Perspectives on Recovering from Trauma

Trauma is a complex area and the process of recovery is rarely linear.  It often involves progress/regress over an extended period, sometimes a lifetime.  Various experts have studied trauma and its impacts from multiple perspectives, drawing on research, clinical practice and reflection on their personal experience.  They have adopted different approaches to facilitating recovery from trauma, recognising that the experience of a traumatic event and its subsequent impacts vary from individual to individual.  Health Means bring many of these conceptual and practical perspectives together in their Biology of Trauma 2.0 Summit.

Recovering from trauma and its impacts

There can be differential impacts for people witnessing the same traumatising event, such as a mass shooting, sudden death of a close relative or a car accident.  The depth of trauma response, according to Bruce Perry, is influenced by the timing, pattern and intensity of the initiating event as well as the degree of mitigating factors, especially “relational health” – the quality of connectedness and of supportive relationships.  In his view, “connectedness can counterbalance adversity”.  Improving relational health with a therapist as well as supportive others is a key element in recovering from trauma.  Dr. Elena Villanueva provides a pathway to relational health by offering a group-based recovery process, incorporating facilitation by health experts and a personal care plan.  Her holistic process is offered in the form of a Mind/Body/Energy Program.  Bruce Perry is a co-author with Oprah Winfrey of the book, What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing

Bessel van der Kolk places considerable emphasis on the “visceral impact” of trauma – the generation of deep inner feelings.  He argues that recovery processes should focus on the “emotional brain”, rather than the “rational brain’.  He maintains that the mind-body influence is bi-directional and that a person can  experience “visceral overload” when exposed to a traumatic event.  He suggests employing healing modalities that recognise the mind-body-emotion connection, such as movement (e.g., Tai Chi), singing or chanting, and a wide range of mindfulness practices.  Bessel is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: brain and body in the transformation of trauma.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz draws on neuropsychotherapy when treating traumatised people.  This integrated mind-body approach incorporates psychotherapy practices along with neuroscience findings. She contends that it is possible to develop resilience through trauma recovery.  Her approach is multi-modal, incorporating practices as diverse as exploration of family history, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic therapy and mindfulness.  Relationship building, positive psychology, reflection, reprocessing and resilience development are integral to her approach.  Arielle is the author of The Post-Traumatic Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.

Gabor Maté agrees with the approach of exploring what happened to a traumatised person, rather than trying to find out “what’s wrong with them”.  He also adopts a non-judgmental approach to addiction, asserting that many people who suffer from addiction have experienced trauma in their life.  In line with this thinking, he adopts and teaches an approach he calls “compassionate inquiry” which among other things helps a person to discover their “negative self-messaging” resulting from the experience of trauma.  He aims to help the traumatised person to confront and name the underlying pain resulting from an identified trauma.  He also employs a holistic approach incorporating “body-work”, mindfulness, connection with nature and self-care approaches such as proper nutrition and stress management.  Gabor is the author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

David Treleaven, creator of the Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness Podcast, discusses the importance of understanding the window of tolerance when working with people who have experienced trauma.  The window of tolerance is the level of arousal that an individual can tolerate in a productive way – they are able to share, process, and receive information when they are within this personally tolerable zone.   Trauma, such as that suffered by some people during the pandemic, reduces the window of tolerance.  David stresses the need to offer people who have been traumatised a choice of meditation anchors to avoid unconsciously triggering a trauma response.  He is also acutely aware of the need to ensure that mindfulness practices are accessible for people with disabilities, especially physical disabilities. David is the author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing.

There is widespread recognition that various forms of mindfulness can assist in trauma recovery.  However, researchers and clinical  practitioners such as Sam Himelstein, who has dedicated many years to working with traumatised teenagers, highlight the need to tread cautiously and sensitively when dealing with people who have experienced trauma.  Sam offers insightful principles and guidelines for trauma-informed mindfulness.  He found too that in some situations a conventional approach to mindfulness would not work as it would take a traumatised teenager outside their window of tolerance.  He found, for example, that listening to music together built a connection and a trusting relationship so that the impacted teenager felt free to begin sharing both their trauma experience and what was happening for them.  Sam is the author of Trauma-Informed Mindfulness with Teens: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals.

