Teresa said she intended to give an insight into the nature of trauma, its sensory element and the impact on both clients and therapists together with increased understanding into the vital importance of our own self-care.
’Trauma can be defined as a situation faced by an individual that is unusual and often unexpected. One which causes them to experience unusually strong physical, psychological or emotional reactions and increased levels of distress and disturbance. An event becomes traumatic because it overwhelms the brain’s capacity to cope.’
As the traumatic event occurs, the body goes into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ with no time to process what is happening. Sight, sound or smell can trigger our inner ‘alarm bells’ with adrenaline rushing through our bodies creating a state of Red Alert. Our muscles need all the energy available to ‘flee or fight’ and so cognitive processes shut down and we can no longer think clearly. It is vital to remember that it is the abnormal event in our normal world which causes people to react or respond the way they do.
Our ‘survival mode’ reactions reside in the Limbic system of the brain which in trauma takes over from the Prefrontal Cortex where our normal thinking, learning and rational brain functions exist. The Amygdala, a key part of the Limbic system, stores the visual images of trauma as sensory fragments or imprints. Trauma memory is not like a story but collection of how our five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste and touch) were experiencing the trauma at the time it was occurring.
Normally we respond to events with thought, reason, time to think, to learn or explore. People who are traumatised react through how they feel at that moment and not how they think. They experience the symptoms as a feeling memory or a feeling flashback. Non-verbal areas of the brain become highly activated and reasoning and verbal abilities become inhibited or even shut down. The brain stays in a ‘hypervigilant’ state which can be damaging to the body if it continues over an extended period. There is evidence continuous trauma can change the brain and the way current reality is experienced – people become stuck in the past and the present is not fully lived. Some of delegates attending generously shared their own experiences with such issues.
A photograph was shared illustrating what this might feel like. A rider on horseback with the rider facing the wrong way showed the horse moving forward as normal, but the rider is no longer in control because they are concentrating on what has or is happening in the past and, therefore, is completely missing the present moment.
Teresa stressed that counselling is not appropriate at the point of trauma. She reminded us though that experienced therapists are trained listeners skilled at grounding clients and themselves and it is this that can help some-one who is experiencing trauma in that moment to feel heard and understood, to breathe and then to find a ‘safe space, in which to feel less un-grounded or quite so vulnerable. She also gave a brief demonstration of part of the EMDR process which was found to be useful by those who participated. Teresa stressed EMDR is not for every situation, but when used appropriately with the correct training clients confirmed to her just how beneficial it can be.
Teresa explained that therapists must be aware of their own needs in order to prevent them experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma through being exposed to the details of the trauma event. Therapists would need to work with the client’s symptoms in the present moment remembering that the trauma event is not theirs to hold.
Remaining grounded is key with Teresa emphasising how important it is for us to be aware of our own bodies and their messages for us. She explained we must try not to place ourselves in the client’s story as this might cause us to also become a victim of it, or at least, a witness to it. Stay slightly stepped back, in order to be there for the client ensuring they are heard and encouraged to be grounded too. ‘How our faces are the arranged effect of how our bodies feel’ and whilst expressing empathy is vital being consumed by the client’s emotional state is not. ‘To be able to care about some-one, but not care with some-one, is the core of our work together’. We can then safely work with clients’ reactions and needs in the ‘here and now’ without compromising our wellbeing in the process. We cannot help the client if we ourselves are in the mix of the trauma event.
Calmness in the brain requires the body to be well regulated, soothed and safe. Here are some suggestions for self-care which support this: Eating regularly; good sleeping patterns; limited alcohol/caffeine intake; focusing on the messages from the five senses; breathing exercises, walking, yoga, Mindfulness or meditation. In a client session, in particular, a therapist needs to be mindful of their own body. Are they seated correctly and does their spine and/or bottom feel safely supported in the chair; does their room (environment) feel safe? If the therapist feels safe and grounded it will be so much easier for them to check with the client how or where they might locate their ‘safe space’, be it internal or external. Babette Rothschild highlighted the importance of feeling safe in trauma work.
Calming and self-soothing time for ourselves is a necessity, not a luxury. Teresa made it clear that learning these strategies ourselves and sharing them with our clients means we can all come from a place where we think more clearly, live in the present, make measured decisions and not just respond or react to perceived threats, fears or stress.
Teresa ended the day with a journey of the senses where we each explored these with objects to touch, smell, see or hear (taste had to be provided by our own snacks). Some senses triggered memories of people, of past events, of things we loved to play with, to touch or to smell. She had kindly brought a number of small glass or crystal ‘balls’ and we were allowed to take home the one we were each drawn to. It was definitely a beneficial self-soothing exercise as it triggered fond memories, creativity and a sense of creative play and calmness in everyone.
Thank you Teresa for such a sensory and learning enhancing day.