Life can be traumatic at times and many people don’t realize is that there are actually many different kinds of trauma, each requiring different approaches for therapy and healing. It’s very important to deal with trauma appropriately, or people may fall prey to negative coping strategies such as addictive alcohol or drug use, anger, or isolation instead.
All of us at some point will have to face something traumatic throughout our lives. In most cases, it’s impossible to plan for disasters, car accidents, loss, and other traumatic events that can take place in our lives. One study found that among the population in the Netherlands, 80.7% of participants had experienced a traumatic event. The study goes on to state that this rate is comparable to the rate of traumatic events experienced in the United States. Human beings, no matter how strong, become vulnerable when they experience high levels of stress.
Struggling from past trauma is an issue that many don’t completely understand. It’s a complex issue that can take a number of years to heal from, but it is possible after admitting you’re struggling, and seeking trauma-informed care. Let’s take a look at the different kinds of trauma and how you can start your recovery journey if you or a loved one are struggling with past trauma.
Loss and Grief Can Be Traumatic
When many people think of trauma, they usually think of veterans who experienced unimaginable terror, people surviving terrorist attacks, or disasters, or maybe those who have been sexually or physically abused. But it’s also important to remember that sudden loss and grief can be extremely traumatic as well.
Grief is a powerful emotion. After losing someone you love, the sadness can feel crushing. The loss of a loved one is undoubtedly one of the most difficult hardships we’ll endure in life, but it’s possible to move forward. There are specific strategies grief counselors use to help people process, cope, and move forward following a loss.
Grief counseling is intended to help the client grieve in a healthy manner, to understand and cope with the emotions they experience, and to ultimately find a way to move on. This can be accomplished through existential therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, and/or family therapy.
The list below are the primary things a grief counselor or therapist will work on:
- Listen in a supportive manner to the client’s concerns
- Help disaster survivors recognize that, in most cases, their emotional reactions are natural, normal, and to be expected
- Assist survivors to reduce additional stress by organizing and prioritizing day-to-day and recovery-related tasks
- Help individuals to understand and recognize the wide range of reactions to trauma, such as numbness, frustration, confusion, anger, anxiety, sadness, and feelings of helplessness
- Assist individuals to draw on their own strengths and develop healthy coping mechanisms that permit them to gradually resume their pre-disaster (or pre-loss) level of functioning
- Sensitively and caringly help individuals to grieve their losses in their own unique ways, but also move on in an appropriate amount of time
- Systematically draw upon an array of recovery resources for appropriate referrals
Focusing on each of these elements as you process grief is important in dealing with the loss, and also preventing any negative coping strategies, such as addiction from being used instead.
Resiliency in Trauma and Anxiety
It would be an understatement to say that many people don’t understand the complex issue of trauma, why trauma victims act the way they do, and how to properly help trauma victims heal. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. Often, trauma survivors can be re-traumatized by well-meaning caregivers and community service providers.
This is why seeking trauma-informed care is so important. Seeking help from professionals who can understand, recognize and respond to the effects of all types of trauma can really make a difference in your life.
Those who struggle with past trauma, particularly from childhood, normally experience the following symptoms:
- Flashbacks — reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts
It’s incredibly difficult to live a normal life when you’re constantly in fear and avoiding people, places, or certain thoughts and feelings in order to avoid having a panic attack. And relying on drugs or alcohol to cope can actually make these symptoms worse. It can take a lot of time to feel at ease again after experiencing something traumatic, but it is definitely possible if you seek professional help.
To have the best chance at finally feeling ease again in your life, the best option for you or a loved one could be trauma-informed therapy. The most common forms of trauma-informed therapy are exposure therapy and EMDR.
Here are some explanations of each:
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations.
Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse. In such situations, a psychologist might recommend a program of exposure therapy in order to help break the pattern of avoidance and fear.
In this form of therapy, psychologists create a safe environment in which to expose individuals to the things they fear and avoid. The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.
There are several variations of exposure therapy. Your psychologist can help you determine which strategy is best for you. These include:
- In vivo exposure: Directly facing a feared object, situation or activity in real life. For example, someone with a fear of snakes might be instructed to handle a snake, or someone with social anxiety might be instructed to give a speech in front of an audience.
