Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Early on in my career, I realized that helping my trauma therapy clients process their emotions and memories, and to heal from trauma would require more than just "talking about it". I had a deep desire to help my clients but I felt unprepared. I would see my clients completely shut down, experience panic attacks, or have full-body freeze responses when trying to verbally process their traumatic memories. As one of my clients with a significant history of childhood sexual abuse put it: How do you talk about something that you are just trying to forget?
I remember thinking that this is NOT something I had learned how to address in therapist school. During my practicum training and my 3,000-hour residency post-graduation, I was fortunate to train under brilliant professionals (a trauma Therapist, a Developmental Psychologist, and a Psychiatrist) who taught me a lot about trauma, each through the lens of their own disciplines (more to come on that in a future blog). One thing they could agree on and taught me was just how much trauma lives in the body, and not just the mind.
As a long-time yoga practitioner, I understood very well how our bodies store emotions, and how to tap into the deep connection between mind and body. I knew this from my own experiences in my early 20s with panic attacks. I knew the calming and grounding effects of my yoga practice, so I often recommended that my clients attend yoga classes because this would make processing traumatic events more tolerable in session, by helping to decrease symptoms and restore a calmer state in the nervous system. But they rarely did. They rarely went to yoga class.
But I knew that they trusted me, and if only I could find a better way to explain to them just how much yoga would help them, I knew they would buy in. This is when I started dedicating every free moment to learning about the nervous system and how it is affected by psychological processes, how to integrate mind-body approaches in psychotherapy, to help down-regulate the nervous system and help my clients feel safer and calmer. I read every book, research article, and attended every training I could, including my Yoga Teacher certification and training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (and 8 years later, I am still learning). I then started to build up my toolbox as a trauma therapist.
Research shows that when we use techniques to calm the physiological and emotional reactions that make it hard to live with those difficult memories - like heart racing, lump in the throat, shaking, and emotional shutdown - we then begin to peel back the layers that people who experience trauma put in place in order to protect themselves. But in the real world (i.e. the therapy room), everyone is different, and so is their healing process. This is why it is important to for me to start where the client is. That means taking the time to build a trusting relationship, create a safe space where my clients can share their story at their own pace, and build a baseline for coping with strong emotions as they arise during treatment. If that means not even talking at all, that's ok. I've sat with my clients for almost entire sessions in silence, just holding a safe space for them to build their ability to talk about it. Early on, I often teach my clients breathing techniques, mindfulness techniques, visualizations, and journaling techniques that help them build that baseline before we begin reprocessing traumatic experiences. They learn effective ways to regulate their own bodies and reactions, building their confidence and ability to tolerate distressing emotions.
The techniques I have learned and implemented in the therapy room over the years have been shown through a significant body of research to be effective. Some randomized control trials even show that practicing yoga and mindfulness-based meditation is as effective as using medication. The most important part for me, however, is to make sure that my clients know they are not alone, that I believe them, and that they have done nothing wrong or to deserve the abuse or trauma they have endured. I want them to know that there is a way to talk about, process, and heal from something they are trying to forget. And that even though they will never forget, they can have a beautiful and healthy life. So if you have experienced a traumatic event, remember that you do not have to do this alone and that it CAN get better. Reach out to a trusted and loved one for support and start climbing that mountain. I believe in you.
Priscila Norris, MS, LCSW, RYT
Integrative Psychotherapist, Yoga Teacher.