In my work as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma and PTSD, I have worked with many who struggle with ongoing issues of intimacy and vulnerability in relationships. Often when we have a history of being hurt, whether by a former partner or in our childhoods, we develop a desire to protect ourselves which often leads to shielded vulnerability and struggles with intimacy. Sometimes we enter relationships vaguely aware of these patterns while other times we dance around the world completely unconscious of how we are showing up in our lives. This can often lead to frustration and loneliness. Often, although unconscious, we can walk around the world full of fear. We become fearful of the unknown and often try to fill the gap between others and ourselves with alcohol, sex, food, or other maladaptive coping patterns.
A couple of years ago, I had a woman come to me for therapy named Sara (name changed for confidentiality). Sara came to me after walking away from a domestic violence relationship where she was constantly belittled, violated, and tortured. It later came out that the only reason she left was because she found out he was cheating on her. In our work together, we were able to uncover an ongoing history of severe childhood abuse that had led to struggles in self esteem, worthlessness, and a belief that she did not deserve a healthy relationship. She entered therapy with the belief that she was “evil” and wanted me to reinforce this for her so she didn’t feel so guilty about taking her own life.
When Trauma Begins In Childhood
One of the issues with complex trauma is that it often begins at a young age when children are forming their identity and their view of the world. If someone has a relatively healthy childhood and suffers a trauma as an adult, it certainly can shock their world but they often have some positive experiences to fall back on so they can identify the trauma as an abnormal or unique experience. When someone grows up in a house where there is constant violence or belittling, they don’t develop a fundamental beliefs that “I am safe” and they walk around the world constantly on guard. Our brains are designed with survival as the number one goal so when we are constantly being told we are unsafe, our nervous system never settles and we walk around constantly dysregulated.
Phases of Trauma Treatment
When someone walks into my office with a history of trauma, my first goal is always to work on regulation and retraining the nervous system. When the nervous system is on hyper alert, we lose the ability to reason and make decisions. Instead, we are constantly reacting to anything and everything around us and just trying to survive. It’s amazing the effect that meditation and grounding techniques can have on our ability to be present and feel safe in our bodies. Once we are able to feel safe and supported, we can then begin to unpack our histories and become conscious of our experiences and how they impact us.
Often times group therapy can be an invaluable experience for traumas survivors because often people who have experienced ongoing trauma report feeling “broken” or “damaged”. Often people will report feeling heard and understood for the first time since their trauma. When someone experiences a trauma, it’s not only that event that can be traumatizing but often the after effects. If someone experiences a rape, they may choose to report it to law enforcement or have a rape kit done which can both be re-traumatizing. Have a safe space to process these experiences can help survivors feel supported and heal.
While getting help for trauma can be scary and uncomfortable, it is possible to feel comfortable in your own skin again or for the first time. For Sara, it was a life changing experience to be able to learn about her experiences and how they impacted her. For the first time in her life, she is able to set boundaries, have healthy and appropriate intimacy with others, and to be comfortable in her own skin. She is a shining example of how effective trauma therapy can be.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive patterns and behaviors.