A Trauma Therapist? But I don't have trauma.
I hear this question from time to time. People often say something like, "You know, I really haven't had that many bad things happen to me. I just want to not be depressed or anxious anymore, but I don't know that I need to see a trauma specialist."
Maybe its chronic pain, a restless mind, unstable and rocky relationships, Maybe its panic attacks, feeling stuck, avoiding people, places or things. Could be anger issues or low motivation. Maybe you're hoping that they'll go away in time or maybe you've been in therapy for years addressing some of these issues, but yet they still remain.
Here's why a trauma specialist may be best equipped to help.
For a variety of reasons, whether they be rooted in shame, self-blame, cultural stigma, family norms, we may not recognize certain experiences as traumatic. For example, childhood adversity such as witnessing domestic violence within the household, having a parent who is an addict, witnessing and being the target of bullying, adjusting to challenges of immigration, losing a loved one, having a caregiver with their own mental illness, are all examples that contribute to what we call developmental trauma.
I've heard of PTSD, but not Developmental Trauma...
For many, when they think of trauma, they think of the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Media has done a great job of normalizing what this diagnosis can look like and how it can come to be. However, developmental trauma can have many of the very same effects that PTSD leaves people with. These might include:
- feeling like your emotions are out of control
- feeling like you're stuck but lacking the motivation or confidence to make changes
- having difficulty creating or maintaining intimate relationships
- viewing the world as dangerous, scary, untrustworthy
- experiencing symptoms of depression, loneliness or helplessness
- coping with all of this through use of food, substances, self-harm, overworking, isolation, reckless behaviors, and other ways of numbing the pain
We definitely don't always think of all this as trauma. Our society is a very "pick yourself up and move on" kind of place. The reality is, trauma is part of the human experience. This doesn't mean that you need to suck it up and get over it. It doesn't mean that healing is hopeless and there's nothing that you can do about it. And it certainly doesn't mean that you aren't trying hard enough.
In the end, all of this means that experiences from your childhood may not manifest into the clinical presentation of PTSD, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you don't wrestle with the impact of trauma.
Okay...but, what if it's REALLY not trauma..
And at the end of the day, trauma does not have to be the end all be all to the roots of your difficult situation. Maybe you're struggling with a tough life transition. Perhaps you do struggle with some of what has already been mentioned in this article, but you truly don't have a significant "trauma history." This is when I hear many people beat themselves up. They start to feel shameful for feeling the way that they do when there are people that "have it so much worse." That inner critic that is oh-so loud comes out in full force.
This is another place where a trauma-responsive therapist can be the best to help. They can help you address that voice inside your head. Even if it's not specifically related to trauma, they can help you connect those dots from past to present and follow that golden thread to explore the themes and patterns across your life that are leading you to now. You can not only learn how these patterns manifested in the first place, but also put in place tools for creating lasting changes. Lasting changes that go beyond the "Band-Aid effect."
A different way of looking at things
Trauma therapists realize that your patterns and behaviors, however unhealthy they may seem, were created out of necessity. We are wired to protect ourselves and that's ultimately what the human brain and body are designed to do. So, whether it has to do with your history with substances or maybe your difficulty maintaining relationships, trauma-responsive therapists understand that this is all rooted in self-protection. This understanding allows for therapists to help clients work closer to a place of self-acceptance, which can be a vital step in overall lasting change.
Therapists specializing in trauma are also keenly aware of how adversity (trauma or not) is stored in the body. They can help you to get more connected to your felt sense and identify physical sensations that indicate activation and deactivation. The truth is that these physical sensations are connected to our thoughts, feelings, interactions, and our overall mental well-being. Too often, general talk-therapy just barely scratches the surface of how our negative beliefs about ourselves and the world in general takes shape and is represented in our bodies and creating deep and sometimes unnamed impact.
An updated way of looking at things
Trauma therapists have their basics down and are experienced in the techniques and practices of a more general therapist. They've also received additional training and extensive education in a field that is fairly new. Understanding the impact of trauma and toxic stress on the body is a fairly new world in the universe of therapy. This also means that by choosing a trauma therapist, you're choosing someone who has invested time and resources to learn about and deliver cutting-edge practices and techniques to benefit you for the long term. It means that if you're ready to do something different than what you might have done before, you may consider a trauma-responsive therapist as your next investment into yourself.