- Imaginal exposure: Vividly imagining the feared object, situation or activity. For example, someone with post-traumatic stress disorder might be asked to recall and describe his or her traumatic experience in order to reduce feelings of fear.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy
EMDR is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress. It is an effective treatment for trauma. During EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements.
EMDR is thought to be effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted. This allows you to be exposed to the memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response.
This is typically what the treatment process looks like for EMDR:
- A therapist will begin using EMDR therapy techniques to treat your targeted memories. During these sessions, you will be asked to focus on a negative thought, memory, or image.
- Your therapist will simultaneously have you do specific eye movements. The bilateral stimulation may also include taps or other movements mixed in, depending on your case.
- After the bilateral stimulation, your therapist will ask you to let your mind go blank and notice the thoughts and feelings you’re having spontaneously. After you identify these thoughts, your therapist may have you refocus on that traumatic memory, or move on to another.
- If you become distressed, your therapist will help bring you back to the present before moving on to another traumatic memory. Over time, the distress over particular thoughts, images, or memories will start to fade.
The success rates of these therapies are pretty similar. Numerous studies comparing EMDR to exposure therapy show similar levels of effectiveness. Basically, exposure therapy looks a lot like EMDR, the only substantive difference is the lack of eye movement in exposure therapy. So, which form of therapy would work best for you?
Ultimately, this decision is up to your therapist. Some don’t believe that the eye movement aspect of EMDR makes a difference, and is basically the same as exposure therapy. However, other recent studies have concluded that the eye-movement aspect of EMDR is crucial for the success of patients. One example of this is a study conducted in 2011 in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Some patients with PTSD went through a session of EMDR while others completed all the components of a typical EMDR session but kept their eyes closed rather than moving them. The patients involved in sessions where eye movements were involved reported a more significant reduction in distress than did patients in the control group.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Positively Impact Addiction, Trauma, and other Mental Health Conditions
Along with exposure therapy and EMDR, another form of trauma-informed care that can be beneficial to those with co-occurring disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a method that aids in the identification of stressors, or triggers, and modifying negative emotional responses to them. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that CBT was able to significantly decrease PTSD diagnoses by as much as 80% in patients three months post-treatment.
Here is what you can expect if you’re engaging in CBT sessions with a therapist:
- After the assessment session, treatment can begin. This is when you begin working on the problems you came to treatment for. CBT is more active than other forms of therapy, and much of the time is dedicated to learning and practicing skills. Every session is spent working on solving problems, unlike traditional talk therapy, where much of the time is spent merely talking about them.
- Each session of CBT follows the same structure to ensure the most effective use of time. The session begins with a brief check-in, followed by a review of the previous session and homework. After this, the therapist and client set the agenda for the session, and the rest of the session is spent targeting agenda items.
- Every session, homework is assigned to help people master the skills they came to therapy for. At the beginning of treatment, homework often involves tracking changes in mood or tracking certain behaviors over the course of the week. Later on, it can involve identifying and correcting problematic thinking patterns, or practicing a behavior that was learned in therapy.
Treatment Options for Trauma and Addiction
If you or someone you know has struggled with addiction before, it shouldn’t be a surprise to you that addiction usually begins when someone is trying to cope with a mental illness or their past trauma. It can be really scary to admit that you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, or that you’re struggling because of something traumatic you’ve experienced in the past. Because of the effects of trauma, it can be difficult to manage negative emotions and stressors associated with it. Drinking or using drugs can help numb the pain they’re experiencing.
An estimated 55-60% of all trauma victims end up developing some form of chemical dependency. As you can see, this is a common coping mechanism for many who are struggling with PTSD, but there are ways to treat both trauma, addiction, and other co-occurring disorders in a healthy way.
Dual diagnosis treatment aims to treat co-occurring disorders. In the case of someone struggling with addiction and past trauma, dual diagnosis treatment would treat both the addiction and helping the client heal from their past trauma.
There are many different options for dual diagnosis treatment, here are a few examples:
- Dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT): This is similar to CBT, but the main goal of DBT is to reduce self-harming behaviors that often accompany mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
- Integrated group therapy: Seeks to treat the symptoms of both substance use disorders and mental illnesses all at once in a group setting. This can be beneficial to many who feel alone in their struggles because you are able to hear from others with similar issues. Group therapy can also give you a sense of support, which is extremely important in the recovery process for trauma and addiction.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Works to minimize problematic beliefs and behaviors and develop healthier thinking and behavioral patterns to sustain sobriety.