Reflection

Recovery from trauma frequently involves some form of somatic therapy such as somatic meditation, resting in your body or resting in your breath.  This is often supplemented by other therapies that address the visceral impact of trauma, negative self-thoughts, supportive relationships and the flow of energy in the body.  Overall, the complexity of trauma suggests the need for a holistic approach, as adopted by most of the practitioners discussed in this post.  Health practitioners are becoming increasingly creative as they develop a deepened understanding of trauma and its impacts.

Underpinning many of the approaches discussed is mindfulness practice in one form or another.  It is acknowledged that as we grow in mindfulness, we can identify our own traumas and their impacts, strengthen our connectedness and relationships, build resilience and adopt a positive mindset.  Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor and author of The Choice: A True Story of Hope, encourages us to explore our “inner landscape” and move from a victim mindset to true freedom.

Sounds True offers a Healing Trauma Program conducted by 13 of the world’s top trauma recovery experts including Gabor Maté, Jeffrey Rutstein, Peter Levine and Arielle Schwartz. The program offers practices, skills and tools that have proven effectiveness. The time frame for the program allows you to lean new behaviours and put them into practice, as well as offering Q & A sessions to explore what worked for you and any blockages to your progress.

Sounds True also offers a shorter 8 week course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, conducted by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD – therapist, consultant, trainer and author of The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Developing Resilience through Trauma Recovery

Dr. Arielle Schwartz as the first presenter of the Rise Summit: Transforming Trauma demonstrated her wealth of experience as a clinical psychologist and deep insight into trauma recovery.  She openly shared her own early experience of traumatic events that left her dissociated and disconnected.  At the same time, Arielle provided hope for recovery as she addressed her chosen topic, Trauma and Resilience.  She drew on her clinical and consulting experiences through the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy where she provides an “integrated mind-body approach to trauma recovery”, informed by research on resilience.  Arielle’s presentation was so rich that you felt the need to listen to it again to glean more of the insights she offers from her personal and professional experience. 

Developing resilience: an integrated approach to trauma recovery

In an interview for New Snow Enterprises, Arielle explains that resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of trauma” or any adverse life events.  She also highlighted the fact that her strengths-based approach to therapy draws on, and reinforces, the research on post-traumatic growth which demonstrates that people who recover from trauma can become more of themselves, growing in confidence and capability – the opposite of the immediate effects of experiencing trauma. 

In her eclectic approach, Arielle draws on neuropsychotherapy which combines the concepts and practices of psychotherapy with the insights from neuroscience.  Not only does it acknowledge the mind-body connection but the relationship of this connection to environment, well-being and social interaction.  In a very real sense, it adopts a holistic approach to therapy.

This holistic approach is encapsulated in Arielle’s multi-faceted process of facilitating trauma recovery which includes:

  • Exploring family history: this involves identifying adverse childhood experiences, the passing on of intergenerational trauma and the resources and strengths gained through family interactions.  Arielle contends that identifying these elements of the “family legacy” underpins resilience.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – Arielle is a qualified practitioner in the use of this therapy and provides a case study on her website to illustrate successful use of this approach in the case of a person traumatised by date rape. The approach involves lateral eye movement that engages both sides of the brain in reprocessing a traumatic event and identifying the links to present-day reactions to triggering events.  The process requires skilful manipulation of re-exposure to traumatic events in short bursts that enable the traumatised person to manage their emotions. It also builds associations with positive adaptive techniques that the individual uses to manage stressors in daily life.  The net result is to reduce the impact of triggers, widen the window of tolerance, and build emotional resilience.
  • Somatic psychology – exploring the mind, body and behaviour through body awareness (in contrast to thinking-focused “talk therapies”).  Arielle provides a detailed description of somatic therapy that she employs in helping her clients recover from trauma.  She explains among other things how somatic therapy enables grounding, builds awareness of bodily sensations, helps to establish boundaries and to engage the innate calming and healing capacities of the body, especially through breath control.  She explains that the process of oscillating between feeling distress in the body and feeling calmness and safety is in line with somatic experiencing developed by Peter Levine.
  • Mind-body therapies – these include mindfulness practices and therapeutic yoga.  Arielle details a process she describes as Mind-Body Therapies for Vagal Nerves Disorders and explains how the vagal nerve impacts our sleep, digestion and level of calmness in our body.  She contends that these mind-body therapies can reduce inflammation and other physical illnesses and help with a range of disorders including depression and anxiety.  Arielle explains too that these therapies can involve a range of mindfulness practices incorporating movement (such as yoga and Tai Chi) as well as those involving stillness (such as relaxation and seated meditation).  In her website explanation of mind-body therapies, she offers a 4-part mindfulness practice designed to “recover from vagus nerve disorders”.  Arielle also provides a free e-book, Embodiment Strategies for Trauma Recovery, Emotional Health, and Physical Vitality, to anyone who subscribes to her email newsletters. This yogic approach to enhancing wellness is also available as a bonus gift for people participating in the Rise Summit: Transforming Traumathrough the upgrade option.

