Trauma Therapy Is in the Spotlight; Psychologists Explain What It Is — and Who It’s For
While you might be familiar with talk therapy, otherwise known as cognitive behavioral therapy, there is another form of therapy that’s focused on healing from past wounds caused by trauma. Pete Davidson was actually just in the spotlight for his experience with trauma therapy, per People, bringing renewed attention to a lesser-understood method of healing.
Roughly six percent of Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs. The hallmark symptoms of PTSD tend to include flashbacks, anxiety, hypervigilance (waiting for something bad to happen), panic attacks, and low self-worth, says Sarah Lee, a psychotherapist who specializes in CPTSD and childhood trauma.
Trauma can also play out physically. Studies show that traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in the brain, including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. “When we experience true or perceived danger, the amygdala turns on, which is part of the brain that is very adaptive so you know to run when a tiger is coming at you,” says Janet (Bayramyan) Generales, LCSW, certified EMDR and brainspotting therapist. “The problem with trauma is when it doesn’t turn off so you think the tiger is always chasing you.”
That’s where trauma therapy can be helpful. This method can include a large range of treatments, such as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; IFS (Internal Family Systems); and brainspotting. “All are evidence based, goal oriented, and follow the natural healing system of each individual,” says Minerva Guerrero, PhD, LMHC. Unfamiliar with these treatments and how they work? POPSUGAR spoke with trauma therapists about how they define trauma, the methods they commonly use to treat it, and whether it could be a good fit for your needs.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is a physical reaction in the brain that is triggered by real or perceived danger. The amygdala, an almond-size part of the brain involved in emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation, works closely with the hippocampus to process memory, according to McGovern Medical School. If you fear your life is in danger, your amygdala can become overactivated and stop processing the memory. This rupture in the process means whenever that memory is triggered, we experience that intense fear all over again.
Often when we think of traumatic events, we think of extreme examples like a veteran coming back from war, sexual assault, natural disasters, and other moments of similar magnitude. “While those are all very traumatic, other types of trauma, like experiencing neglect in childhood, abandonment, betrayal, and infidelity, might not be as well recognized,” Generales says. Trauma can stem from “any significant life event that impacts your internal sense of safety,” Generales adds.
While not directly life threatening, these more “subtle” sources of trauma make it difficult to trust yourself and others. Additional examples can include a romantic breakup, emotional abuse, and unexpected life changes that you may not have been able to cope with. At the end of the day, “trauma is subjective,” Lee says. “You might experience something as traumatic while someone else recovers quickly. Not everyone has the same resilience, resources, or support, and [the single traumatic experience] also doesn’t take cumulative trauma into consideration.”
How Is Trauma Therapy Different From Talk Therapy?
While talk therapy is important and a precursor to more intensive treatment, some patients might hit a wall at some point. “Insight is great, learning coping skills is great, but sometimes talk therapy doesn’t engage in the deeper parts of the brain, so we don’t notice a change in our symptoms,” Generales says. “So much of talk therapy, we stay in the prefrontal cortex of our brain, which is more logical. With trauma, so much is stored in the body, so we need to get into where the trauma is stored to fully heal.”
Also, when you work with a trauma therapist, they’re supporting you “through that trauma lens,” Generales says. For example, if someone comes in to see Generales to address trauma from a breakup, she works with them to understand how it might relate to other past experiences. Perhaps fears of abandonment or other feelings became triggered by this new event, and having that context is helpful for healing.
Lee adds that trauma therapy is also “understanding the impact of your trauma and being honest about how it has affected you, learning to release the emotions that come up without judging yourself, and adapting to life now.”
What Are the Different Treatments Used in Trauma Therapy?
Trauma doesn’t live in the cognitive part of your brain, so trauma therapists often utilize models like EMDR to move past the frontal lobe. Dr. Guerrero explains EMDR as a type of treatment that uses bilateral stimulation (back-and-forth movement) in order to help the individual reprocess their traumatic memory so they no longer feel “stuck” or fearful of their experience.
While EMDR works through back and forth of eye movement, brainspotting is a similar technique in that it accesses the same parts of the brain. Discovered in 2003 by David Grand, PhD, the basic idea is that where you look affects how you feel. In brainspotting, a therapist will typically use a pointer to direct your eyes to help you locate points in your visual field. “The idea is that your eyes look in a certain direction that directly correlates to where you looked during a traumatic incident,” Generales says.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is another common treatment that Dr. Guerrero says changed her life both personally and professionally. This model works on the idea that each person is made up of multiplicities (which is a good thing!). “It honors what each part of ourselves wants for us and how it shows up in our lives,” she says. “Accepting the different intentions of our inner parts allows us to become more of who we really are, and for those that have traumatic histories, it can help heal these trauma wounds as well.” IFS might look like closing your eyes and “inviting” different parts of yourself to join you at a conference table in your mind — maybe it’s a younger version of yourself — and asking each part, “What do you need from me?” Maybe that younger part needs comfort or a sense of safety. Acknowledging each part’s needs helps you “unblend” or separate the complicated layers of trauma so you can directly heal those parts.
Who Should See a Trauma Therapist?
First of all, you don’t need to have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) to see a trauma therapist. “PTSD is just one trauma-related diagnosis, but trauma shows up in people in different ways and in different severities,” Dr. Guerrero says. “Many people are walking around with traumatic experiences that have not been processed and impact them in negative ways.”
Lee shared that she’s seen many people underestimate their trauma and wait a long time to seek help because they think their symptoms are “not that bad” or believe others are more deserving than they are. But Lee says, “It’s always OK to ask for help. You don’t have to suffer alone.”