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Therapy might not be the right answer to healing complex trauma


therapy for complex trauma

Did you know that certain forms of therapy can actually make the trauma worse? Yes, it’s true. Unfortunately, healthcare providers are not all trauma-informed. This means that they aren’t taking into consideration how your childhood has impacted your life (e.g. complex trauma). Hence, they can’t give you the proper care to guide you to healing. Lack of trauma-informed care is a huge issue! 

But that’s why I’m writing this blog. So you can be equipped to make the right decisions for you on your trauma-healing journey. The key is to find trauma-informed care, especially for complex trauma. If you are on a healing journey, you likely have gone to or are considering therapy. 

What’s the difference between trauma and complex trauma?

Trauma is defined as an event or experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing and overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience. Trauma can occur from a single event or from a series of events that are not necessarily related.

Complex trauma involves exposure to multiple and chronic traumatic events, often within interpersonal relationships, typically over an extended period and within the context of a relationship where the victim feels trapped, powerless or powerless inescapable.

Complex trauma can have more severe and long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being than a single traumatic event. It can often lead to a range of psychological difficulties, such as anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, dissociation, problems with attachment and relationships, and other issues.

Here’s what you need to know about therapy and complex trauma.

Please note: this is not a substitute for medical advice or a diagnosis. I aim to help you open your mind to new & complementary healing paths.

Therapy may be an effective way to address your childhood trauma, but whether or not it is the “right” answer depends on you and your unique circumstances. Childhood trauma can significantly impact your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Getting professional help can be crucial to healing and breaking generational trauma.

Therapy is usually one of the first stops for most women on a healing journey.

Yet, unfortunately, most women don’t know what to do next when they are still in pain and therapy isn’t helping. I know; I’ve been there. I’ve also talked to many other women who have been in this spot too.

First, let’s address the types of therapy you can consider as part of your childhood trauma-healing journey and the pros and cons of each.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

This is talk therapy, where you may be asked to detail your traumautic experience. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological therapy that aims to help you change negative or distorted thinking and behavior patterns.

CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected and that negative thoughts can lead to negative emotions and behaviors. By identifying and changing these negative thought patterns, CBT helps you develop healthier and more positive ways of thinking and behaving.

CBT is often used to treat a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders. It typically involves a structured, short-term program of therapy, which may include homework assignments and other practical exercises to help you apply the skills they learn in therapy to your daily lives.

Does CBT work for trauma survivors?

Some trauma survivors may find CBT challenging or not respond well to this therapy. One potential reason why CBT may not be effective for all trauma survivors is that it can be difficult for individuals with trauma to engage in cognitive restructuring, which is a key component of CBT. 

This means that you struggle to put things into words… And of course, this makes sense. Because if you suffer from complex trauma, your brain didn’t develop properly during childhood due to toxic stress. Essentially, your pre-frontal cortex doesn’t grow and function in the same way as it does in individuals who have not experienced trauma. This makes it difficult to process and regulate emotions, communicate effectively, and organize thoughts and memories.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that was initially developed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT combines cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques with elements of mindfulness and acceptance-based approaches to help individuals manage difficult emotions, improve interpersonal relationships, and develop new coping skills.

DBT is based on the concept of dialectics, which refers to the idea that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true at the same time. For example, in DBT, individuals may be encouraged to accept themselves as they are while striving to make positive changes in their lives.

DBT typically involves both individual and group therapy sessions, and may also incorporate phone coaching and skills training. In treatment, individuals learn skills such as mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness, which can help them manage difficult emotions, improve relationships, and cope with challenging situations.

Does DBT work for trauma survivors?

Some trauma survivors may find DBT challenging or not respond well to this therapy. One potential reason for this is that DBT can focus on distress tolerance and acceptance, which may be difficult for some trauma survivors. 

Trauma can lead to feelings of shame, self-blame, and a sense of being out of control. These feelings may be exacerbated by a focus on acceptance and tolerance. Again, because your brain developed differently, your brain doesn’t know how to process intense emotions like others. 

Additionally, some trauma survivors may find that the mindfulness practices used in DBT, such as body scans or meditation, can be triggering or overwhelming.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy that is used to help individuals who have experienced traumatic or distressing events. It was initially developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but has since been used to treat a wide range of mental health conditions.

EMDR was developed specifically to help trauma survivors!

EMDR involves a structured, eight-phase treatment approach that includes both cognitive and sensory elements. During therapy sessions, individuals are asked to focus on a traumatic memory or event while following a therapist’s hand movements or other sensory input, such as sounds or taps.

The theory behind EMDR is that eye movements and other sensory inputs can help individuals process traumatic memories in a different way, reducing the intensity of negative emotions and beliefs associated with the event.

This can help individuals feel more in control of their emotions and reactions and improve their ability to cope with similar situations. Essentially, unlike other modes of therapy, EMDR works to ensure you stay within your coping threshold.

Does EMDR work for trauma survivors?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed specifically for trauma survivors. Yay, we have a winner! 

EMDR can be an effective treatment for all types of trauma survivors. With EMDR, you do not have to relive your trauma and therapists are trained on how to guide you through healing in the most gentle way possible.

How does EMDR therapy work? What is Adaptive Information Processing?

EMDR therapy is based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which explains how memories are stored in the brain. Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR does not require the person to extensively discuss their traumatic experience. Instead, the focus is on changing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with the trauma to allow natural healing.

While the terms “mind” and “brain” are often used interchangeably, they are distinct concepts. The brain is a physical organ, while the mind refers to the collection of thoughts, memories, beliefs, and experiences that make up a person’s identity.

The brain’s structure (neuron connections) plays a critical role in how the mind functions, particularly regarding memory and sensory processing.

In normal circumstances, memories are stored and networked together in the brain smoothly. However, this process can be disrupted during traumatic events, leading to storing memories in a way that inhibits healthy healing. 

Trauma memories can, over time, become linked to other negative experiences, further reinforcing negative associations and impairing the mind’s ability to process and regulate emotions.

EMDR helps to reprocess these traumatic memories and associations through bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or sounds. By engaging both sides of the brain, EMDR therapy aims to create new connections between the traumatic memory and more positive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Ultimately, this can significantly reduce the distress associated with traumatic experiences.

How does EMDR help reprocess and repair?

EMDR is based on the idea that bilateral movements, such as eye movements or sounds, can stimulate both sides of the brain to help reprocess traumatic memories more adaptively. By doing this, the therapy aims to reduce the intensity of negative emotions associated with the memory and form new, more positive associations.

During an EMDR session, the person accesses memories of the traumatic event in a specific manner (to not overwhelm you) while receiving guided instructions and bilateral stimulation. This process facilitates the reprocessing of the memory and helps “repair” the associated mental injury.

As a result, remembering the traumatic event will no longer feel like reliving it, and the associated feelings will become more manageable.

In conclusion, childhood trauma can significantly impact your emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Breaking generational trauma and healing your past can feel challenging, but you aren’t alone. You have options for your healing journey; being informed about the best options is critical. 

Not all forms of therapy may be effective for trauma survivors, and some types of treatment can worsen the trauma. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) are some of the common types of treatment that trauma survivors may consider. Make sure you understand what’s best for you and talk to your provider; ask questions!

Ultimately, finding trauma-informed care and choosing the right type of therapy that works for you and your unique circumstances is crucial. Remember, healing is possible, and there are many different paths to get there.

Want more support on your trauma-healing journey? Explore the Mindful Evolution Program.

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