“I had no idea I really needed trauma treatment. I wish I knew that 25 years ago.”
Angie, said this when we met for our closing trauma therapy session. But this is not the only time I’ve heard something like this. In fact, I’ve heard this many times before. Regularly, counseling clients tell me about the their history in therapy. Too often, they describe a course of therapy that fails to help them fundamentally transform and heal.
Some clients don’t get the results they want because they are not really ready to engage in therapy. They don’t prioritize their treatment. They bounce in and out of treatment and move around from therapist to therapist. Some come to therapy for the wrong reasons. But this in not the case with everyone. Many patients work very hard. They dedicate themselves, committing time, money and effort to living healthy, loving, satisfying lives. But, they don’t get great outcomes for other reasons.
Angie continued, “I lived in fight or flight my whole life and I thought that was a normal thing. No therapist had ever identified that or helped me learn how to be calm, collected and present. It’s like no one spotted it. Or if they did, they sure didn’t tell me”.
What’s worse is what Angie told me next. “I loved my last therapist. He was great. But I can’t believe he told me that I could not have been affected by what I experienced as an infant in foster care.” For most of her life, she struggled against what she called “a deep physical sense, a fear that everything I had was going to disappear and I would be alone“. She believed this had something to do with moving from family to family during her early life. But Angie’s therapist saw it differently. He told her she did not have trauma symptoms. He also told her that early life experiences do not affect babies much. Her psychiatrist agreed saying “there is no such a thing as adoption trauma. Stop obsessing”.
Angie ultimately lucked out. An online support community encouraged her to find a specialized trauma therapist and to educate herself about two treatment modalities: EMDR and Neurofeedback. She did a bunch of reading and research…and then called me. I feel very fortunate to have played a part in her recovery.
Trauma Treatment Knowledge Lags Behind Practice
This is an example of how “standard” clinical practice is often way behind research. We know that early life experience shapes the brain and the nervous system. Additionally we know that even if we have no overt memory from our early childhood, we carry it’s imprint within us. But the practice of psychology can, in some ways, be 25-50 years behind the times.
What do I mean? Recently I listened to a Podcast. The speaker is a well known practicing functional medicine doctor. He made a point that the more chronic a condition is, the further behind clinical practice is. For example, American emergency rooms offer cutting edge life saving treatment for conditions such as heart attacks and life threatening injuries. But medicine is not very good at helping patients with obesity or ailments that cause chronic pain.
In many ways, psychology practice is similar. It is also not up to date when it comes to the way early trauma shapes us.
Another Client Discovered What He Really Needed: Trauma Treatment.
Another example comes to mind. But sadly, these both represent many more clients whom I’ve worked with.
Gus survived a violent childhood. And his experience with frightening, high stress events continued as an adult. His career as a first responder placed him in regular contact with major catastrophic incidents. These have included natural disasters, mass shootings and a range of horrifying accidents.
Gus spent many years as a teen and adult self medicating. He described his multi decade history of drug and alcohol abuse to me “as helping him feel normal and not hyper and on edge”. What’s more, he carried another fearful and stressful burden. Gus also lived his life as a closeted gay man and often worked in environments that were hostile to gay people. Twice in his life, co-workers outed him at work and he lost jobs he loved. Cultural trauma had cast its spell upon him and he lived in daily fear that once again the career he loved would be damaged or taken from him.
Gus Reached Out For Help With Trauma
Seeking relief, Gus sought a psychiatric evaluation. The doctor told him,”You do not meet the criteria for PTSD and so you are not being impacted by any childhood or adult traumatic exposure”. He recommended that Gus add more drugs to his life, and encouraged him to begin taking prescription drugs. The doctor urged Gus to take anti depressants and sedatives.
Blinded by the prevailing culture in medicine, the doctor advised him to take time to enjoy life. He admonished him to be sure to “correct his obvious chemical imbalance”. This doctor ignored how much we have learned over the last few decades about early life trauma as pre -cursor to adult psychological suffering.
This delayed Gus’s recovery. Deep inside, he knew he was struggling from the effects of what he’d lived though. His conviction drove him forward. Fortunately, he continued on his quest to feel better.
What he did not tell Gus is this: If your depression and anxiety don’t resolve fairly quickly with psychotherapy, you might not be getting an accurate diagnosis or effective treatment. Symptoms like these are the common after effects of trauma. Without the proper care, someone with an early life, and an adult life like Gus’s can expect to struggle with chronic anxiety, depression and anger.
Trauma Treatment Tools—Only As Good As The Therapist That Uses Them.
What can you do?
Ask about your therapists training and experience treating trauma. It’s important to know that taking a daylong or weekend workshop isn’t enough to qualify them as a trauma specialist. Trauma treatment is something that takes most therapists years to become specialists in. Many psychology graduate schools suffer from ossified institutional biases and teach nothing about trauma treatment. Additionally, they cover little to nothing about the brain and nervous system
Some therapists believe that because they hear traumatic stories from their patients that they automatically are qualified as trauma therapy specialists. That’s not true. A therapist who seeks to become proficient in trauma treatment must actively pursue advanced training and specialization. This is a process that takes years, not days.
To add to the troubling mix, we are living in time when it seems like everyone claims to treat trauma. To some degree it’s always been like this in California, as our state rarely acts against people who practice without licenses. Just this past week, clients told me about their experiences with a range of practitioners who all claimed to offer trauma treatment. These examples included massage therapists, chiropractors, life coaches and even a tarot reader/psychic/energy worker. All of these approaches might have their place in a person’s life, but none should be confused with treatment that is provided by a licensed qualified mental health professional.
Another important action you can take is to educate yourself about trauma. We are fortunate to live in a time where we have great information widely available. There are excellent resources on the internet. And we have wonderful writers who publish mass market books that contain our latest knowledge about trauma treatment.
Traditional and Innovative Approaches to Trauma Treatment
The good new is this: if you have a trauma history, there is reason to be optimistic. People recover all the time. They get better. We live in a time when we are fortunate to have access to cutting edge trauma treatment approaches. In my experience, these include:
- Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
- Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems therapy
- Neurofeedback training
If you would like to learn about the trauma therapy and treatment approaches that I offer, please read more here.