In the previous blog, (here) we discussed how trauma creates changes in the brain which impact the behaviour, interactions and overall wellbeing of survivors. The goal was to create more awareness and understanding in the wider community, rather than judgement.
This time, we want to provide some hope for survivors of trauma and for the people who love and support them. Hope that survivors of trauma may be able to be freed from the anguish and limits imposed on them by past traumatic experiences. You may find this useful for yourself, or you may be struggling to support someone who could benefit from this information. Sadly, so many people struggle with trauma responses, sometimes even unaware that what they are experiencing is a physiological response to a past trauma.
The complexities of trauma are such that the impacts on the brain in turn intersect with impacts on the mind and on the body. We now know that the brain is not permanently “hard wired” or unchangeable, as it was once believed. Even after traumatic experiences, the brain can change and adapt in positive ways. This is known as neuroplasticity, which plays a significant role in new approaches to treating trauma. This relatively new concept about trauma has become incredibly significant, resulting in a rapidly growing area of research and practice of focusing on the intricately connected impacts on brain, mind and body to help survivors of trauma.
These newer and increasingly popular “modalities” (that is, ways of doing therapy) focus on the physiological (the functioning of the whole organism, that is, brain, mind and body), rather than just the psychological (mind), and are having some very significant results for survivors of trauma, offering them hope for a more tranquil life.
“enabling survivors of trauma to categorise the trauma as just a memory of something that happened to them, without experiencing the physiological responses with that memory.”
“The past can’t be undone, but these techniques can treat the imprint that trauma has left on the body, mind and brain” (Van der Kolk 2015 Ch 13)
Choosing a practitioner
While these modalities have been practiced by specialist therapists for a number of years now, for the most part they are only just starting to become more a part of mainstream therapies, so not all counsellors and practitioners use them. Therefore, it is very important that any of these treatments are administered by experienced and appropriately qualified trauma counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. If you or someone you know decide to seek out one of these therapies, it is essential to find a practitioner with whom you, or they, feel comfortable, safe and confident. It is completely appropriate to look for a different practitioner if it doesn’t “feel right”.
Engaging the brain, mind and body
In very broad terms, these modalities work on separating the automatic physiological (brain, mind and body) responses from the memory, by engaging the brain function and/or the body, together with the mind and memories, in the treatment.
These are very basic definitions of a few widely researched and proven modalities, with some resources to enable you to find out more information if you would like to.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) involves the person receiving treatment thinking about a particular memory or sensation, while focusing on the therapist’s hand as they move it quickly from side to side, then stopping to reflect on feelings or sensations that come up, focus on those, and repeat the hand movement. This process is repeated a number of times in the therapy session.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) works on the “trapped energy” left in the body after a traumatic experience. Somatic means “awareness of sensations in the body” (SE Australia). This practice was founded and developed by Dr Peter Levine.
The organisation, Somatic Experiencing International, at which Dr Levine is a teacher, explains SE on their website as, “…gently guiding clients to develop increasing tolerance for difficult sensations [in the body] and suppressed emotions.”
Mindfulness and focused breathing use focus on your breathing or on your senses, in effect, turning your brain from the threat responses it might engage, to the very physical and real placement of you in your surroundings and in your body. For example, using mindfulness, you might focus on the sound of the wind blowing through leaves on a tree, and watch one of the leaves being moved by the wind, while paying attention to the feeling of wind on your face. Focused breathing is similar, in that you pay close attention to your breathing. There are also some specific breathing techniques that have been proven to calm the nervous system.
Tapping, also known as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), works along similar lines to acupuncture, using the networks of electrical “channels” in our body, known in tapping (and acupuncture) as meridians. Instead of using needles, you simply tap specific meridian points with your fingers, and tapping incorporates the mind and brain because as you tap, you express negative feelings, followed by positive affirmations.
Find out more
The science behind these therapies is far too complex to go into here, so if you would like to find out more, a good place to start would be resources from Bessel Van Der Kolk, Peter Levine, Gabor Matè and Bruce Perry, some of the best known, respected and most widely published experts in their fields, but there are many others. You could also search by modality and will find Australian resources on all of the techniques listed above.
The following books are a great first start and are also available on audio book if you prefer.
The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma (2015) Bessel Van Der Kolk
What happened to you?: Conversations on trauma, resilience and healing (2021) Dr Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey
In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness (2010) Peter A Levine PhD
The Brain that changes itself (2010) Norman Doige MD
Information in this blog was also found through the following links to Australian-based organisations,
Featured photo by raquel raclette on Unsplash