What is Trauma and Can it Really Be Treated Effectively?

By Jan Cheek, MSW, LCSW

Often we consider traumatic events as those newsworthy events such as catastrophic weather disasters, violent war conditions, terrorist acts, fire, automobile accidents, physical or sexual assault, or rape. Actually, trauma is defined in multiple dictionaries as any occurrence or event that has caused a lasting negative impact. It is important to note that adverse relatively normal life events could result in a mild adjustment concern for one person and result in suffering, duress, and extensive impairment for another. Very effective treatments exist to reduce and sometimes eliminate the range of symptoms associated with both the adjustment concerns and the more extreme suffering from trauma.

There are a few factors that may influence whether exposure to an event results in severe trauma. These sometimes include: 1. the nature of the event and how a person perceives the circumstances (a person in the back seat of a car who does not anticipate the danger they are in may not experience the same degree of trauma as a driver of a car who are both survivors of a head on collision); 2. direct vs. indirect experience of the event , i.e.: experiencing an occurrence first hand vs. witnessing it or hearing about it (a person enduring the intensity of a tornado vs. a person observing the outcome and aftermath soon thereafter and on television may have different degrees of trauma); 3. impact personally on oneself vs. impact on a known person or on a stranger (a child who is bullied on the playground repeatedly is traumatized in a different way than the friend of that child who is impacted by the uncertainty of how to make the bullying stop, and also in a different way than the stranger who may pretend as if they do not know it is occurring); 4. “after the event effects” including support network, environmental changes, community reactions, etc. (in some cases there may be a great deal of community support and camaraderie when there is a natural disaster which tends to be very inspiring and encouraging despite the devastation and loss resulting in decreased trauma in some persons, but not others).

Why consider treatment? How does treatment help and what has been proven to work? Untreated trauma exposure can result in troubling mental health issues with the following common symptoms: increased chronic pain, depression, anxiety, social isolation, sleep disturbances, irritability, confusion, difficulty concentrating, easy startle reflex, hyper-vigilance, nightmares, moodiness, emotional numbing, racing thoughts, rapid heart -beat, agitation, fatigue, and substance abuse. In children and teens symptoms may include, but are not limited to those above and the following: Disruptive behaviors, frustration, school absences, non-compliance with authority, under or over attachment with adults, fighting, and “I don’t care” attitude. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is an Evidence Based treatment that is proven to be helpful and approved by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the Dept. of Defense, and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and therapists have indicated its benefit s with stabilizing the symptoms noted above.

EMDR is a specialized psychotherapy approach facilitated by extensively trained EMDR psychotherapists. It is designed to help resolve the troubling thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms related to the disturbing memories without actually changing the memories. The research of Francine Shapiro, PhD has demonstrated that bilateral stimulation of the left brain and right brain through eye movements (simply following the therapist hand movements) or rhythmic hand tapping of one’s own left side and right side can mimic what naturally occurs in the brain during REM sleep when certain information is processed. Thus, with the re-creation of the rapid eye movement and the left brain and right brain stimulation, EMDR is believed to reprocess those negative thoughts into more desirable thoughts.

Not all persons are candidates for this intervention, but if you are interested to determine if you or your child might benefit, please contact Behavioral Healthcare Associates and request an EMDR trained therapist for an evaluation.