How To Heal From Past Trauma With Trauma Therapy
By Cody Mitts, MA, LPC, NCC
How to heal from trauma
If you’ve experienced something traumatic you probably know how difficult it feels when your emotions and thoughts are out of control. Healing from trauma is about getting your body and mind to live in harmony.
When you experience something traumatic it overwhelms your emotions and body, and these types of experiences can rewire the way your nervous system functions.
That’s why the best way to heal from trauma is by learning how to retrain your nervous system.
There are 3 important parts of healing from trauma:
- Healing your brain after trauma
- Healing your body after trauma
- Healing your emotions after trauma
Your central nervous system is a vital part of the body that controls how you feel. Basically it’s a combination of your your brain and a complex system of nerves and cells that run throughout your body.
Trauma can have a big impact on your nervous system. One of the important parts of the nervous system is the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve is important to know because it’s job is to help you regulate things like your heart rate, breathing, and sweating.
The rewiring of your nervous system that happens after trauma can make it very difficult to regulate things like your heart rate, breathing, and sweating.
As we explore how to heal your body, mind, and emotions after trauma we’re essentially talking about healing the way your nervous system and the vagus nerve are functioning.
How to heal the brain after trauma
When you’ve had an overwhelming experience it can affect the way you think about the world around you. Trauma has a way of rewiring your brain. It can change the way your thoughts get processed and create problems within your mind.
One of the reasons this happens is because of how your brain processes information.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the left brain and the right brain. Generally the right side of your brain holds the creative and emotional parts of yourself, while the left side of your brain processes the more logical and rational thoughts.
When your brain is functioning at its best it uses both the left and right side to process thoughts and emotions. After you experience something traumatic it can cause part of your brain to “freeze” or shut down and make it difficult to process thoughts and feelings effectively.
This is why traumatic events have a way of getting “stuck” in your mind. Your brain isn’t able to process something so it keeps repeating it in the attempt to process it effectively.
It’s kind of like your brain is stuck on replay. It wants to process the memory but it can’t do it because it’s too difficult or painful.
Earlier we explored how your brain functions as the command center of your nervous system. When this command center can’t process the painful experience of your trauma, it has an impact on the rest of your nervous system and body.
Healing your mind after trauma means discovering how to process these stuck thoughts in an effective way.
When your mind is able to process these traumatic events it can store the memories in a different part of your mind known as your long term memory. It’s kind of like moving files from one place to another in your brain.
When you’re able to move the memories of your trauma to the long term storage in your mind, they don’t have the same daily affect on your life. These memories are still with you, but they don’t affect you on a daily basis.
This is one of the goals of healing from trauma. To help your brain process these painful memories in a way that allows you to move forward with your life.
Healing your mind is also connected to the next important part of healing from trauma: healing your body.
Healing trauma in the body
Traumatic experiences have a big impact on your body. They can change the way you feel in your own skin. Things that used to feel safe don’t feel that way anymore.
Trauma can affect your body in one of two ways. It can affect you physically or physiologically.
Some of the ways trauma can affect you physically include:
- Muscle tension or discomfort
- Physical pain in a certain part of your body (perhaps a part of your body related to the trauma)
- Chronic physical pain
- Headaches or migraines
- Pain in your stomach or gut
The physiological effects of trauma include things like:
- Racing heart rate
- Unusual or increased sweating
- Digestion problems
- Feeling constriction in your throat
- Flushed face or skin irritation
Earlier when I discussed the nervous systems’ role in healing from trauma I mentioned the importance of the Vagus nerve.
This is where the Vagus nerve becomes very important.
The Vagus nerve controls many of the physiological symptoms of trauma. If you feel triggered and your heart starts racing, your blood pressure goes up, you start sweating uncontrollably, you feel anxious, or you start breathing heavily these reactions are all happening through your vagus nerve.
Healing trauma in the body means helping your nervous system regulate these types of reactions.
One way to help this healing occur is through a type of trauma therapy known as Somatic Therapy. The word somatic refers to your body. Basically it’s therapy that focuses on helping your body heal from your trauma.
But we’re not done yet. The third vital part of healing from your trauma is healing your emotions.
Healing from emotional trauma
Trauma can have a big impact on your emotions. Experiencing difficult emotions is one of the reasons many people seek out help from a trauma therapist.
When you experience something traumatic it can overwhelm your emotions. When your emotions are flooded they’ll do what’s necessary to help you survive in that situation.
Some of the common emotional problems that can follow a traumatic event include things such as panic attacks, severe depression, rage or anger problems, and heightened anxiety.
Healing from emotional trauma requires:
- Feeling safe
- Emotional support
- Slowing down
- Time to process
1) Healing from emotional trauma requires the feeling of safety. Trauma often occurs because you didn’t have the ability to feel safe in a difficult situation.
