We’ve come a long way since therapists prescribed to their clients to punch their pillows when angry as a cathartic way to release negative emotions. While it helped bring up the emotion, they left out a critical piece in recovery: connecting that emotion to the logical side of our brains. What the person felt was not relief but disassociation.
What we know today in neuroscience and psychotherapy research is that when a traumatic event occurs, the brain goes into dysregulation. That is, the body and the mind become disconnected. Our survival or emotional part of our brain kicks in and calls the shots while our logical or thinking part goes silent. It’s an acute physical reality just like when someone might get their shoulder disconnected in a sports accident.
The person who experienced trauma is said to be stuck in “trauma time” and may also be emotionally reactionary when something triggers them, which is called a “trauma response.” When a person continues to feel trauma, the brain stays in a disassociated state until they are able to re-integrate the two parts of the brain again. Sometimes this can take years… as with chronic stress or continually being in unsafe situations including financial insecurity, and domestic abuse or neglect.
When a person is finally safe, physically speaking, the work of re-integration can take place. Very often, a person still feels unsafe when they are physically safe because their somatic experience is still in the trauma state even though they cognitively understand they are in fact safe. This is why it’s difficult for people with trauma to even seek help; they are still reacting to the trauma as a habit of protection. Someone needs to guide them to a place of safety and recovery. People who have experienced trauma are in state of shock, have incurred PTSD and have emotional dysregulation.
Trauma recovery work can be done with a trained therapist or a safe friend who co-regulates and calms the person who is experiencing trauma to get them back to a re-integrated state of wellness.
The two methods that have proven remarkably successful are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy & Mindful Awareness.
There is a huge difference between feeling emotions and processing through them for recovery. There is no benefit in re-telling a trauma story to feel the pain, misery or self-pity, or to make oneself a perpetual victim. This will never set a person free. The critical step is to feel the emotion that was there at the “trauma time” while seeing the facts for what they were.
For example, let’s explore the recovery steps in a particular scenario where a child incurred consistent parental neglect. In recovery that person would now look at the facts and encounter them with a logical mind. They would first start by stating what happened, then how they felt at the time and finally reframe the scenario using CBT and mindful awareness.
The steps would look something like this:
- “In childhood, my parents were very emotionally distant and not available. I tried to process things that were happening to me in life but after a while I just gave up.”
- “Since my parents were not available when I needed to talk to them about something that was happening to me, it made me feel hurt, confusion, neglect, betrayal, sadness, anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, shame, invalidation, etc.” (bringing as many emotions out from the time of the trauma that can be uncovered). Note: If the trauma happened at a very young age, the child may have shut down or acted out so they might not have connected to their emotions. If this is the case, they need to go back and experience the event while engaging their emotions.
- “It was not my fault that they didn’t listen to me when I wanted to share things. My feelings of neglect were valid. I also didn’t understand that I was shutting down or acting out because I couldn’t express my emotions. I choose to feel them now and experience what actually was happening to me.”
- Then finally to end in a victorious narrative where the person is strong and resilient despite the trauma that occurred. “I now choose to feel resilience, strength, power, physical safety, love, protection… because I overcame the emotional abuse, neglect, etc.” This will decrease feelings of helplessness and increase feelings of resilience.
By doing this, the person will be using logical thinking with CBT and mindful awareness in their new narrative, and it will bring the emotional connection to the trauma down and bring the thinking part of their brain up so they reconnect. They will be able to remember the event but have now written a narrative where they are the victor not the victim. DESPITE the things that happened to them, they are now SAFE and PROTECTED because they are choosing to find safety and protection within themselves and by choosing safe people around them. They are the creator of their story. They are rewiring their brain, creating new perceptions, and releasing themselves from the trauma.
It also helps greatly to have ongoing tangible experiences that confirm one’s physical, emotional and mental strength, whether as an individual pursuit or in a group. Yoga is one of the best examples since it not only calms down the brain stem, it helps train a person to live in the present and with the changing of positions, it teaches that nothing is permanent.