- Individual psychotherapy: Treats behaviors related to substance abuse and/or particular behavioral or mental health problems.
Trauma-informed care allows for the most comprehensive treatment approach and gives a higher chance of a positive outcome. Recovering from past trauma can be especially difficult when someone is also struggling with addiction. Relapses can be common when the individual doesn’t know how to manage healthy ways of coping with their grief or trauma.
Self-Regulation Skills Are Taught to Help Manage Trauma
After going through something traumatic, it can be incredibly difficult to manage the intense emotions that you’re feeling. You’re probably feeling immense sadness and anger, and it’s hard to move on when you don’t know how to manage these intense feelings. An important role for therapists that can help you during this difficult time is teaching you how to self-regulate. This can encourage clients to work toward keeping harmful or disruptive emotions in check and thinking before they act.
People who self-regulate are better able to see the good in other people, identify opportunities where others might not, act in accordance with their values, and have clear goals and motivations. Most importantly, they are able to maintain this mindset during emotionally challenging situations.
Here are some self-regulation skills you might learn with a therapist:
1. Emphasize the importance of identifying the specific emotions they/others feel.
Self-regulation is one part of the five components of emotional intelligence, a concept developed by psychologist Daniel Goleman. In addition to self-regulation, emotional intelligence includes knowing your emotions, motivating yourself, managing relationships, and recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.
Before you can master emotional intelligence, the first step is for your therapist to understand your feelings. While nearly everyone can determine the difference between feeling happy and sad, knowing how emotions like jealousy and envy, and shame and embarrassment differ is fundamental to properly dealing with emotions. Your therapist may ask you if you can explain the similarities and differences between these emotions and which ones you identify with.
2. Enhance self-regulation through goal setting.
Goals make it easier for people to self-evaluate and understand the progress they have made. Your therapist may encourage you to establish clear goals to focus your attention on positive behaviors that must be performed to meet these goals. Incorporate specific performance standards and recommend setting proximal, short-term goals, as they tend to result in higher motivation and better self-regulation.
3. Encourage adaptability.
If you are showing difficulty with adapting to life changes, your ability to self-regulate will be inhibited. Your therapist will help you cope with these life changes and how to adapt to these situations. People who resist change often experience unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety that can lead to poor physical and mental health. Your therapist can help you reframe your negative thoughts and see change as a positive opportunity for self-development.
4. Practice strategies for self-awareness.
One of the most essential factors for self-regulation is self-awareness. A large part of having good self-awareness is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Your therapist can help you identify what makes you angry or feel negative. Your therapist can also help you identify the behaviors or actions that you have participated in the past that are negative, and replace them with positive alternatives.
How Can You Recover from Past Trauma?
Severe trauma will rarely go away without professional support. Even if you are able to live a normal working life, untreated trauma symptoms can make each day a struggle. A sure sign that it is time to seek help begins when substance use, such as alcohol or drug use, has become a coping mechanism. If relationships or day-to-day happiness are impacted by trauma, professional treatment can help.
Trauma is common in this world we live in, but it can be successfully treated if you are seeking the appropriate form of trauma-informed care. If you’re suffering from a sudden loss in your family, you will need to seek a different form of therapy than someone who is using drugs to cope with their trauma.
It’s also possible that you could be struggling with multiple forms of trauma. For example, if you went through a traumatic accident that resulted in the loss of a loved one, you would probably need a combination of different forms of trauma-informed therapy. Having the correct diagnosis and getting the care you need is so important in order to heal from your past trauma.
Where Can You Seek Help for Trauma?
Admitting a traumatic experience isn’t easy for anyone. Opening up about abuse, neglect, how losing a loved one has affected you, or other incidents of trauma takes a lot of courage.
Michael’s House offers dual diagnosis treatment and several modalities of trauma-informed care related to the different kinds of trauma people experience. We can help you or a loved one move on from past trauma and get on the path to recovery from addiction. Our master’s level clinicians can help you or a loved one get life back on track.
Being in the hands of highly experienced and compassionate staff in the beautiful city of Palm Springs can help the transition to sobriety an easier one. Call Michael’s House today at 760-548-4032 to help you or a loved one recover from addiction and trauma.