“Why can’t I get over this?” – When Trauma therapy Can Help

Happy September! 

Labor Day was yesterday, and summer is, for all intents and purposes, over.

You can feel the transition in the air. School has started, traffic is heavier, and the vibe is…well, stressful.

Yet, this can mean positives, too:  The weather is a wee bit easier to bear, especially for those of us in the DMV area, making it less of a chore to go out and about.  The structure of school gives many kids structure and purpose, so parents have some welcome relief from trying to plan activities all summer. 

And at work, Fall can be a time when projects that have been in the works come to fruition. Such has been the case for me:  After a few months of planning, I am officially practicing at a new location, The Growth and Recovery Center.  This is quite a transition.  The new location is ADA accessible, so there are elevators and accessible restrooms.  Beyond just the physical space, the psychological change opened up channels for my practice, and my goal is to share my “growth process” as a clinician.

I am especially interested in trauma and how it affects us. Most of us are familiar with the concept, and we often think of trauma as resulting from a big, obviously terrible event.  No doubt, this is often true:  If you survived or were in a war, an act of violence, or assault, you may very well be suffering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  But there are less obvious, more hidden forms of trauma.  It may have been bullying in your childhood, a betrayal you witnessed or experienced.  As Sydney the psychiatrist from M*A*S*H said, “It’s the little battlefields….The ponds, the bedrooms, the schoolyards…That can leave the worst scars.” 

The big question is, what do we do with it?  Well, talk therapy can be a good start.  You’d be surprised at how healing it can be to have someone listen to you.  I do this, but I do this in a slightly more structured way than you may be used to, if you have had more conventional talk therapies.  I still want to form a therapeutic relationship with you, of course. Yet I do this with something called Life Stress Reduction Therapy.  I’ll look at what is worrying or upsetting you together with you, no matter how big or small your issue is.  

Okay, so let’s say you have done conventional therapy and it did you some good. That is excellent. But some things that have happened either recently or ‘way back when, you just always have tucked away in the back of your mind.  Here are some “red flag” thoughts with trauma:

Or, “I know rationally this person/thing/situation can’t hurt me anymore.   I still don’t believe it.  It doesn’t help when people tell me that.  I still have nightmares or get anxious out of nowhere. I feel so stuck.”

“I am so tired of feeling awful about this thing that happened so long ago/last year/last month, so it feels stupid.  Maybe it wasn’t really that bad.  I want to move on with my life and get it out of my head. Why can’t I just do that?”

I’ll tell you why.  It seems like it’s just in your head, but the thing is, it’s in a deep part of your brain, and probably, in your body, too.  Trauma is stored in the deep, fight/flight/freeze part of your brain, and it affects your nervous system.  As Besser Van Der Kolk said, “The body keeps the score”. And  although you don’t realize it, you are probably spending a lot of emotional and even physical energy trying to “push down” these strong reactions, just to get through your day.  Understandable.  But maybe it’s time to do something else.

So you may want to consider targeted trauma treatment for this kind of thing, even if you think it’s stupid.  If you are in or around Northern Virginia, know that I and other practitioners do this therapy in the form of TIR (Traumatic Incident Recovery). What is hard about trauma therapy is that we will view the traumatic event. I know you don’t want to do that.  That feels intense, hard. But we will do it in a structured, safe way, so that you begin experiencing it differently and not feel so “pulled down” by it.  Plus (and here’s what I love about TIR specifically, and trauma therapy generally), I am not going to be telling you MY opinions, reactions, or interpretations about YOUR trauma.  I will be present, I will guide, but I will do it with YOUR stuff.  

It is worth doing, whether the issue is that you were yelled at when you were three, 10, 20 or 50 years old, or whether you experienced an assault of some kind.  The point is, it’s still often there.  If it bugs you, it’s worth looking at.

Many of you who have mustered up the courage or trust enough to talk to others a bit about your trauma know that you have heard things that were meant well, but are just not helpful:  “Don’t think about it”, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”, or “It’s over! Let it go.”  If anything, these statements activated your anxiety or feelings of isolation even more.  You felt like a freak because the thing was still affecting you.  Or, those responses may have made you not want to deal with sharing the trauma more with people who just didn’t get it.

I get that.  And during a TIR session, I’m not going to do that.  I will work with what does come up, instead of trying to push it down.  That way you “discharge the dynamite”, rather than push it down.

So, as you transition into this Autumn state of mind, think about what might be on your mind and emotions that you might want to work through in therapy, whether it is a current stressor, or a past one.

Author: Irene

Irene Ilachinski is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker working as a psychotherapist in private practice in Fairfax, Virginia.

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