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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

On Trauma

A very general definition of trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing event in which survival, whether physical, emotional or mental, becomes the primary, over-riding concern. A traumatic event may be very personal and specific, like rape, domestic violence, the death of a child, or accident, or more global in scale, like a natural disaster or terrorist attack. In the aftermath of a trauma, people typically progress through a series of stages that according to Judith Herman’s Tri-Phasic Model of Trauma Recovery include (1) Safety and Stabilization (2) Remembrance and Mourning and (3) Reconnection. The degree to which a person can successfully navigate through each of these stages determines whether they will return to normal functioning or alternatively become “stuck” and develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is essentially a failure to complete the trauma recovery cycle. Typically about 20% of people exposed to a traumatic event go on to develop PTSD.

  1. Safety and Stabilization: the central task of recovery is re-establishing a sense of safety. This may involve helping the traumatized individual find a safer living environment, as in the case of domestic violence, or to mobilize resources to provide companionship, meals, rides to therapy or doctor’s appointments and meet the immediate needs of the situation. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, the person may be in shock and seem subdued rather than visibly upset. Sometimes a person cycles through a variety of rapidly changing emotional states, including distress, anger, fear, or even euphoria. The adrenalin produced by the body during the event may cause a person to shake or pace restlessly and be unable to relax or settle even though they may feel exhausted by the ordeal. The individual should not be pushed to speak about the details of what happened unless they choose to do so freely. Time off work or away from usual responsibilities (parenting, care-giving) is helpful at this stage.

  2. Remembrance and Mourning: the person begins to reconstruct the trauma story in more detail. Because of the nature of traumatic memories, this process is rarely linear; rather, bits and pieces of the story emerge and begin to fill in the missing parts of the puzzle. The traumatized individual may wrestle with questions about how or why this event happened to them, and may express shame or guilt over any responsibility they feel for the incident or how they are dealing with it. If a person has been dissociative in the first phase, their emotions may be quite volatile and labile in this phase of recovery. A safe space must be created for the victim to speak and emote freely without fear of being judged, condemned or rejected. Being able to grieve any losses, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual, incurred by the event is essential to successfully navigate through this phase of recovery.

  3. Reconnection: If the victim has been able to achieve safety and stabilization and move through remembrance and grieving well, he or she is now able to work on redefining the self in the context of meaningful relationships. Separating the event from their identity allows people to see the potential “benefits” the trauma has bestowed in terms of greater maturity, resilience, compassion towards self and others or a renewed commitment to living a purposeful, meaningful life.

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy protocol that has been heavily researched and shown to be effective in treating trauma. EMDR helps to unlock traumatic memories that have been frozen in their original state and are causing someone to suffer symptoms of PTSD including anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, disordered eating, gastric distress and other issues. Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is another therapy protocol shown to be helpful in processing trauma and its after effects. I am certified in both therapy modalities and would be happy to talk with clients further about the potential benefits or engaging in these types of therapy. EMDR can be combined with equine therapy for even more powerful results!

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