I have the privilege of helping many people find their internal resources for leaving trauma behind.
Traumatic experiences can be life disrupting events. For some trauma not only is a horrifying event but also eventually causes interpersonal conflict. Jobs can be lost, and relationships terminated. For example, we know that automobile accidents can interfere with a person’s ability to drive, and many returning from combat find it exceedingly difficult to re-enter civilian life. Night terrors can be or become common place. Characteristic of PTSD is that one is continually relieving some past trauma as if it is in present time. There really isn’t a past. There is only the trauma, literally happening in the mind and body again and again and again.
Recently one of my clients, Gloria, wrote down her journey out of PTSD for us to share. In this article, I will share some of her inspiring words and then talk a bit more about the process.
“I came to see Larry because of the nightmares and PTSD I suffered after my husband took his life. I couldn’t walk into my basement without seeing his body lying there on the cold ground, right in front of the washer and dryer I had to use once a week. At night, I relived that terrible night in my dreams and would wake up wailing or screaming. I could barely get out of bed and go to work. I considered moving from my home of 22 years at that time, but it felt wrong to just try to run away. And since I would have to take my mind and memories with me anyway, it seemed pointless to put myself through another major life-change. I even considered ending my own life. I was dubious about the treatment at first, I admit. I’d been to see several therapists and psychologists, and was taking valium and anti-anxiety medications at the time, but nothing helped, and I was afraid of getting addicted to them. I wanted to try something different. ANYthing that might have a chance of working.”
Gloria’s experience is unfortunately typical in terms of how treatment can go wrong. Much of modern therapy reinforces and amplifies the trauma. Some years ago, we got a phone call from a Vietnam vet that has stuck with us. He wanted to try out my services, but he was scared. Really scared. A year earlier he had decided to finally seek out therapy. He was functional. He had a wife. A pretty stable life, but he was also navigating the trauma on a regular basis. After several months in therapy, he was having violent nightmares. His wife was scared for him and her.
He went to his therapist and said, “Look if I continue therapy, one of us is going to end up dead. You or me, I’m not sure but someone is going to die.” And according to him, the therapist readily agreed that he should quit therapy. He did not come in for that appointment with me. Like Rosanna, he was dubious. His experience just couldn’t allow him to have hope for something different. What happened in his therapy that led to this outcome?
Exposure Therapy. The idea behind Exposure Therapy is to continually expose the client to the traumatic experience with the hope that eventually the client will become so used to the stimulus that it no longer triggers an unwanted response. It’s like saying, we’re going to subject you to rape so many times that it no longer seems so bad. Or the belief that if you hit your thumb with a hammer enough times, it will no longer hurt when it happens. The practitioners of Exposure Therapy believe that after a few months of therapy symptoms will subside or even disappear. I celebrate that some people do get better with this approach, but regret that the client must replay, relive the trauma over and over. It appears that one cannot know in advance which clients will benefit from this therapy and which clients will actually experience an increase in intensity and frequency of symptoms.
There are other therapies which aim to reduce therapeutic trauma while helping to overcome PTSD symptoms. Among them is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy. This therapy guides the client through a series of eye movements (eyes up right, down left, across left, etc. as directed seeming to pretty much in random order) while thinking about the traumatic event. All experience is stored in memory as a set of pictures, sounds and feeling. Our eyes must move in a particular direction to recall picture, a different direction to create a picture, a different direction to recall a sound, still another to imagine a sound etc. EMDR attempt to create a synesthesia so the pictures, sounds and feeling get mixed up or mixed together. This confuses the brain and it no longer responds to the memory in the way it once did. For some people this works very effectively. But for some the trauma is so intense they cannot stop reliving the experience when asked to think about it.
More from Gloria.
“During my first session, I told him about what was happening to me. He was very compassionate and kind, and I felt safe and understood. Even being in his presence was relaxing to me. He made several suggestions using visualization about the basement where my husband died. I also said goodbye and told him I loved him. The very next day, when I went down to do my laundry, I no longer “saw” him lying on the ground. I thought of him, but in a different way. I felt free and at peace. He was free, too. After only one session with Larry.”
What did we do in that first session? Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP avoids re-exposing the client to the traumatic experience. Rather it uses a double dissociation process by which the client watches themselves watching a movie of that past event. They may or may not actually see the imaginary movie. They simply know when it is over when the movie lights quit flickering. From there the client then goes through a re-wind process during which the brain/nervous system unlearns the unwanted response.
The suggestions used during the visualization that Gloria mentioned are really the suggestions taken from cues about that way she talked and acted. Based on that information, I can tell if the client is seeing pictures, hearing a script, or is overwhelmed with a feeling state. This allows me to lead them in a process that matches their style and harness their best resources.
One NLP process that I have used effectively quite a lot is known as the “Fast Phobia Cure.” Since its inception the use of the process has been expanded and used for resolving PTSD. It was used in a group therapy session with 23 participants who had witnessed genocide in Rwanda. With only one group session all participants experienced PTSD symptom reduction which continued through the end of the study. While phobias and trauma might seem different, it turns out they are almost identical in the nervous system. There was a learning that was so overwhelming that the system is unable to stop replaying the event.
Not everyone fully recovers in just one session, but everyone with whom I have worked experienced major relief in one session and I have never seen a client for more than three sessions for relief and recovery from traumatic experiences whether it was a single traumatic experience or a series of experiences. And none of them re-experience the trauma during the process.
What was next for Gloria?
“I went to see Larry again several times after that, including once 3 years later, when I was considering beginning a romantic relationship with an old friend who was courting me. I was afraid and anxious again, this time about opening my heart to another person. I also felt unfaithful to my late husband for some reason. Larry’s kind and wise words helped me overcome my fears and doubts and gave me clarity. I was able to reach out into life and love again, and accept the gift being offered to me.”
If you would like to read Gloria’s heart touching words without interruption, you can do so here. I am thankful to her for taking a risk and allowing me to partner with her. I’d like to partner with you to find freedom from the past and the opportunity to live in the present.