Healing Preverbal Trauma-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Finding Freedom through Trauma Recovery

Healing Preverbal Trauma Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Painting by Eugene Ivanov

This post discusses the therapeutic treatment of preverbal trauma. Sometimes the most persistent PTSD symptoms are connected to events for which you have no clear memory. This might be the case if you were told that your life is the result of an unwanted pregnancy, if you endured medical complications around your birth, if you grew up neglected, or if you suffered from child abuse.

In addition to these early memories, some people are unable to remember traumatic events that occurred later in life. This is because traumatic stress can impair brain structures involved with memory. I refer to these as nonverbal trauma memories.

Preverbal trauma and nonverbal trauma memories typically do not have associated words or a clear and coherent story. In contrast, they might come in the form of flashes of images, disconnected fragments, or uncomfortable physical sensations with no known cause.

Most importantly, you might ask whether healing is possible if you are unable to remember these traumatic events?

“In my experience, memory retrieval is not always possible. Moreover, many therapists do clients a disservice when they make memory retrieval the focus of therapy. However, there is hope—you can heal whether or not you remember your preverbal trauma.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Regaining Emotional Control

Healing Preverbal Trauma Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Painting by Eugene Ivanov

Babette Rothschild, trauma expert and author of The Body Remembers vol. 2 (2017), writes “Loss of control is at the core of PTSD.” This statement is a firm reminder that an essential component in healing trauma involves reclaiming a sense of control in your life, now. The first stage of trauma treatment is stabilization which involves successfully managing symptoms of traumatic stress such as anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, or somatic distress.

When you are no longer overwhelmed by your trauma memories you can cultivate the freedom to live the life you want now.

Since preverbal memories are often related to very young time in your life, healing involves building resources in the here and now and can help you compassionately attend to the pain from your past. Resources for trauma recovery including reclaiming a sense of safety, grounding, and containment.

Memory Retrieval or Trauma Recovery?

Healing Preverbal Trauma Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Painting by Eugene Ivanov

Once you have access to resources, you might choose to work with the sensations, emotions, or memory fragments associated with preverbal trauma and nonverbal memories.  However, it is important to be cautious when working with preverbal and nonverbal memories as these fragments and sensations do not necessarily represent an exact replay of original events.

Traumatic experiences are stored with emotional information disconnected from contextualizing information. When we remember any memory, we are almost always inserting new information related to our present state of mind and environment. This is especially true for preverbal and nonverbal memories because the original experience is lacking essential details. As human beings, we are storytellers and we will fill in missing elements of memories—we have a fundamental need to develop a narrative that is consistent with our current beliefs and sense of self.

The goal of therapy for preverbal trauma and nonverbal memories is not memory retrieval. Sometimes memories arise spontaneously; but, even in such moments we must uphold that memory is vulnerable to influence.

In contrast, the goal of therapy is trauma recovery in which you actively distinguish the past from the present, develop a sense that you are at choice about how to respond to your world now, and experience of yourself as a resilient.

Healing Preverbal Trauma

Healing Preverbal Trauma Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Painting by Eugene Ivanov

Healing preverbal trauma involves working with any present symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, or somatic distress. It is common to feel nauseous, numb, foggy, fatigued, or disconnected when preverbal or nonverbal trauma memories arise. Therefore, healing requires the careful guidance of a well-trained therapist, using fine-tuned approaches such as EMDR Therapy, somatic psychotherapy, and Parts Work therapy. Throughout the process, you learn to become highly descriptive of your somatic experience, work through “stuck” sensations in your body, and attend to unmet childhood needs from your past as a resourced adult in the present.

Again, and it is worth reiterating, the outcome of successful trauma treatment is to recognize that the trauma is in the past…and that it is over.

Relate to this post? You can read more here…

Heal and Learn with Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Through the end of December 2018, you can order the EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology book directly from W. W. Norton at a 20% discount with free shipping. The coupon code is EMDRSP18 Click here to order.

EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology Book Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Want to learn more about healing complex PTSD?


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About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016) and co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.

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