This feeling of safety is especially important if you’re seeking professional help such as trauma therapy. It’s important that you find a therapist who allows you to feel safe and comfortable in their presence.
2) Recovering from emotional trauma also requires emotional support. Dealing with difficult emotions isn’t easy, and healing will occur when you have things in your life to help you cope with uncomfortable feelings that may come to the surface.
Emotional support can come in many different forms. It can be a friend, partner, or family member that you can reach out to when you’re struggling. It can also be a pet, a comfortable place to spend time alone, or a favorite song you can listen to when you need some support.
3) Dealing with emotional trauma requires you to slow down. When you’re in pain you probably want to make those feelings go away as quickly as possible. But this desire to avoid these feelings is one of the things that will prevent you from healing.
Often times this means learning to sit with your uncomfortable emotions. You have to learn to slow down your emotional responses and practice understanding them.
Your emotions are trying to tell you something if you’re able to slow down long enough to listen.
4) You need time to process through your emotional trauma. There’s no shortcuts to healing from emotional pain.
This part of the process can be difficult because there’s no specific timeline for healing.
The important thing here is learning the difference between processing your trauma, and reliving your trauma.
The goal is not to simply talk about the bad things that happened to you. The goal is to process your feelings so you can integrate these experiences into your life in a new way.
This is where a good trauma therapist can be helpful. Trauma counseling can help you process your emotions in a helpful way, rather then just feeling stuck in the emotional pain.
Trauma therapy can help you heal after trauma
The best way to heal after trauma is to help your body, mind, and emotions heal from the effects of the trauma. Trauma therapy is one way to help you in this healing process if it feels like too much for you to do alone.
It’s important to remember that healing might look different for each person. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to therapy.
There are different things to consider such as the type of trauma you’ve experienced, your personality, and your current mental health that can affect how to approach your therapy.
Traditionally psychotherapy has tended to focus more on healing the mind. This emphasis on your thoughts and behaviors led to what’s known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.
CBT is one of the most widely used and accepted types of counseling today. While healing your mind is an important part of dealing with trauma, it’s not the only important aspect.
Today mental health professionals recognize the importance of healing your body after trauma.
There is a strong connection between the body and mind and this is why the best therapy for trauma is a mind and body approach.
Some of the most effective types of trauma therapy today include:
- EMDR Therapy
- Somatic Therapy
- Internal Family Systems Therapy
EMDR therapy for trauma
EMDR therapy stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and has been rapidly growing as one of the most effective and most popular treatments for trauma.
As a trauma therapist in Denver, Colorado I’ve found EMDR to be one of the most effective ways to help many people who want to recover from trauma or are experiencing the effects of trauma like PTSD, panic attacks or anxiety problems.
EMDR therapy is very effective because it incorporates healing the body, mind, and emotions.
One of the things EMDR is known for is the use of eye movements during treatment. The eye movements are what’s known as bilateral stimulation. Today there are other ways to accomplish this without the use of eye movements such as sounds and vibrations.
Earlier you learned about how the right brain and left brain are often impacted by trauma. Bilateral stimulation is used to help your left brain and right brain process more effectively.
If you’re considering EMDR therapy and want to learn more you can check out this article called How Do I Know If EMDR Therapy Is Right For Me?
Somatic therapy for trauma
Somatic therapy is another important form of healing trauma. In somatic based therapy the emphasis is on healing your body and the physiological effects of trauma.
In traditional therapy you might expect to sit and talk with your therapist about what you’re experiencing. In somatic therapy you may be moving your body, and learning ways to help your body heal from your trauma.
Somatic therapy can be a helpful alternative if you’ve used more traditional forms of psychotherapy and haven’t had the success you would like in healing from your trauma.
Internal Family Systems therapy for trauma
Internal Family Systems also referred to as IFS is a form of therapy that helps you understand the different parts of yourself, sometimes referred to as your sub-personalities. During therapy you learn how these different parts interact within yourself.
This type of therapy can be helpful when you’re dealing with more complex types of trauma such as abuse that occured over a long period of time, or trauma that happened early in life.
IFS was developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz as a way to help you find healing and balance with the different parts of yourself such as your different emotions and parts of your personality.
How to recover from trauma
As you’ve learned the most effective way to recover from trauma is by healing your body, mind, and emotions.
Trauma can impact all of these aspects of your life and focusing on all three will help you make the most progress.
It’s helpful to remind yourself that healing from trauma will require some time and patience. Unfortunately there is no shortcut to healing.
You can begin by reading some books on the topic of healing from trauma. One of the best books on this topic is The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.
Counseling or Therapy is another important resource to consider if you need help recovering from trauma. You can find a therapist directory to help you find a trauma therapist in your area. Some helpful therapist directories are Psychology Today, and Therapy Den.