Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

“My husband’s affair traumatized me, and then weirdly brought us closer than ever.”

Husband's affair traumatized me

I received this fascinating letter from a reader recently, and she gave me permission to share it (with identifying features changed). She sent it after reading my articles and book, and feeling that what she read described her experience in profound ways. I hope you find her story as interesting and inspiring as I do.

Dear Justice,

Your post ‘Intimacy heretic’ absolutely resonates with me. It brought clarity to my confused mind. To think that I’m in the space I am in now is nothing short of incredible compared to where I was six months ago.

Six months ago I discovered (purely by accident) that Stan, my husband of nearly forty years, had been in a sexual relationship for three years and had fathered a daughter. Their daughter was an unplanned consequence. For the past eighteen years Stan has been regularly visiting and financially supporting the daughter that he loves.

I was traumatized by his revelations. After the initial numbness came the excruciating pain. My emotional roller-coaster began… I didn’t know this man. He was a stranger to me. His actions had crushed me.

Stan said it wasn’t me; it was him. He said that he’d always loved me but went his own way for a while… was purely self-indulgent. He begged me for another chance. He’s not the sort of guy that begs. He told me he was so very sorry for the hurt he’d caused; that he’d be a better man. It was heartfelt from him.

We got back together after some time apart. We are sixty-three years old, so should at least try again. But how on earth would I be able to ever trust him? How could I ever believe in him again, or even like him? I had to get my head around the fact that their affair began two decades ago. I had to try to accept that it was in the past (apart from his daughter who continues to be a small part of Stan’s life).

Justice, I find your term ‘tolerate’ is far more doable than acceptance. That changes my mindset – I can tolerate it now.

There were so many challenges to overcome. I had to get my power back. I had to live in the present moment. I needed to ground myself and calm my over-active mind because that was just causing me more anguish. I had to make myself important for myself.

During the challenging times, I had to remind myself of progress we were making. When I was in a dark place or overwhelmed with pain, Stan held me – no words – just held me as we went to sleep. Surprisingly, he recognized that’s exactly what was needed, or maybe he was at a loss to know what to do and it was instinctive. When he rubbed my back, my mind and body was eased.

He’d become present! A huge milestone. He soothed me; I could feel his love, his tenderness and also his pain. This was a new experience for us both. We’d never shared such deep heart-felt intimacy like that before. So simple, but the benefits are amazing. You talk about this in your book “The Re-connection Handbook for Couples”, which I read and found very valuable.

Again Justice, your insightful words “being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures… given as a gift” is spot on. I would not have made it if this hadn’t happened. I also realized that Stan also needs to be soothed – he’s been in pain too – that it’s not all about me and my needs.

What we have now is a much deeper level of intimacy. It’s extraordinary. I have felt quite confused by this, and yes, a bit embarrassed too. How did we get to this point when there was so much heart-breaking conflict and our future looked so bleak? It just seemed too weird to have reached a place where we now have a certain kind of wonderfulness. Couldn’t get much better so it’s actually pretty cool. We will surely have more obstacles, but at least know they can be handled.

Justice, your insightful writing has solved the mystery and has had a profound effect on me: the fact that not feeling full trust or emotional safety doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, that in fact it can have the exact opposite effect and bring richness… amazing.

Close friends gave us a card that read “It’s Amazing how much Right-side-up can Come from Up-side-down”. That’s certainly true.

Thank you.

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Trauma in relationships – Recognizing and managing trauma and triggers in love and marriage

Trauma in relationshipsTrauma in relationships

Trauma in relationships can be a bewildering and powerful force, and one that is not always immediately obvious. Recognizing when past traumas are showing up in you or your partner can make the difference between eventually healing a rift, and repeatedly tearing it open. Once we realize that we are dealing with a post-traumatic pattern, we can shift gears, change course, and attend much more effectively to the real matter at hand. Whether symptoms are officially diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or not, it can be useful to have some understanding of how trauma in relationships can shape individual behaviours and couple’s dynamics.

Trauma and PTSD are infinitely complex issues, and this article is meant to be a relatively simple and accessible introduction to the topic of recognizing and managing trauma in relationships. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive or prescriptive view of trauma. Many excellent books and articles are available for further study and understanding.

What is trauma?

Trauma can perhaps be best understood as an experience of being intensely overwhelmed, physically and/or emotionally, to the point of terror. There’s a sense of annihilation, either literal or symbolic. The traumatized person’s ability for comprehending and responding to the terror inducing event is pushed beyond their capacity. They become powerless in the traumatizing moments.

War, assault, rape, and accidental injuries like motor vehicle accidents can all result in an experience of trauma. Childbirth, surgeries, school, even learning to swim can all be traumatic events. Trauma can be imprinted in a brief moment, but it can also develop over years of repeated experience. What is traumatic for one person isn’t necessarily traumatic for another. Trauma is essentially subjective and individual.

