Healing Trauma: Do clients need to tell the trauma narrative?

When it comes to healing trauma, we tend to think that we need to talk about what happened to us. But, is this really true?

This is a really important question and there are probably different ways to look at this, so I want to start off by saying that my point of view is in no way a universal truth. When it comes to psychology and therapy, there probably isn’t such a thing as a universal truth. But let’s dive directly into this question.

First of all, we need to ask ourselves what trauma is and what healing means.

In order to keep this article as short and straightforward as possible, I won’t get into the advanced aspects of trauma, but stick to a simple definition.

When we use the word “trauma”, we refer to any kind of experience that overwhelms our nervous system.

Each person’s nervous system has it’s particular sensitivity and therefore, what may be emotionally tolerable by one person, can be traumatic for another person.

This is not something we consciously choose. Our nervous system reacts to an experience and if it threatens our survival, it triggers different reactions in order to keep us safe. These reactions can range from mild activation (which allows us to act and stay out of danger) to complete shut-down (which is also a survival strategy).

Another essential aspect is what happens immediately after the shocking event. If we can be in the presence of a person who can help us calm our nervous system down, the odds of the trauma getting stuck in our bodies greatly diminish. In the Polyvagal Theory, this is called co-regulation. 

I highly recommend checking out Justin Sunseri’s website for high quality content on the Polyvagal Theory and healing trauma. 

What does healing trauma mean?

Healing trauma means that a past traumatic event no longer conditions our life. It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened to us. It means that we slowly start to feel safe in our bodies and the world again. 

Before we heal, we get easily triggered and tend to experiment sensations that overwhelm us. When we’re traumatized, our body stores the memory of the traumatic event and we’re easily triggered by situations that may in some way remind us of the traumatic experience.

We may rationally know we’re safe, but we can’t help feeling disregulated, anxious, disconnected, numb, etc. Many people describe it as feeling stuck. This often leads to feelings of shame or guilt, but it’s important to remember that it’s a natural and automatic response of our nervous system. It’s not something we choose and it doesn’t mean we’re weak. It just means that the past experience overwhelmed our nervous system and now we find it difficult to feel safe in our body and in the world.

If we understand trauma like this, we can say that healing it means experiencing enough safety so that our nervous system can relax.

Being able to feel safe again is usually something that takes time. Particularly in the beginning stages, it’s very useful to have another person that is completely present with us and is able to act as a “lifeline” when we start feeling disregulated. For this to happen, this person needs to be able to feel centered and connected to the traumatized person and to their own sense of safety, so he/she can convey it to the traumatized person.

But, is it necessary to talk about the traumatic event to heal it?

In my experience, it’s usually very helpful to do so, BUT only after having developed ways to feel grounded. Since trauma leaves you feeling paralyzed or even collapsed, before diving into the traumatic event, we need to find ways to experience opposite sensations in our body. Without this, talking about our trauma can be retraumatizing.  

When we are able to connect to these sensations of safety, talking about the traumatic event often helps us understand what happened: Our nervous system reacted as a way to keep us alive.

Telling our story, helps us feel seen and understood, as well as recognizing that our current state is a consequence of our life experiences.

But, does this mean we NEED to tell the narrative of the traumatic event?

Absolutely not. It can even be detrimental if it’s done too soon and without being connected to a sense of safety. We need to feel that there’s a way out, before diving into our trauma. 

In my experience, it’s very important to be able to revisit the traumatic event with one foot inside the experience and the other foot in the here and now, in the presence of a therapist/counselor/psychologist that can convey a sense of safety to the nervous system.

Talking about our trauma is usually not enough

Talking about the experience in a rational way is usually not enough.

The reason behind this is that a traumatized nervous system needs repeated experiences of safety and empowerement. If we only talk about the traumatic events, we’re mainly using the more evolved parts of our brains, while traumatic experiences usually affect the whole nervous system and probably the whole body.

You’ve probably noticed that it’s very hard (or even impossible) to talk somebody or yourself out of anxiety. This is because when we’re in a disregulated state, the logical part of our brain is hijacked by the Amygdala.

The same happens with trauma (and actually anxiety is frequently related to trauma). Often times, trauma survivors felt trapped and paralyzed, so they need to be able to move their bodies and stay mindful of the sensations that are happening in their bodies. From my point of view, this part of the process is way more important than telling the verbal narrative of the event. However, it’s important to not rush this, because getting in touch with the body can be very scary if we experienced trauma.

 

To summarize...

Can we feel safe again if we are trauma survivors?

Yes.

Is it easy?

It usually takes time and it’s not a linear process. Our nervous system needs to repeatedly and consistently experience a sense of safety.

Do we need to talk about the traumatic event?

It’s usually helpful, but not the most important part of healing trauma. Don’t rush it until you feel safe and grounded enough to revisit that memory. Let your body guide you and seek a trauma informed therapist to do this work.

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Christian Payá

Christian Payá

Psychologist and Psychotherapist. Co-Director of Instituto Galene Las Rozas. Member of the Spanish Organization for Humanistic Psychotherapy and Counseling (APHICE). Teacher at Instituto Galene.

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