Understanding one’s trauma response is often a critical component of the therapeutic process. People often dismiss their potential to have been impacted by a traumatic event based on messages we have received from the media regarding trauma, especially “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We don’t have to endorse all of the symptoms congruent with PTSD to have been impacted by a traumatic event. When our sense of security is compromised and we fear for our safety, this is often a sign that we have experienced a traumatic event. Part of what therapy helps us to do, is to take back our sense of control over our feeling safe.
It is important that we utilize therapy to re-establish our sense of wellbeing, counteracting the feelings of being vulnerable that are associated with the traumatic event we survived. As a trauma therapist, I know it takes work to acknowledge that we are no longer at risk of undergoing the event that caused us to feel unsafe again, but are rather in a position to tell ourselves that we are secure and no longer at risk of re-experiencing the traumatic incident. Often there are elements of a traumatic incident that we hold onto that recall the traumatized state we were in when it occurred. Part of therapy is working to unlink the circumstances that remind us of a past traumatic event from the feeling that we are unsafe and at risk. We work to provide safe exposure to these elements while promoting a sense of stability that was not felt when the initial traumatic event occurred.
We work to retrain the brain not to associate aspects of a previously traumatic experience with recurring fear and a lack of safety. Therapy provides us a safe and contained space to take a step back and look at the elements of a previously traumatic situation and foster a sense of stability in response to these elements rather than fear. Building that bridge – between what once caused us to feel unsafe and a newfound sense of stability – is a large part of taking back control from the traumatic experience. Therapy affords us the opportunity to change our story – no longer immediately thinking, feeling or experiencing fear when confronted with aspects that remind us of the past traumatic event. We work to build up tolerance and a new way of interpreting events that in the past resulted in our feeling traumatized, or afraid. Control is a significant piece of the puzzle in reducing the impact a past traumatic event holds over us. Using therapy to ground yourself in an understanding that you are not going to repeat the same experience when confronted with themes that are reminiscent of a past traumatic occurrence, is part of the work that is done to uncouple a state of fear from events that no longer have control over you. The more you are able to respond to circumstances in the present moment, rather than being pulled back into re-experiencing the traumatic event, the greater your capacity is to manage and sustain previously trauma-inducing experiences. A large part of working with trauma is using therapy to build new associations of safety with what used to be occurrences that ignited a lack of security. Through the process of building these new relationships and behaviors, therapy allows us to feel less under the thumb of our past traumatic situations.
Don’t hesitate to ask or bring up even what may seem like the smallest incident to work on in therapy as a potential trauma response. There isn’t a rule that the event has to be “this big” or was the catalyst for “these specific behaviors.” If you feel that you grapple with feelings of being unsafe based on past events, bring this up to me so you can properly explore its impact and how to increase your sense of security moving forward.