Trauma is partly defined and understood by the effect it has on the nervous system. Trauma changes how a person’s nervous system regulates itself and responds to stimuli. This change, often referred to as dysregulation, can persist long after the initial event is over. To use a mechanical metaphor, it’s like a circuit gets overloaded or “blown” and stops working in a predictable or functional manner.

“Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.”
~ Source: Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. NCBI.

PTSD and post-trauma states

Trauma can sometimes be quickly processed and left behind, or it may leave a lasting psychic/emotional/somatic imprint causing far reaching symptoms in the body and mind long after the original experience. Post-trauma symptoms reflect an unprocessed, un-integrated trauma experience. The nervous system experiences the event as “unfinished,” and the event can be suddenly, internally “re-lived” when certain conditions are present.

Because we’ve been unable to effectively respond to the trauma inducing incident at the time, something in the experience remains unfinished. This goes deeper than a cognitive experience of not understanding what has happened (although not understanding is certainly part of the picture). Below consciousness, our nervous system is impacted directly. Our nervous system is, in some way, changed. It no longer responds to the world in a way that is in proportion; a traumatized nervous system responds disproportionately to perceived threat, regardless of the real level of danger. A sudden sound or movement, a familiar object or scene, a particular tone of voice, or virtually any seemingly unrelated cue can trigger a post-traumatic response.

Trauma and the nervous system – fight/flight/freeze

When past trauma gets awakened in your relationship, it might have a lot to say… or it might say very little. Trauma is a nervous system response, and it often gets described in terms of fight, flight, or freeze.

When a trauma response is activated, the person might explode in rage (fight), withdraw (flight), or they might get very quiet, still, and internal, almost like they’ve “disappeared” (freeze).

[Note – The “freeze” response associated with trauma is sometimes called dissociation. Dissociation is a cognitive (mental) and/or somatic (physical) “distancing” from one’s experience. A person in a dissociative state may appear detached, numb, blank, checked out, or otherwise absent.]

Different nervous systems employ different survival tactics at different times, and make no mistake – these are survival tactics. When a trauma response is triggered, our primitive animal self is activated. The most basic survival instinct takes over. Language and cognitive abilities can disappear altogether.

This last part bears repeating – When a trauma response is activated, our nervous system becomes highly aroused and our language (speaking) and cognitive (thinking) abilities tend to collapse or become distorted. We may not speak or think clearly. This phenomenon is, I believe, much more common, and much more important, than we tend to fully acknowledge or understand.

In a post-traumatic response, we lose access to our higher “human” faculties. Trying to reason with someone who is in this state is not usually helpful. Trying to problem solve together is useless. The only thing to do at this point is to help soothe the nervous system so that the trauma response is de-escalated and the higher faculties can come back on-line.

One of the biggest errors that people make when dealing with trauma in relationships is to push their partner beyond capacity. During post-traumatic arousal there is little chance of producing effective solutions. More likely, when pushed, a person in a post-trauma state will lash out irrationally, withdraw, or freeze up. Pushing them for clarity or change at these times is only likely to increase resentment and conflict, and ultimately damage the relationship. In my counselling practice I see many couples who have unknowingly and repeatedly pushed each other beyond capacity during a post-traumatic episode, and they bear the emotional scars to prove it.

Trauma and the window of tolerance

I teach people how to watch for trauma in relationships and how to recognize each others capacity during periods of nervous system arousal. When flight/fight/freeze responses are triggered, our capacity for negotiation and understanding shrinks quickly and dramatically. Part of the art and science of relationship is to learn to recognize and respect this level of capability in ourselves and in our partner.

It’s useful to have a vocabulary to symbolize this fluctuating level of capability. I like to talk about it in terms of a “window of tolerance.” When our window of tolerance is wide open, we are relatively able to tolerate challenging ourselves with complex concepts, with new experiences, with differing opinions or even conflicts. We are able to hold opposing or contradictory points of view without becoming too rigid or defensive.

When our window of tolerance begins to close, we lose the capability for all of the above. We become increasingly anxious and contracted. If our window of tolerance slams shut, we’re likely to be in full blown reptilian brain. Nothing really gets in.

I teach my clients to recognize their own window of tolerance, and their partner’s, so that they can recognize when it’s a good time to try and discuss an issue, and when it’s better to just wait for the window to open. We can tell each other “I feel my window of tolerance closing!” and the most skillful response is to stop pushing whatever issue is on the table and focus instead on supporting or allowing the nervous system to calm down and the window to open again.

One of the benefits of using the window of tolerance concept is that it is impersonal and value-neutral. It is non-blaming. It gives us a language for simply noticing and naming the phenomenon of nervous system arousal.

