Women who have experienced trauma, either as children or as adults, can find it challenging to feel happy or optimistic. They may try to push the traumatic events out of their memory, but trauma is impossible to escape. Unresolved trauma will disrupt the sense of safety and cause an undercurrent that things simply are not okay.
Some women are currently living in situations where there is on-going trauma, such as in a home where she is a victim of domestic violence; she may still be under the constant control of caregivers, unable to break away and individuate. She believes it impossible to escape her situation, but I know it is not.
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When trauma is not processed in the body, it lies dormant in the nervous system as “traumatic memory.” Sometimes the traumatic disturbance is so great that the brain blocks it from being remembered; despite this, an unsettled feeling still lingers. How one reacts to terrible events causes the trauma, rather than the actual event itself.
Sometimes, a traumatic memory can be triggered by an unrelated event in the present, which will send the body into overwhelm. This can be in the form of extreme anxiety, panic attacks, or going into a freeze state, or shut-down.
In my Integrative Psychotherapy practice, some clients seek my assistance because they have experienced some kind of abuse. Not every woman realizes that she has sustained abuse, as abusive behaviors have been normalized to her, and she has nothing else to compare her experience to.
At times it becomes necessary for me to educate a woman on how loving caregivers should have treated her while growing up, or how her partner should treat her to show her love and respect. I help her connect her current difficulties to her previous experiences, exposing her to the reality that it isn’t her fault that she feels how she does.
***It should be noted that it is not necessary to consciously remember what happened in order to release trauma.
The term complex trauma (also known as developmental trauma) refers to a type of trauma that occurs over time, such as when a child is exposed to multiple traumatic events, like chronic abuse and neglect, at the hands of her caregivers. Where caregivers should have been a source of safety and stability, helping the child reduce her stress, they were the ones creating it.
An infant who did not feel safe and secure with her primary caregiver, or whose caregiver was unable to regularly reflect back their connection and positive admiration for her, will not learn to soothe herself. With no internal resources to calm herself down or to make herself feel better, she becomes dysregulated.
She will resort to unhealthy methods of coping and calming herself down, such as disassociating, overeating, emotional suppression, and so on. These behaviors may have been effective for her in childhood, helping her survive at home, but can become dangerous behaviors in adulthood, like self-harm, drugs or alcohol, and other risky behavior.
Chronic stress from trauma affects brain development in children. It disrupts a child’s ability to form secure attachments and develop a sense of self. Survivors of complex trauma are at a higher risk for physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges in adulthood.
Trauma and the Stress Response
The body’s natural stress response— going into “fight or flight”— is activated when there is a threat. When neither fight or flight responses are an option in a dangerous situation, a “freeze” response is activated. A freeze response is when a threat is perceived as being so frightening that the body automatically shuts down due to overload.
A child living in a home where she is unsafe may reach a physiological threshold where she will shut down or freeze. The freeze response is useful in childhood as fighting or running away from grown abusers would likely cause even more damage. However, if unaddressed, the freeze response will result in difficulties in adulthood.
A woman in a freeze state may regularly experience numbness, restricted breathing, or hold her breath unconsciously. She may have an ongoing sense of dread and an underlying feeling of heaviness. Some women in a freeze state experience low energy, and the sense of being stuck on “off.” Unresolved trauma will disrupt her sense of safety, creating an undercurrent that she is not okay.
Effects of Trauma
To cope with trauma, women may engage in self-harm, whether to mask the emotional pain that they feel or in order to just feel something, as they always feel numb. There are women who engage in risky behavior; they feel that nobody cared about them while growing up, so they commit to not caring about themselves either. Or, in their fantasy, if something bad were to happen to them, then maybe their caregivers would finally care or show up for them.
Some women who were traumatized as children seek out partners who will love and nurture them to make up for what they did not get while growing up. Unfortunately, many learn the hard way that until they break the pattern of attraction to people with similar characteristics of their abusers, they will keep attracting partners that mistreat them.
At times I need to remind a woman that she is living in current times, and is no longer a defenseless child living in the home she grew up in. It becomes important to repeatedly distinguish between “then” and “now.” I remind her that she is a strong adult, capable of protecting herself, and I guide her to connect to her power within.
