There are a number of fears and misconceptions surrounding trauma therapy. When someone has already been through so much, why struggle more? In short, because trauma therapy heals.
Here are five common concerns voiced by trauma survivors along with insights from Alyssa Stines, a primary therapist and trauma specialist at The Ranch treatment center in Tennessee:
#1 Reliving the Trauma
The number-one fear for trauma survivors is that they will have to re-live what happened to them. The prospect of remembering and talking about their experiences can be a major obstacle to treatment.
As Stines explains, “Trauma therapy isn’t about re-experiencing the trauma but creating a new experience of what happened. These individuals have already lived through the worst and made it through. Nothing can be worse than what they’ve already endured.”
Through talk therapy, body-centered therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Somatic Experiencing, and other approaches, trauma survivors can have a new experience of their trauma – one that is free from survival terror and the stress hormones that the body releases both in the midst of a traumatic experience and when recalling it through flashbacks, Stines explains. Individuals may re-feel some of the emotions or re-process the experience, but they don’t have to re-live it.
#2 Managing the Pain
Over the course of treatment, strong emotions arise that trauma survivors fear they won’t be able to handle. In response to intense fear, anger or sadness, they believe they might fall apart, go crazy or even die from the emotional pain.
“In my experience, people don’t die from emotion; they die from not experiencing their emotions,” says Stines. “It’s their defense mechanisms that tell them feeling is too scary, but the more they avoid it, the more they allow the trauma to define who they are. Through therapy, trauma becomes part of their story instead of their entire story.”
#3 Sharing with Others
Trust, openness and sharing with others are fundamental to the recovery process, but they can be intimidating for trauma survivors. Often referred to as “terminal uniqueness,” many survivors feel that no one can understand what they’ve been through or the way they feel, Stines explains. They are reluctant to share their stories because they wonder, “What will others think of me?”
Treatment is a safe, confidential place to connect with other people who have similar experiences. In group, people find fellowship and support, which helps them feel comfortable sharing things they may never have been able to tell anyone. Working with a therapist who specializes in trauma helps people decide what they’re ready to share and receive guidance and support throughout the process.
“Although every story is different, the feelings underneath are the same,” says Stines. “When clients discover that others can relate on many levels, the terminal uniqueness begins to fade, making room for healing.”
#4 Running from the Authentic Self
A primary goal of trauma therapy is to help clients discover their authentic self, says Stines. For trauma survivors, this pursuit of self can spark a deep-rooted fear: “What if I don’t like who I find on the other side?” Even if their current way of functioning is uncomfortable, it’s familiar and predictable whereas learning new things about themselves propels them into the unknown.
“It is only when people connect with their authentic self that they realize they can happen to the world rather than the world happening to them,” says Stines. “Seeing them take their power back and actually like who they are empowers them as well as everyone around them.”
#5 Being Irrevocably Broken
A damaging story trauma survivors sometimes tell themselves is that once something terrible happens, that’s it. They can’t change the past nor can they bounce back from it. They’re irrevocably broken.
As Stines explains, the reality is, “The past cannot be changed, but we can change what we take from it. Everyone has it within them to heal. That capacity doesn’t come from something external, but rather being guided to the internal resources that allow us to heal.”