Desensitization and Reclaiming Power as Trauma Survivors
*Trigger Warning. This blog post discusses trauma which may be triggering for some survivors. Take care of yourself and take breaks if needed. This blog is part of a larger blog discussion answering the question: Is Telling The Trauma Story Necessary for Treatment by Justin LMFT that can be found at https://www.justinlmft.com/post/therapeercontentevent1 .
Desensitization and Reclaiming Power as Trauma Survivors
Jessica del Rosso, www.alongsidetrauma.ca @alongsidetrauma
In a society where we are taught to keep negative feelings as far away as possible, it makes sense that everything in our body fights against us sharing what may be the darkest moment of our life, with another human.
Least of all, a stranger, aka your new therapist.
Let's start by defining trauma. Trauma is defined as a distressing or stressful event which overwhelms the nervous system into fight (fighting the threat/danger), flight (running away or escaping) or shut down (what the nervous system does when fight or flight isn't an option). Complex trauma is when the distressing event occurs over and over again (e.g. childhood abuse). What is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another. Siblings can grow up in the same situation, but all have different impacts and memories. This is because every individual has their own window of tolerance. A window of tolerance is the amount of stress a person can experience without moving into fight, flight or shut down.
So, knowing all of this now, do you have to go over the details of your trauma, in order to benefit from therapy? I would argue, yes and no.
Johnson and Lubin (2015), two trauma experts, speak about the importance of the trauma narrative. They, along with others who advocate for exposure-based therapy treatments, argue that the more we talk about our trauma, the more desensitized to the memory we become (the less fearful we will be about remembering, increasingly able to differentiate between the past and present). The way I describe this is that imagine that your trauma is kind of like a Dementor from Harry Potter. Dementors are big, dark ghosts with ripped black cloaks. They survive off of sucking the light out of others and become more powerful with secrecy. Trauma can feel like it gets bigger and feels heavier the longer you keep it a secret. But, as you begin to share your truth with people you trust, the dementor starts to lose its power. You begin to get stronger and less fearful. You begin to discover your strength and your voice which is often stolen from us as trauma survivors.
What is this idea of needing to talk about our trauma rooted in? Why can’t we just do trauma therapy without going over the horrible details?
Well, it links to the nervous system and its understanding of safety. There are basically three major functions of the nervous system relevant to trauma (Porges, 2011). The Ventral Vagal Nervous System is our “The world is a safe place, I am loved” space. The Sympathetic Nervous System tells us that there is a danger we need to get away from. The primary functions are fighting or running away from the threat.
What if you can't do either? Enter Dorsal Vagal. This is the shutdown mode, also known as disassociation. Dorsal Vagal is activated when the nervous system realizes that running or fighting aren't options. Your nervous system attempts to make the experience as least painful as possible as a way of protecting you. Part of how this happens for some individuals, is by disconnecting from the body.
When we tell our trauma story, or even think about telling it, we may experience embodied and emotional reactions that happened to us during the moment/s of trauma. You may shake, cry, become agitated, become sweaty, start yelling, want to punch something, breathe faster. Notice how these all relate to fighting or running away? That is what your nervous system is telling the body to do because your body believes that in some capacity, as you are talking about the trauma, you are re-experiencing the trauma. It is telling you to do something!
Going over the events and details of your trauma, can help the nervous system understand that your trauma is in the past. The more you expose yourself to discussing your trauma, the more your nervous system can begin to understand that you are not actually in danger anymore. This can lead to a decrease in anxiety, panic attacks, exhaustion, sleep issues and digestion complications.
However, for some survivors, remembering the details of the trauma just isn't possible at first, or ever. In fact, trying to remember the details can increase stress and lead to the survivor second guessing themselves and feeling even worse. So, what do you do?
In my therapy practice, when clients do not remember the details of their trauma, we start with present day triggers. What triggers them in their day to day life? We then start connecting that to the nervous system and how trauma impacts the nervous system. I believe that knowledge is one of the best tools for walking alongside your trauma. Once I understood my own trauma, not just by going over the details of it, but knowing how and why it impacted me, I felt more empowered in my healing. I could understand not only that I was being triggered, but what triggered actually meant to my nervous system and brain. I could understand what my body had done in the past to survive the trauma, and I could better understand how to help my body feel safe again.
Guess what happens when you start feeling safe again? You begin to move from Dorsal (shutdown) to Sympathetic (fight/flight). For some, this means you can start to remember things again. And, at this point, exposure therapy (talking about the trauma) can become the next stage of processing and healing, eventually leading to moments of experiencing ventral state (the world is a safe place) and then to ventral state becoming your default state.
Trauma can lead to many survivors feeling powerless and voiceless. Desensitizing our bodies and minds to our traumatic experiences through desensitization, alongside understanding our nervous systems through a Polyvagal Theory lens gives us both our power and voices back.