from Amy Zajakowski Uhll, CCIH Director
Traumatic experiences leave a legacy in our bodies and minds. They have pervasive effects on one’s nervous system, relationships, and sense of self in the world. They disrupt our capacity to experience a sense of safety, integrity and connection.
Since the establishment of the field of psychology there have been those who thought and theorized about the impact of traumatic events. However, advances in brain imaging in the 1990’s radically changed the way we could gather information. We were able to learn, with much greater detail, how certain kinds of events affect our brains. Many interventions and methods have since been developed to incorporate this information.
In addition to learning a great deal about the pervasive effects of trauma, we have also learned that our brains and bodies have a tremendous capacity to heal. A trauma-informed approach can restore balance and flexibility, not only to reduce symptoms, but so that we can have richer lives in the present moment.
One of the most important things we have learned is the importance of involving the body in treatment. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in trauma research and treatment, has said, “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.” (Van Der Kolk, 2014) If you have a history of painful or overwhelming experiences in your body, mindfulness exercises or embodiment practices can feel very scary and anxiety-provoking. A trauma-informed approach supports trauma survivors in entering their body in a gentle, safe and regulated way. This brings the brain structures back into a balance and allows them to move out of survival mode and into thriving mode.
A trauma-informed approach also necessarily includes the importance of working within each individual’s Window of Tolerance. This concept, coined by Daniel Siegel and developed by Pat Ogden, refers to the unique optimal “zone of arousal” that each of us has. Within the window of tolerance, we are able to take in and process information, and our brains are able to sense that we are safe. Any treatment that occurs when a person is outside their Window of Tolerance is at best ineffective and runs the risk of retraumatizing the individual.
There have been several treatment methods that have been developed to integrate this trauma-informed knowledge, including Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. Each of these methods have made significant contributions– but there is no “one size fits all” treatment or technique. A trauma-informed therapist is one who deeply understands the effects of trauma and recognizes that each person is unique and on their own individual healing journey. We are not only made up of the bad things that have happened to us– hence, techniques must be integrated into a way of thinking about and treating the whole person. A trauma-informed approach focuses on the resources and creative strategies that we have developed in order to survive, and builds on them in order to develop more peace and connection in the present moment. This is how we approach treatment here at CCIH.
Research in trauma has also highlighted how essential the therapeutic relationship is in any healing journey. The events of the past can get “stuck in time” in our memory. We cannot change what happened in our past; however, when we re-experience that pain in the presence of a present, attuned person, it is forever changed.
Trauma also has a devastating impact on our society, from police violence in our city, to the impact of war, to the effects of abuse and violence on children. We cannot deny that abuses of power lead to much human suffering. Sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia wear at the fabric of our connections and lead to harm, isolation, and injustice. Responding to and transforming the effects of trauma and oppression in each of us is essentially a sociopolitical act, changing both ourselves and the world around us.
With all we have learned, we are equipped with the knowledge and resources to support each person as they journey toward recovery and healing, and to change systems and structures so that they can support this healing.