In addition to my core gestalt therapy training, I have undertaken a specialist training in somatic trauma therapy with Babette Rothschild.
Babette has developed somatic trauma therapy as an integrative approach to trauma therapy that focuses on the bodily function and experience of trauma. The body’s trauma response is a natural reaction to situations that are experienced as critically dangerous. Babette’s somatic trauma therapy training builds on her work in The Body Remembers. She has also written Eight Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery to give people a way of supporting their own healing outside of the therapy situation. I recommend this book to anyone who needs to heal from trauma and is unsure about going into therapy.
A traumatic event is one in which a person experiences an imminent threat to life or bodily integrity, or witnesses such an event occurring to another person first hand. Imminent threats to bodily integrity may involve: bodily invasion (possibly by assault or medical procedure); severe bodily damage; severe physical pain. Essentially, trauma involves being pushed beyond a person’s normal realms of tolerance, into a situation that is overwhelming, by extreme physical danger. This process is so primal and powerful that Peter Levine named his book on working with trauma Waking the Tiger to express this metaphorically. It is testimony to the power of human empathy, that even witnessing such an event happen to someone else can be traumatising.
In itself, traumatic stress is actually very positive, and can make the difference between life and death. The ‘healthy’ trauma cycle goes something like this:
– perception of imminent, critical danger triggers the body’s fight/flight/freeze response and the autonomic nervous system generates traumatic stress by releasing hormones and redirecting bloodflow
– in fight or flight responses, traumatic stress allows a level of physical exertion and speed of reflex beyond a person’s normal range of functioning. This is why if someone’s been hit by a car, gets up, dusts themselves down and says ‘oh I’m fine’, it’s a good idea to take them to a&e anyway; whilst they might be fine, it’s just as likely that the level of adrenalin in their system is suppressing the pain from any injury they might have sustained
– in the freeze response, a person’s ability to respond physically to events is completely suppressed, often with an accompanying feeling of detachment from what’s happening. This is called tonic immobility, and is the same phenomenon as when a mouse ‘plays dead’, or when a rabbit freezes in the headlights of a car
– the danger passes, and stress levels in the autonomic nervous system fall, often accompanied by physical shaking as the body burns off excess adrenalin
I’ve put healthy in inverted commas because the experience above isn’t what most people would count as a healthy part of every day life! What’s important to remember, though, is that you don’t necessarily need therapy just because you’ve experienced trauma. Most people don’t develop PTS after a car accident, for example, even though car accidents are often traumatic.
It is usually when the traumatic event leads to a change in how a person lives their life, and when that change is experienced as debilitating or limiting, that trauma therapy is most appropriate.
For example, some people change their entire value system after a life threatening event, but in a way that brings them a greater sense of hope and being alive. Contrast that with developing an aversion to situations that resemble the original trauma, turning inwards in order to avoid the risk of getting hurt, and losing or feeling a dramatic reduction in a previous joy for life.
It’s clear that the second person would benefit most from trauma therapy. The first person may well feel they want to resolve some of the memories of the trauma itself, so it’s not that trauma therapy is inappropriate for that person; just that it’s likely to be less of a pressing need.
The way I work with trauma focuses on how the unresolved aspects of trauma memories influence your life now. You do not need to relive your trauma to get a sense of resolution. In fact, repeatedly going over traumatic memories can itself be re-traumatising. My focus in trauma therapy is to work on your physical sense of the trauma being over, and of being safe now.
We don’t need to go into the details of what happened in order to improve your quality of life now. And if we do go into trauma memories, it will be through supportively planned exercises, and only when you and I both feel the time is right for that kind of exploration.