In sessions I employ approaches such as guided imagery, inner child work, grounding techniques, mindfulness, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), and Somatic Experiencing (SE), among others. I also teach women Self-Regulation Skills, Anxiety Management Techniques, and offer Resilience Training, all in the service of her loving and accepting herself, unconditionally.
Inner Child Work for Trauma
When a woman resists showing herself compassion, I know that she still sees herself as her abusers made her see herself. Recognizing this, I ask her to imagine herself as a child; I then have her have a dialogue with her inner child, using her imagination. In most cases, women admit that they would not speak to a child in the harsh manner in which they address themselves. From this experience, a softening begins to take place. This is a powerful intervention which begins the process of making peace with the self.
I encourage women to maintain an on-going relationship with their inner child (or children), and to reparent themselves by acting act as a good mother to themselves, in and out of sessions. When there is resistance to this activity, we will work through it. I prioritize maintaining a protected, supportive environment so that my clients feel comfortable doing this very deep work with me.
Trauma resolution through Integrative Psychotherapy and SE decreases fear and helplessness, enhancing resilience. It restores inner balance, helps strengthen confidence, and increases vitality. From our work, women develop an increasingly optimistic outlook and improve their capacity to engage more fully in life.
What My Clients Say
I remember I was so nervous to have my first session with Heidi because I did not know what to expect but because she was so patient, kind and understanding she made me feel very comfortable to open up. One of the main things she’s helped me accomplish is to stand up for myself, communicating, and also has helped me to not overthink my decisions. I look forward to our sessions every week because it gives me a chance to talk about the strengths and weaknesses I’ve come across and her guidance has really helped me. Thank you Heidi!
Most of my life I lived with a feeling that something was off. I could never tell what it is, but the feeling was always there. I came to Heidi in hopes of "saving" my relationship, and through our work I found something better, I found myself. Before Heidi I was skeptical of therapy, I thought only "crazy" people went there. At first I was nervous and uncomfortable, but Heidi was so gentle, empathetic, and non judgmental that I soon was looking forward to our sessions. She gently guided me on the journey of discovering truth about my childhood and the suppressed feelings that I've been carrying around for decades. With Heidi I discovered psychosomatic therapy (somatic experiences), and consciously experienced parts of myself I didn't know existed. I now know where the feeling of something being off comes from and why it's there. I've become connected to my body and my emotions, I've learned how to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and loving towards myself. Heidi showed me how good it feels to be seen and heard for who I really am.
I would not be where I am today without the work I've done with Heidi. This includes navigating a career as an educator, aiming for growth and still maintaining my sanity. It also includes learning about myself, my impulses and strategies to deal with those, as well as learning to set boundaries with those around me. Heidi has helped me not just find my voice, but to clarify it and use it to support my strengths and goals.
I started seeing Heidi when I was having trouble at work. I really liked her practice of meeting with you so we could both decide whether we were a good fit for one another. Her warm and welcoming demeanor put me at ease almost at once. Heidi is a great listener, and very thoughtful in her responses. As a result of her guidance and support, I was able to overcome my fears of career growth. Her techniques made it possible for me to succeed in my endeavors to find a new, more suitable position. After 20 years in the workforce, thanks to Heidi, I was finally able to find the right professional environment. Heidi has also helped me grow in my personal life. She has opened my eyes to focusing on what is important to me, and not just accepting things as they are if it is not right for me. I have gone through a few heartaches, and thanks to Heidi, I have been more selective and that has led to a much more fulfilling outcome in terms of relationships, whether it be friends or romance.
It has been difficult for me in the past to open up completely to therapists in the way that I needed to in order to benefit from the service. From day one, Heidi always made me feel comfortable through being genuine, present, warm and non-judgemental. This allowed for me to completely open up, be vulnerable and bring to sessions the topics that I deeply needed to speak about. Heidi is creative and open-minded and she helped me to have to develop a more hopeful and expansive worldview. I always looked forward to our sessions together.
Empathy is the truest mark of a psychotherapist, and Heidi's ability to truly listen and care is what makes her such a fantastic therapist. Throughout my time with Heidi I always felt supported. Her understanding and flexibility went a long way towards creating a safe space. I can honestly say much of the progress I have made, the confidence I feel now, is directly because of our time together.