What Kind of Therapy Works for Trauma?
Trauma is any experience that overwhelms a person’s capacity to self-regulate, disrupting the way that the memory is stored in the body, and thus causing a traumatized person to feel that they are still unsafe long after the danger has passed. The body is constantly gearing up to fight or run away from a danger that no longer exists because it still believes that danger is around the corner. Maybe you avoid the part of town in which you were mugged. Maybe you’re afraid of going for a brisk walk because the adrenalin that is released feels like the last time you had a panic attack. Maybe your partner’s voice getting louder feels like when your ex used to scream at you for hours and so now you shut down every time their voice starts to feel strained.
At some point, however you have been managing to cope is no longer working for you and you seek help from a professional psychotherapist. But what should you look for? You know rationally that you’re safe, but in the moment you react as if you were still in the past. Because trauma, by definition, disrupts the way memory is stored in the brain and body, effective trauma therapy engages both the rational and emotional sides of the brain, integrating what we know with how we feel. There are several modalities that have been proven effective in treating trauma and integrating these two very important parts of the brain.
One such approach is EMDR- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a fairly new but highly researched and effective modality for treating trauma. The therapist guides the client through a process of activating both hemispheres of the brain using bilateral stimulation (alternating eye movements, tapping on the knees, or vibrations to the hands, for example) while processing traumatic content and releasing emotional material “stuck” in the nervous system. To find out more about EMDR, you can visit the EMDRIA website, or if you think that you might benefit from EMDR for abuse or other trauma, feel free to reach out to me.
Another evidence-based modality that works to integrate body and mind is Internal Family Systems, or IFS. As a therapist who uses IFS, I see myself and my clients through the lens of having many different aspects to our personalities. Most of us don’t have much control over these parts of our personalities and often just react without thinking to our experiences. Sometimes these reactions work for us and sometimes they don’t. Fighting or running away from an intimate partner who isn’t actually dangerous may not be working for you anymore. My role as a therapist using IFS is to help you develop a relationship with these parts of yourself so together we can find out why they do what they do, and heal any pain or vulnerability that might be fueling the internal reactions you’ve grown so accustomed to. Once these parts are healed, you will have more choices on how you want to respond and won’t be as reactive.
Ultimately, you’re going to need to feel that the therapy you’re committing to is the right fit for you. I am happy to consult with anyone who feels as though they are struggling now with feeling unsafe from what happened to them in the past. No matter what happened to you, because trauma stays in the body, even if we know we are safe, there’s no convincing the body to drop its armor until it genuinely has healed from its traumatic wounds.
Maryam Sajed, LCSW, works in private practice as a therapist in Manhattan, NY. To reach her or find out more information about trauma therapy, you can email MaryamSajedLCSW@gmail.com, call or text 646-926-3406, or explore her website: MaryamSajedLCSW.com.