T is for Trauma - Interview with clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Bethany Blythin
Interview with clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Bethany Blythin on the subject of Trauma
Welcome and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions on this subject. So let's start...
As a clinical psychologist, what is trauma for you?
I would say that trauma is the body’s way of adapting to a stressful event, be it physically, emotionally or cognitively. I use the word adaptation for that is what the body is attempting to do, it is trying to survive. An adaptation in that circumstance could be switching off, avoiding, forgetting, emotional or physical numbness, but in most cases, the body’s way of adapting to trauma is through dissociation.
What are the various types of trauma?
There are multiple forms of trauma:
Trauma can occur as a unique event e.g. a car accident, being assaulted, losing a loved one or any dramatic change of a life situation – loss of job, house, partner etc
Trauma can also be an accumulative process in which case we talk about “complex trauma”. Examples would include bullying, work place harassment or any repetitive harmful events or interactions with others.
Trauma can also occur during childhood with ongoing negligence or ill treatment or even accumulative dysfunctional interactions within families. This type of trauma can be passed down through the generations in which case it is called inter generational trauma.
How does trauma impact our lives?
Trauma impacts our lives in a variety of ways.
First of all when a person encounters a stressful event, on a purely biological level, the body is flooded with the stress hormone ‘cortisol’. Cortisol is required to produce adrenalin so that the body can respond with a fight, flight or freeze reaction.
When the body cannot fight or flee the situation and the nervous system goes into auto pilot and freezes, or dissociates (depersonalization or out of body experiences), because if the body continues to produce high levels of cortisol this can actually lead to a heart attack (cf polyvagal theory). Once out of harms way, the person’s stress levels and reactions return to functioning normally.
Dissociation, is the body’s way of adapting to stressful events or environments and should therefore be seen as an adaptive coping mechanism to traumatic experiences. It only becomes dysfunctional when the body continues to dissociate after the person is no longer at risk, this is what we call structural dissociation. Traumatic or structural dissociation can manifest itself in different ways ; emotionally, cognitively, or physically; a few examples are : numbness, amnesia, flash backs, anxiety… the most commonly known syndrome of trauma is PTSD : post traumatic stress disorder.
Can we prevent trauma?
No single person will react in the same way to the same event. When veterans come back from war e.g. some experience PTSD and others don’t even though they’ve had similar traumatic experiences. The reason for this is that we are not born equal, be it for internal reasons (personal resilience, secure attachment, personality traits etc) or external reasons (family upbringing, social support, economic status)
Protecting factors or variables help to lessen the impact of stressful events and therefore don’t always lead to trauma. In contrast, people with vulnerable variables (i.e. with insecure attachment, poor social and family support etc) will be more likely to be impacted by trauma. These are aspects upon which an individual can work on to protect him or herself from any future negative events.
In essence we cannot control what will or won’t happen to us, but being aware of and working on the protecting and compromising individual’s factors we may reduce the stress in our lives.
How may we rid ourselves of trauma?
As I have mentioned before, trauma impacts the body, the mind and the emotional aspects of the individual. Therefore, a person who has experienced trauma or who is struggling with trauma should consult a therapist specialised in trauma. Just as you would consult a dentist for your teeth and an optician for your eyesight and not your general practitioner.
There are different types of therapy that I strongly recommend that understand the multi facet nature of trauma and takes them into consideration during the healing process: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and Brain spotting for example.
The healing process consists of tapping into the body memory and the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain, and reintegrating the fragmented parts of the traumatic experience so that it can be stored as a whole into the long term memory system. The traumatic event can then no longer come back unexpectedly in daily life experiences through flashbacks, ghost pains or anxiety but can be consciously called upon should we wish to access it without feeling the emotional distress that we once would have felt thinking or talking about it.
As an attachment therapist I think that the most complicated and profound trauma (that most of the time isn’t recognised) is attachment trauma which is also called developmental trauma. This is the hardest trauma to be conscious and aware of and to heal because we have grown up in a certain dysfunctional environment and we haven’t learnt what a secure environment would be so we don’t know that what is familiar to us is actually harmful to us.
We have also developed adaptive behavioural strategies and early maladaptive schemas (cf schema therapy) which, unbeknown to us, keep us in dysfunctional relationships or environments and maintain our erroneous beliefs and patterns of behaviour.
Trauma impacts us in our daily life because we use dissociation to prevent us from experiencing the stress of trauma. On the surface, dissociation may look like that it is avoiding a problem and therefore avoiding stress, but in fact, it is compounding our problems and is a drain on our psychological system ; the psychological resources and energy we put into maintaining the dissociation mechanism in every day life, in order to avoid confronting the traumatic experience can cause chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, lessened cognitive abilities….
Bethany Blythin (Clinical Psychologist, psychotherapist)
As we have heard, by acknowledging and working on the trauma that we have experienced in our lives, not only does it decrease the stress we experience and increase our general sense of well being but it can increase our capacity for joy and intimacy and help us to flourish.