Living through traumatic events can impact your mental health for years if left untreated. Trauma is generally defined as exposure to intensely emotional or catastrophic events and can linger far beyond the experience itself. It causes us to react to normal situations in extreme ways or perceive threats where none exist, leaving our minds and bodies on high alert long after the danger has passed. Fortunately, recovery is possible with trauma-informed therapy, which works to treat the root cause without risking retraumatization.
Prevalence of Trauma
Traumatic events are more pervasive than you might believe. Research from the National Institute of Health and academic journals show that:
- 25% of children will experience a traumatic life event before the age of 16
- 61% of men and 51% of women have experienced at least one traumatic event
- 8% of adults will meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime
- Women are over 2x as likely to experience PTSD
Some people may never require special care or meet psychiatric criteria for trauma disorders, but trauma is by no means a rare event.
Symptoms of Trauma
After experiencing trauma, symptoms revolving around the traumatic event can linger. Initially, survivors can feel exhaustion, numbness, anger, or even dissociation. They may find themselves unable to regulate their emotions and symptoms can arrive unexpectedly. After the acute symptoms subside, two emotional extremes emerge: people feel overwhelmed by their emotions or begin to feel themselves grow numb and not feel much at all. Ultimately, this leads to a loss of hope for the future or self-medication in the form of substance use.
This isn’t a sign of mental illness or personal weakness. It is a survival mechanism to protect yourself against further dangers. Unfortunately, the response which was meant to shield us often stands in the way of our growth.
Trauma and Addiction
Individuals with substance use disorder are statistically more likely to experience trauma while under the influence. Leading minds in the addiction field believe that trauma is often the true root of addiction, as proposed by Dr. Gabor Maté in his book The Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Substance use and trauma often intertwine into a terrible destructive spiral, where drugs or alcohol are used as a coping mechanism to cope with the effects of traumatic events, leading someone further into their addiction and more susceptible to further trauma.
Principles of Trauma-Informed Therapy
First and foremost, trauma-informed therapy recognizes the strength and resiliency of anyone seeking help to overcome their struggles. By the time somebody has reached out for help, they’ve already made incredible strides – they have survived, persevered, and sought help despite extreme circumstances. Building on that inherent resiliency is the core of trauma-informed therapy.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes three essential elements for trauma-informed care:
- Realizing Trauma: Trauma-informed care realizes the prevalence and pervasiveness of trauma
- Recognizing Trauma’s Effects: A trauma-informed therapist recognizes how trauma affects not just their clients, but themselves and their organization
- Responding to Trauma: Trauma-informed therapy puts this knowledge into practice, addressing both the symptoms and causes of trauma
Realizing, recognizing, and responding to trauma leaves a therapist better equipped to serve their clients, and ensures their own traumas don’t interfere with care.
How It Works
Trauma-informed therapy is more than just a treatment style. It’s an attitude and belief system held by the therapist which can enhance the efficacy of other treatments, such as addiction counseling or dialectical behavior therapy, without the client needing to fear retraumatization or triggering episodes disrupting the healing process.
In this therapy approach, trauma-related symptoms are seen as an individual’s best attempts to deal with their situation. They are a normal response to abnormal situations. Some people can cope with trauma better than others, but often strategies that worked in the past no longer serve their function. Trauma-informed therapists work to:
- Foster resilience
- Build strengths
- Collaborate with clients
- Teach coping mechanisms
- Manage the symptoms of trauma when they occur
At its most fundamental level, trauma-informed care works to help clients transition from feelings of victimhood to survivorship.
A New Way of Healing
Older models for treating trauma meant addressing the trauma directly, forcing people to relive the terrible events. But research into trauma disorders has shown that trauma doesn’t need to be discussed in the open for healing to happen. Some people, after building a strong and trusting relationship with their therapist, may benefit from fully integrating their trauma by processing it directly in session – but people who elect not to fare just as well psychologically as those who do.
At the same time, trauma cannot be ignored. The pervasive effects of trauma affect us whether we want to acknowledge them or not. Trauma-informed therapy isn’t about tiptoeing around trauma, it’s about meeting clients where they’re at in a safe and collaborative treatment partnership.
Recovery Is Possible
We can never be rid of the terrible things that have happened to us in the past, but we can learn to change our relationship with our trauma. Painful experiences are a part of life. But with specialized care, you can stop trauma from dominating your thoughts and standing in the way of your ability to flourish.
The path to recovery from trauma is through empowerment, collaboration, and understanding. Trauma-informed therapy creates a safe space that allows you to heal, invites you into a treatment partnership with care providers, and facilitates growth just when it seems out of reach. Nobody should have to feel hopeless because of past events, and with trauma-informed care, you don’t have to.
We’ve taken trauma-informed therapy further than just the counseling room. We’ve incorporated the principles of trauma-informed care throughout our entire organization so that from the moment you call to the day you leave, you can be sure that you’ve been treated with compassion and respect.
We believe that together, we can discover solutions that have a meaningful impact on the rest of your life. When you or a loved one are ready to start your path to recovery, contact our team to learn more about how we create whole-body wellness and holistic health at Annandale Behavioral Health in Pasadena, California.