:
Some may try to avoid feeling their feelings because they believe that emotional expression will lead to feeling a sense of “losing it” or “going crazy.” Others may deny that there are any feelings and emotions associated with their traumatic experiences and do not display any emotions.
One of the most effective, evidence-based therapeutic modalities for treating people with trauma is called EMDR. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
EMDR is founded on the theory that early traumatic experiences are the cause of the presenting problems. EMDR is guided by the Adaptive Information Processing Model (AIP). The AIP model suggests that by accessing stored trauma in the neural network using Bilateral Stimulation (BSL) and installing new and more adaptive cognition and emotions while focusing on feelings and sensations, the old beliefs and feelings associated with the traumatic experience will eventually become less intense and more manageable.
The most important reminder to give yourself when it comes to healing from traumatic experiences is that we can’t heal what we can’t feel. The capacity to access, feel, regulate, and process emotions that are associated with our painful past is called a Window of Tolerance. EMDR emphasizes the importance of creating a safe and calm state before reprocessing. In therapy, you will learn how to become more aware of your feelings, emotions, and sensations in your body to expand your window of tolerance using different techniques, such as grounding exercises and mindfulness.
If you are just considering therapy or have tried traditional talk therapy in the past that is more cognitive-based rather than body-based and feel as you are still feeling “trapped in the past,” EMDR therapy may help you feel unstuck. Whatever your experience has been and wherever you are today, moving forward from your past is possible. Your willingness and courage to change is your strength, and you have everything within you to rewrite your story. You are worthy of receiving every ounce of happiness life has to offer.