Understanding traumatic abuse

Trauma entails exposure to abnormal conditions that overwhelm our capacity to understand, recover, and adapt. Although accidents and natural disasters can be traumatic, the type of trauma I address includes abuse at the hands of a person or people that have emotional, physical, and/or material power over you. Traumatic abuse disrupts our functioning in mind, body, relationship, and spirit.

It is not uncommon for people exposed to traumatic experiences to believe things weren’t that bad, that what they experienced was normal, and that as adults they should be over it by now. Many might not consider that what they experienced was traumatic. Others suffer a painful dual experience, knowing things were not right but struggling with chronic doubt at the same time. One of the first things I will do to help is validate the reality of the traumas you experienced and to name the ways the resulting pain continues to have an impact upon you.

Childhood trauma can include exposure to:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional and verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse including exposure to a confusing and overly sexualized family environment
  • Abuse perpetrated by family member other than parent(s) – sibling(s), grandparent(s), etc.
  • Exposure to a chaotic, confusing, and/or violent family environment
  • Loss of a parent, sibling, or other caretaker
  • Exposure to parental mental illness, parental alcohol/substance abuse, or unresolved parental trauma
  • School/peer bullying

Other forms of traumatic abuse can include exposure to the following during childhood, adulthood, or both:

  • Domestic/partner abuse
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Exposure to war, political persecution, and/or community violence
  • Exposure to racism/discrimination, sexism, heterosexism, religious persecution, or any form of persecution and/or oppression

The effects of traumatic abuse can be severe and long lasting. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for your efforts to tell what happened and to seek help, to be met by invalidation and victim blaming. Such experiences can also be traumatizing.

The harm that comes from traumatic abuse can include:

  • Harm to your sense of self:

    • Feeling inferior, bad, damaged, less than human, in ways that feel permanent
    • Self-hatred, shame, and self-blame including blaming yourself for the abuse and questioning the legitimacy of your emotional pain
    • Feeling that you are always sabotaging yourself or ruining things
    • Difficulty accepting your mistakes, failures, and limitations
    • Difficulty believing your talents, skills, and positive personal qualities are real
    • Feeling that you are not fully engaged in your life or that your life lacks meaning and purpose
    • Difficulty asserting yourself, setting boundaries, or expressing anger
    • Physically harming yourself, thoughts of suicide, and suicide attempts
  • Harm to your interpersonal relationships:

    • Difficulty trusting others
    • Fears of emotional vulnerability and intimacy
    • Difficulty expressing yourself sexually
    • Feeling alienated from others
    • Feeling that you must protect others from the traumas you’ve experienced or that no one wants to hear it, making it hard to talk about what happened to you
  • Difficulty trusting your own mind and feeling out of control:

    • Chronic doubt and mistrust of your judgment
    • Problems regulating emotions – at times feeling overwhelmed and at times feeling detached or dead inside.
    • Alcohol and substance abuse or other addictive behaviors such as binge eating and compulsive sexual behaviors.
      Depending upon the nature of your struggle with addictive behavior we might consider referral to specialized addiction treatment to augment our work.
    • Flashbacks including painful and frightening experiences that make you feel as if the trauma is happening again.  Other forms in which this re-experiencing can happen include nightmares, panic attacks, and frequent startle responses.
    • Feeling afraid and/or disgusted by your own thoughts, feelings, fantasies, or dreams.
    • Feeling that you aren’t in charge of what happens in your mind.
  • Harm to your sense of well-being:

    • Chronic anxiety and depression
    • Intense anger and rage
    • Difficulty with self-care
    • Sleep difficulties
    • Digestive distress
    • Cardiovascular disorders
    • Compromised immune system functioning
    • Chronic pain

How I can help

The road to recovery from trauma contains two central approaches:

1. The healing and empowering psychotherapy relationship. The healing comes from understanding your emotional experiences precisely how you experience them. I will pay careful attention to the fullness of your emotional communication including your words, voice tone, gesture, facial expression all which tells a story of how the traumas you’ve experienced live inside of you.

I will do my best to feel these painful feelings with you while maintaining an observing stance so that we can work on making sense of what you feel. My training has helped me to build the capacity to notice and process painful states of mind that other practitioners might tend to not notice or even avoid.

I will pay careful attention to how our own interactions serve as a map for understanding experiences you’ve never had the words to express

I will help you to pay attention to your own train of thought, to your body, and to the images your mind conjures in an effort to empower you to know and accept yourself and what has happened to you

I will help you become aware of personal qualities and abilities that have been misunderstood and/or undermined by the traumas you’ve experienced

2. Emotion regulation strategies, breaking self-destructive behavioral cycles, and effective life action strategies:

a. Mindfulness practice – learn to observe your inner world with acceptance, awareness, and appreciation. The goal is to reclaim your mind as a safe place to think, feel, and know about yourself.

b. Learn what triggers overwhelming emotional states and self-destructive behaviors. Often what seems like acts of self-destruction or self-defeat contain a self-protective purpose that I will help you to access.

c. Learn cognitive-behavioral strategies of calming and empowering yourself that are congruent with your personal style and preferences. A balanced approach to problem solving and personal growth – problem solving informed by an in-depth understanding of the personal issues involved increasing the likelihood of success.

d. Build an integrated and authentic self-image including a vision of your future self. Reconnect with your desires, talents/skills, and ambitions while generating specific strategies for creating a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.

e. Build supportive relationships and community connections and resources