To me, the counseling space is sacred. It is a place where I have seen individuals share pieces of their life stories that have never been told. I have seen people demonstrate immense courage as they face their greatest fears and confront memories that terrify them to the core. I have seen people say they no longer want to carry the burden of their trauma alone and recognize that they deserve the support they long for.
Asking for support and embarking on recovery from trauma is challenging because trauma is inherently distressing. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes trauma as an “event, series of events, or circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” A few things I want to point out here. For one, trauma’s very definition includes immense distress (one a person understandably might not want to relive). Two, that trauma often has lasting adverse effects on a survivor’s well-being.
The effects of trauma are often not something that time alone can ameliorate. A person does not always just “get over it.” Recovering from trauma is a process in which a survivor must be willing to give their brain permission to process what they experienced, and in doing this, they may find that they encounter intense emotions, cognitions, and physiological responses. This is a challenging, albeit powerful, process.
Discussing trauma can be terrifying. There are many fears that may come along. Will I be believed? What happens if I “open that can of worms”? Will I be able to cope? As previously mentioned, trauma is inherently distressing to the brain. In fact, when someone experiences a traumatic event (or events), changes occur in the brain that often are lasting as well. One of the responses to trauma that occur in the brain is activation of the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is involved with our flight-or-fight response. It alerts us to danger. Additionally, this part of the brain is involved with tying emotional meaning to our memories.
It is no surprise then that a change in the brain that occurs in response to trauma is increased amygdala activation (Hughes & Chin, 2011). A trauma survivor may experience an increased fear response to regular stimuli, but research finds a consistent link between overactivity of the amygdala when a survivor encounters stimuli related to the trauma that they faced (Ressler, 2010). For many survivors, sharing their trauma story can feel as if they are living the trauma all over again. It is understandable, then, why many survivors are apprehensive about discussing their traumatic experience.
In my work, several clients have disclosed that before speaking with me, they have never told anyone about the trauma they endured. These traumatic experiences may have been trauma experienced in a war, childhood abuse, rape, experiences of sexual exploitation, interpersonal violence, emotional abuse, or other experiences. Regardless of the type of trauma experienced, discussing the trauma was challenging, painful, and terrifying for my clients.
For some of them, the traumatic experience(s) may have occurred only a few years before meeting me, others 10 years, some 20 years, and for others it had been 50-plus years. Yet, they were there with me, sharing their story. Demonstrating such bravery and courage as they processed, shared, grieved, and confronted. Although the consequences of trauma are lasting, the powerful thing is that it is never too late to begin recovery. It is true that the longer trauma goes unaddressed (especially for children) the more challenging recovery may be, but it is never too late for someone to begin.
There is a metaphor that I often use in counseling related to recovery. This metaphor comes from the popular children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. In the story, a family goes on a bear hunt and faces many hurdles as they try to catch a bear. As they face the hurdles, the family questions if they can go around them or over them (trying to avoid them altogether), only to realize that it is impossible and they must face their hurdles.
Imagine that you face a swamp and just beyond that swamp you see where it is you want to go. You look to see if you can go around the swamp, but it is miles wide and impossible to avoid. You look to see if you can go over it or under it, but that too is impossible. You get to a place where you realize that the only thing you can do is go through it to get where you want to go. The swamp is muddy, intimidating, and it will be a challenge to go through it, but getting to the other side will be worth the mess.
It is the same with recovery. In the words of Rosen and Oxenbury, “we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it, we have to go through it." Whether it has been five years, 20, or even 70, it is never too late to face your swamp.
Hughes KC, Shin LM. Functional neuroimaging studies of post-traumatic stress disorder. Expert Rev Neurother. 2011;11(2):275–285. doi:10.1586/ern.10.198
Ressler K. J. (2010). Amygdala activity, fear, and anxiety: Modulation by stress. Biological psychiatry, 67(12), 1117–1119. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.04.027
Trauma. (n.d.). Retrieved from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association website:https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/clinical-practice/trauma