The crucial starting point is to acknowledge that you survived.
Survival can often come with a price though, as we may continue to be affected by the legacy of the trauma, meaning what it has left behind.
What is Trauma?
For a long time clinicians applied the word trauma only to veterans of war and survivors of assault. We now know more accurately that trauma is an psychological wound that is a result of exposure to adversity, even the witnessing of violence, domestic abuse, or neglect can carry long-term effects that are not just psychological but physical as well.
Judith Herman writes the following about childhood abuse:
“Repeated trauma in the adult life erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with the formidable task of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself, she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses” (Herman).
What happens to us when we are exposed to traumatic events?
When we are exposed to situations that are threatening we do not consciously make decisions on how to respond. Our senses pick up the threat and the brain automatically goes into “survival mode”. The part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning, decision-making and intellectualizing shuts off and our basic “animal brain” kicks in, responding for us to the threat using the most basic of survival instincts including fight, flight and freeze.
If the threat is repeated, or we had little support, or we were young and vulnerable, the trauma may live in our body in the form of symptoms that are telling our story. This thought has been put forth by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and advocate by trauma experts the world over, including Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, Babette Rothschild, and Alan Schore.
What is the legacy of trauma?
The legacy is what the trauma has left behind. This includes all the memories or symptoms that tell the story of what we have been through. These symptoms may be conflicting and they may be confusing. We may also continue to exist “survival mode”. While the survival response helps us escape or endure trauma, its continued activation limits us. Self-protection turns into habit, and we may get stuck with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, dissociation, PTSD, and dependency.
What is Trauma Treatment and do I have to retell the story?
Trauma treatment was revolutionized with the advances in neuroscience. We now know more than ever how trauma affects the brain. We also know that healing from trauma does not require retelling the story again and again, which leaves many survivors feeling flooded when Pandora’s box is open and at risk of re-traumatization.
In psychotherapy, I offer my clients a safe space while using Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Mindfulness Approaches to Trauma Treatment, to help them work through the 3 phases of trauma treatment: Safety and Stabilization, Trauma Legacy Processing, and Connection.