Back in 1981, I was Co-Clinical Director at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. After the first few months of listening to peoples’ stories, I had a conversation with Dr. David Smith – founder and medical director of the clinic. I was telling him that every person who came to the clinic, who was addicted to heroin, had so much trauma in their personal backgrounds that we had to start working with their trauma if we ever expected them to get and stay clean – they needed to hurt less, because they were using the heroin to numb their feelings, and without a reduction in their emotional pain, they could not believe they could live without the one drug that allowed them to live and numb their intrusive thoughts and feelings. They had no other way of coping with their internal pain.
Fast forward to the last 15 years or so and we find major research efforts and brain science research tools repeatedly finding that “trauma” is a key cause of many emotional issues, mental illness, addiction and many medical illness processes. I am not surprised.
Back in the early 80s, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as experienced by Vietnam Vets was making the news. The best treatment we could offer Vietnam Vets suffering from PTSD was support groups where they shared their experiences over and over again until they might finally experience a reduction in their flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and emotional reactivity – MIGHT is a key word here. What we later learned was our best efforts were also causing some of the Vets to be re-traumatized by their re-telling and re-feeling everything over and over again. Our first therapeutic breakthrough was Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR.) That was the most effective option we had for many years. The draw back was that you had to assess a person for their ability to handle EMDR, it could be discombobulating to a person and make things worse, it was not and is not for everyone…Now we have a variety of options for treating trauma including Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, David Grand’s Brainspotting, Lisa Schwarz’s Comprehensive Resource Model, Callahan’s Thought Field Therapy, and a variety of others I have not been trained in. These recent developments afford therapists and clients exciting possibilities.
In addition, we now know that what we used to think of as “Trauma” or “Trauamtic” was what we now refer to as Big T Trauma –war, natural disasters, murder, suicide, big calamitous events often by Mother Nature – is only part of the picture. There is something very powerful called “little t trauma” – that is often experienced in childhood – in the form of emotional neglect, emotional abandonment, physical abandonment, parentification of the child, verbal and emotional abuse….It is clear that an accumulation of “little t trauma” has serous, long term effects on one’s emotional development, self-esteem, coping abilities,and confidence. An accumulation of little t traumas result in the same kinds of emotional wounds for people as big T trauma. That means more people have been negatively impacted and continue to be plagued by traumas they may not always consciously remember or be aware of. You can’t work on what you don’t know exists.
When trauma is unresolved, the “protective defenses” you have been building for years become your way of being, and when your old trauma get triggered by something in the here and now, your reactions are not what you have learned as an adult, you are immediately back into your Survival Terror you’re your only options being: Fight, Flight, or Freeze. You can watch yourself regress, powerless in the moment, and then later wonder “What is wrong with me? – I know better than that.” When the survival terror reaction subsides, you can begin to judge yourself, you come up short, feeling more inadequate, and dump more layers of shame onto yourself for not handling “it” better. “It” becomes a vicious cycle. Your fighting, fleeing, or freezing reactions are not very effective, or functional, but you continue to repeat them in an emotionally reactive way, you have no thoughtful choices. You feel stuck and displeased with yourself. Your vicious cycle goes deeper …
If this sounds familiar to you – and you find yourself repeating old patterns that would fit into the “Fight, Flight or Freeze survival terror paradigm, there is a way out. Utilizing these newer mind body techniques as well as traditional talk therapy for trauma treatment assists people in resolving trauma, trauma triggers, and trauma reactions so a person can RESPOND with mindful, rational responses rather than being caught in the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Reactivity process. When you experience a degree of freedom from trauma ruling you on an unconscious, reactive level it is a very freeing experience. From there, you can begin to make choices, which allows a person to be who they want to be more of the time and how they want to be more of the time. It is exciting work. I invite you to try it out.
-Joanne Baum, PhD, LCSW, CAC III