Having a history of trauma can lead to challenges in our relationships. Perhaps you have habitually avoided conflict, withdrawn out of fear, felt intolerant of rejection, or pushed people away when they got too close. These defensive strategies can lead to relationships that are consistently argumentative, disconnected and cold, or painfully superficial.
Trauma recovery helps us to build our capacity to handle conflicts with equanimity. Rather than needing to make yourself or another person wrong, you can learn to work through difficulties in a way that deepens your connections with others. It is important to know that you can work through ruptures of connection and create a positive outcome. Ultimately, it is possible to learn to trust that small amounts of disconnection and conflict can actually can lead to deepened sense of trust and love.
“Healthy conflict requires tolerance for difference, disconnection, and discord. Letting someone know that they have hurt your feelings can feel frightening. Taking responsibility for hurting someone you love can evoke shame. It takes wisdom to refine primal reactions into caring, thoughtful responses.”
Humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow introduced self-actualization as the process of fulfilling your potential in the world. It is about becoming who you really are and were always meant to be. This involves the integration of the wounds that may have once been a source of shame or confusion and allows for a coherent sense of yourself. Here, you reclaim a sense of dignity which allows you to walk in the world with the knowledge that you are so much more than your trauma or pain. This opens up the possibility for a deep sense of belonging in the world.
It is possible to grow from adversity. Traumatic life experiences can help you appreciate the precious gift it is to be alive. Perhaps because of your experience feeling so deeply hurt, your pain has become a source of compassion and wisdom. Maybe you have discovered moments of emotional or spiritual significance.
“Self-actualization is associated with a greater capacity to hold polarities and contradictions. You cultivate the wisdom to know that all relationships will have their challenges, that moments of pain are an inevitable part of life, and that opening your heart to love involves the risk of loss.”-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Resilience is defined as an ability to flexibly adapt to challenging, adverse, or traumatic life events. This ability to “bounce back” from traumatic events is deeply connected to having the opportunity to work through difficult life experiences. Importantly, resilience is not just a mindset or a set of behaviors. The human body is equipped with an innate physiological resilience system. This is your autonomic nervous system—the part of your nervous system which helps adapt, respond to stress, and return to homeostasis. Moreover, your parasympathetic nervous system holds keys to your health.
Your autonomic nervous system is built around the balance of two opposing actions and can function without you having to think about it consciously. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response that is the result of the release of cortisol (stress chemicals) throughout the bloodstream. The parasympathetic is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration. For example, your breathing, heart rate, and body temperature are regulated by this system. Ideally, your sympathetic and parasympathetic actions are meant to function in rhythmic alternation, a process that supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical and mental health. Unfortunately, chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic functions.
Individuals with unresolved PTSD can also resort to a primitive and unbalanced expression of the parasympathetic nervous system. Dr. Stephen Porges (2011) has identified that the parasympathetic nervous system has two presentations that depend upon whether you feel safe or feel threatened. This is due to the complexity of the vagus nerve (Read more here). In times of safety, the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates rest, relaxation, and digestion. However; in times of threat, the parasympathetic nervous system has a defensive mode which can lead to symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, or depression. This is especially the case when there was no way to escape traumatic situation.
“The use of mind-body therapies can help you reclaim a sense of safety in the here and now. You can learn tools to help you access the nourishing benefits of your parasympathetic nervous system. These restorative practices can help you improve digestion, increase immune system functioning, enhance thyroid health, and improve symptoms of depression.” –Dr. Arielle Schwartz
DBT for trauma treatment offers increased self-control and can help you feel grounded in your life, here and now. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was originally developed in the 1980s as a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. More recently, DBT has been applied to treat other disorders, and has been found particularly beneficial for PTSD. This therapy is founded upon principles of Zen Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practices. For example, the term “dialectical” refers to a synthesis of opposites, which is a core aspect of Zen practices.
The primary dialectic within DBT is the polarity between acceptance and orienting toward change. Here, we recognize that radical self-acceptance of who you are is a necessary condition for change and growth.” –Dr. Arielle Schwartz
In short, neuropsychotherapy refers to the practice of integrating neuroscientific research into psychotherapy. This integrative approach to therapy that explores the connections between your mind, body, environment, and social interactions. A wide range of therapeutic modalities are based in this neurobiological approach to healing including EMDR Therapy, Somatic Psychology, and time-tested relational therapy. Within this post, we will explore six components of trauma recovery based upon neuropsychotherapy: Relating, Resourcing, Reprocessing, Repatterining, Reflecting, and Resilience.
“Reprocessing traumatic memories involves connecting traumatic memories with new information. As a result, distressing images, thoughts, sensations, and emotions associated with traumatic memories can be integrated with new resources. Overall, the neurobiology of trauma recovery helps you to learn how to move out of hopelessness, increase your capacity to feel empowered, and recognize that you are capable of living the life you want and deserve.”