Trauma in relationships – The impact

Trauma in relationships shows up in the form of seemingly disproportionate reactions –

  • Your partner raises their voice and you freeze in absolute terror. Nothing they say can penetrate your terror. You don’t even comprehend the words they say, you are just frozen.
  • You glare at your partner for a moment and they explode in rage.
  • You’re having a conversation and suddenly your partner just storms out.
  • A loud noise from outside sends you into a full blown panic attack. Your partner asks what is going on, but you can’t even speak.

These are just a few of the hundreds of ways that un-integrated trauma from the past can create disproportionate reactions that impact your relationship. These disproportionate reactions are rooted in a nervous system that reacts automatically to certain stimuli. Your sexual relationship might be affected, especially if there is a history of sexual trauma. Intimacy of all kinds might feel uncomfortable or intolerable, causing confusion, frustration, and resentment. (Read more about intimacy, including what it is and why it can be such a sore spot in relationships – Click here.)

It’s currently fashionable in popular culture to talk about being “triggered” by virtually any uncomfortable experience. The term might get overused and misused at times, but in relation to trauma and post-traumatic symptoms, the idea of triggers is real and apt. When post-traumatic experiences are triggered, nervous system arousal is immediate and extreme.

Post-trauma triggers can be virtually anything – a sudden noise or movement, a tone of voice, startling touch, a particular word, a familiar face or image, smell, music. Triggers can be unpredictable and subject to all sorts of factors, known and unknown; one day something is a trigger, the next day it’s not.

Trauma and triggers – Tools for de-escalation

It’s important to understand that the disproportionate reactions of a trauma-related trigger, whether in you or your partner, come directly from the body, from pure instinct. As such, they respond very poorly to reason or concepts. Trying to reason or explain yourself or your loved one out of extreme nervous system arousal is unlikely to be very effective.

So what do you do when a post-trauma response is triggered in your partner?

  • Don’t take it personally. It might not actually be about you.
  • Inquire about how open or closed their “window of tolerance” is. If they don’t know or won’t say, you can assume it’s closing. (Introduce the concept and discuss it together when you both have your faculties.)
  • Slow down. Speak slowly, if at all.
  • Soothe your own nervous system. Your calm nervous system will help calm your partner’s.
  • Emphasize safety. Your partner is on red alert. On some level, they are in fear for their life.
  • Be soothing in simple ways. Use simple phrases and simple touch, if it is welcome.
  • Stay present, in body and mind. If possible, do not leave. Use eye contact.
  • Resist the impulse to reason with your partner, try to fix them, or ask them questions about their experience while they’re in it. Just “be with them.”

These tips are for while your partner is in an active state of post-traumatic nervous system arousal. Once this state has passed, the two of you may want to debrief and strategize. Discuss the topic of trauma in relationships, and how it might be impacting yours. If you start to watch for the indicators of nervous system activation in your partner (and in yourself), and if you develop the ability to calibrate yourself accordingly, you will gain access to another level of relationship skill.

[Caveat – While it can be useful and generous to learn how to support a partner who has strong post-traumatic symptoms, it’s not reasonable to try and be your partner’s therapist or sole support in this regard. Outside help may be required.]

Recommended reading –

Healing Trauma (book) by Peter Levine
Trauma and counselling – Recognizing trauma and choosing a suitable approach to therapy (article) by Justice Schanfarber

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to download a free sample chapter)

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Is mindfulness making us ill?

Is mindfulness making us ill?Is mindfulness making us ill? A reader recently forwarded me an article from The Guardian that asks this provocative question. Like virtually all popular journalism, it’s a divisive piece that will fuel both skeptics and supporters. I think the author makes some valuable and legitimate points, especially about how mindfulness can trigger dissociation related to trauma, and also about the political problem of trying to use mindfulness in the workplace to make people more productive in a work culture that is probably intrinsically unhealthy and essentially inhuman (my words, not the author’s).

What is mindfulness?

In my counselling practice I define mindfulness as having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This is a practice of awareness. Can deepening our awareness be disturbing? Yes, it can. Can it “make us ill” as the title of the piece suggests? The suggestion that awareness of our own experience is dangerous (and should thus be medicalized) is more than a little troubling to me, but I suppose we each put our faith where we believe it belongs.

Mindfulness billed as a “relaxation technique” (as stated in the article) is a problematic promise right out of the gate. Mindfulness is not first and foremost a relaxation technique, it’s an awareness practice. Awareness can ultimately have a relaxing effect, but it can also have other decidedly non-relaxing effects.

Assigning mindfulness practice en masse (whether through corporate wellness programs or mobile apps or yoga studio memberships) with the expectation that relaxation be the automatic result reveals a basic misunderstanding of what mindfulness actually means, and sets people up for potentially confusing and dissonant experiences.