The six Rs of neuropsychotherapy

During her presentation, Arielle described the 6 Rs of neuropsychotherapy embodied in her integrated approach to trauma recovery:

  • Relationship – drawing on the concept of our being “wired for connection”, she reinforces the power of relationships in healing, including different forms of social support such as a therapist.
  • Resourcing – revisiting positive states (such as calmness and sense of safety) and savouring moments of positivity, satisfaction and happiness.
  • Repatterning – this involves establishing new patterns of movement so that established patterns (such as freezing in the face of perceived threat, e.g. someone touching you) are replaced by constructive responses, rather than triggered debilitating responses.
  • Reprocessing – especially through the EMDR process described above. Arielle reinforces the power of this gentle, managed reprocessing of trauma as a way to train memory and build resilience in the face of triggers.
  • Reflection – enables meaning making in relation to past events and habituated reactions to sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste or catalysing events. Mindfulness practices often involve reflection designed to facilitate this meaning making and emotional regulation.
  • Resilience – developing a sense of freedom, understanding personal stimuli and behavioural response patterns, becoming more integrated and coherent and broadening adaptive capacities.

The six pillars of resilience

On her website, Arielle lists the six pillars of resilience that she has drawn from research:

  • Growth Mindset
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Community Connections
  • Self-Expression
  • Embodiment
  • Choice and Control

 She suggests that we can develop these by undertaking practices that “support you physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually.” In the discussion with the Rise Summit creator and host, Nunaisi Ma, they identified practices to achieve this goal of self-support such as Tai Chi, yoga, singing (a favourite activity of Arielle), walking, meditation, mantra meditation, tapping, breathing exercises, body scan, touching (including self-touch), massage, dance and sighing.  Nunaisi elaborates on embodied healing practices in her book, Rise: Transform Trauma into Sovereign Power, Soulful Purpose, and Sacred Purpose.

Reflection

Arielle contends that one of the main barriers to post-trauma growth is fear of the discomfort of dealing with the reality of the pain and suffering resulting from the experience of trauma. Often people attempt to numb the pain through emotional eating or addiction to drugs or alcohol.  Forced solutions do not work because they take away agency (sense of control) from the individual involved.  Arielle’s approach is consistent with the core tenet expressed by the GROW podcast series that “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone”.

Her multi-model approach also aligns with the approach adopted by trauma recovery expert, Bessel van der Kolk, who is the author of The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma.   Bessel too encourages the use of controlled breathing, movement modalities, mindfulness practices, singing and chanting.

Arielle offers numerous resources through her blog and through her book, The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook : Practical Mind-Body Tools to Heal Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken Your Potential.  

As we grow in mindfulness through somatic meditation, mantra meditations, Tai Chi or Yoga, we can gain the courage and energy to seek the necessary support for post-trauma recovery.  Sometimes, this may only involve building social relationships with people who provide “unconditional positive regard”; at other times, therapy may be needed to supplement these relationships.   

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Image by Stephanie Ghesquier from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.