–Dr. Arielle SchwartzContinue reading →
In the Colorado foothills where I live, we have a path that traverses an area of the forest that burned down several years ago. Under the burnt remains of these trees we discover a lush underbrush, bursting with new life that flourishes in the fertile earth. Each time I walk this trail, I am reminded that although traumatic life experiences can be devastating, they can also become a powerful force that awakens us to our aliveness. Painful events inevitably shape who we are; however, it is essential that we learn to look beyond the blackened trees of our internal landscape.
American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, described personal transformation as a hero’s journey. You can imagine the hero who must enter the darkness, face challenges, slay the dragon, retrieve the treasure, and emerge stronger. As applied to trauma recovery, we understand that challenging life events can serve as a call to enter the hero’s journey. You may feel as though you have been thrown into an abyss. The dragons you must slay are the inner demons that remain as a result of the painful memories from your past. You walk into the darkness in order retrieve the treasures that exists within you such as inner strength, wisdom, and hope. You emerge with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose which become the gifts that you have to offer to the world.
“The work of the Hero’s Journey in trauma recovery is difficult; but, this same work can serve as an initiation into wisdom and an awakening of the heart. You can learn to trust in your capacity for new growth.”
–Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Connection is at the core of all human experience. We all share the need to be seen and understood. We long to belong and to experience ourselves within the context of loving, nurturing relationships. Sadly, childhood neglect or abuse betrays our trust in others and can impair our ability to form healthy relationships as adults. A history of trauma can also contribute to ongoing experiences of dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part of your nervous system that manages how you respond to stress and allows you to relax in response to environmental cues.
Ongoing emotional dysregulation tends to interfere with our capacity for intimacy, parenting, or meaningful friendships. The concept of co-regulation, also called mutual regulation or social affect regulation, can be defined as the way in which one person’s autonomic nervous system sensitively interacts with another person’s autonomic nervous system in a way that facilitates greater emotional balance and physical health. Simply put, we humans are deeply interconnected with each other and influence each other in a multitude of ways.
“Through a healthy therapeutic relationship, you have opportunities to attend to the relational wounds from your childhood. Co-regulation in psychotherapy provides opportunities for you to have new, socially learned experiences of connection, attunement, acceptance, and compassion. Through somatic psychology we can fine-tune this exchange to find the sweet spot where our deepest healing resides.” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Times of extreme stress such as traumatic events can impair how memory is stored and subsequently recalled. As a result, there may be portions of a traumatic memory that are unclear or forgotten. However, even memories with missing elements can still be vividly recalled with fragments of images and highly disturbing somatic sensations.
“Memories of physical or sexual abuse are held within portions of the brain highly sensitized to stress hormones. This can lead to strong emotions and body sensations without a well-developed ability to explain your experience with words. This process can evoke feelings of shame and self-doubt. A physiological explanation of traumatic memory can provide a foundation for increased self-acceptance and compassion.” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Shame is a wound of not belonging. It leaves you feeling like an exile; a stranger in a strange land. Shame might come as a result of feeling different or not understood in your family. Shame is also connected to childhood abuse or neglect (You can read my blog on Shame in Complex PTSD here). Or, perhaps you were excluded, belittled, or bullied in school due to social or cultural differences. An important key to healing from shame is recognizing that inside of your embarrassment, sense of failure, or experience of rejection lies your undeniably legitimate human needs.
Most importantly, shame does not happen in a vacuum. This wound occurs in interpersonal and environmental contexts. Therefore, healing needs to occur not only within the self, but also within a social context. We all need to feel connected to others. We need to know that we are not alone in this the imperfect journey of being human.
“When we feel heard and welcomed by another, we have the opportunity to reclaim a sense of belonging. This foundation of being seen and understood helps each one of us become more of who we are meant to be. Through this process of belonging and becoming we take one important step closer toward healing from shame and reclaiming our wholeness.”
–Dr. Arielle SchwartzContinue reading →
Carl Jung believed that disconnection from the deeper “Self” is the root cause of psychological distress. However, it is easy to over-identify with superficial aspects of ourselves and the world. In any therapeutic experience, we aim to deepen our knowing of ourselves and each other through a relational exchange. We take the risk to befriend our fears and discover a new depth of love and trust.
Within transpersonal psychology, we focus on the ways in which we are all connected to a greater whole. We have an opportunity to discover a deeper, felt sense of belonging in the world at large which cultivates a relationship to the soul which Jungian analyst, James Hillman, defined as the “seat of meaningful experience.”
In somatic psychology, we centralize body awareness as a primary healing agent in psychotherapy. A somatic approach to transpersonal psychology focuses on descending our consciousness into body and soul; connecting psyche with soma. We go within to listen to dreams, metaphors, sensations, and symbols. Here, we find the ways that we are interconnected with the people we meet and the planet we live upon.
“Within the depths, we discover the inseparable relationship between our personal happiness and the well-being of other people, our ancestors, and the earth.”
–Dr. Arielle Schwartz