True mindfulness is like peeling layers of an onion or delving into an old trunk of belongings. It takes you deeper. You might find sadness, joy, numbness, physical tension, fear. As the article implies, prescribing mindfulness for relaxation only, and then providing no support or allowance for the other experiences that awareness may uncover does seem irresponsible in some ways. Also, it fits perfectly with our current cultural paradigm, a paradigm that recognizes, validates and supports only the narrow slice of human experience that fits its own needs.

MIndfulness and social implications

A genuinely mindful (aware) society would acknowledge and make room for the full range of human emotional experiences that personal mindfulness may evoke. Much of the suffering that comes from numbness, grief, dissociation, panic, anxiety etc is less from the core experience itself, and more a result of the isolation and marginalization that comes from the absence of sacred space, of ritual where these experiences can be compassionately held, witnessed, acknowledged, shared. Perhaps the question that the article asks, “Is mindfulness making us ill?” begets further questions rather than decisive answers… “What does mindfulness ask of us? What does mindful awareness reveal about us, individually and collectively? What do we do with what is revealed?” The answers can be awkward.

The economic and political systems of our culture demand that we be materially productive at all times, at all costs. This demand comes with enormous human sacrifice. In ordinary consciousness, we’re mostly blind to this enormous human sacrifice because our cultural story is deeply woven as “natural fact” into the fabric of our being. This cultural failure to acknowledge (let alone meet!) real human needs for connection, compassion, love, patience and tolerance is much more pressing, much more tragic, and much more dangerous than mindfulness itself could ever be; and mindfulness, in a perfect paradox, may give us a glimpse into the price we routinely pay for membership in this culture. This glimpse can be incredibly disturbing, but blaming mindfulness for the disturbance is akin to blaming a microscope for the germs it reveals.

The trouble with mindfulness

Perhaps the real trouble with mindfulness is in what we expect it to deliver. Mindfulness does not fix us, it allows us to see things more as they are. As such, mindfulness is radical. Who has the authority on your awareness? Who decides how much self awareness is enough; how much is healthy; how much is dangerous? Should we sign away the care of our unconscious to the experts? Or should we accept the freedom and responsibility that come with self-inquiry? It is no surprise that mindfulness, a venerable practice probably thousands of years old, has been co-opted, diluted and commodified as a “relaxation technique” and corporate employee wellness panacea on one hand, and is now on the verge of being demonized as a public health hazard on the other. Ours is a culture that has a difficult time honouring both freedom and responsibility, and simply making room for awareness, ever-changing and uncontrolled, with all its necessary demands. It will be interesting to see where this goes.


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Trauma and counselling – Recognizing trauma and choosing a suitable approach to therapy

Trauma counselling and therapy - suitable approaches
A client came to counselling bracing themselves for what they expected would be a terrifying and awful experience. I was the fourth counsellor she had seen over the period of a few months.

This client was a woman who had been suffering from depression and anxiety following an extended period of abuse. In my office she fidgeted, avoided eye contact and appeared anxious and distressed. She told me she was tormented by something that had happened a few years ago. She had finally sought help, but after one session with her first counsellor she couldn’t bear to go back for a second.

She’d tried other counsellors too but it always ended up more or less the same. They would ask her about the event that was troubling her, she would tell part of the story, the session would end, and she would go home feeling like a wreck. Now she found herself in an impossible bind; her symptoms were getting worse but she was increasingly afraid to get help.

Being with this woman in my office, I could practically feel her nervous system reaching out and clawing at me in desperation. I focused on moderating my own nervous system as we began our first session. (Our human nervous systems, like those of other mammals, are constantly, silently communicating with each other.) I explained that I would not be pushing her for any details around painful life events. In fact, I assured her that I didn’t need to hear the story of her abuse to help her.

Everything I was sensing from this person, from her story to her body language, hinted at trauma. Here’s a useful definition of psychological trauma –

Psychological trauma is the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.

My trauma counselling approach is in some ways different from my other treatment methods. Without a suitable map for working with trauma, it’s easy to inadvertently re-trigger a traumatic response in someone and cause harm. This is true for counsellors and therapists, but also for doctors and medical professionals, teachers and educators, even parents and spouses.

This woman in my office had been repeatedly re-traumatized by helping professionals who either didn’t recognize trauma, or didn’t have a sufficient map for working with it.

Traumatic life events are generally experienced in one of two ways –

  1. The event is experienced and then integrated over time until it takes an appropriate place in our memories, or
  2. The event is experienced but then continues to haunt us with a variety of persistent mental, emotional and physiological symptoms.

In the first case, when we talk about a traumatic event from the past it feels like it happened in the past. It has taken its rightful place in the past and although it may trigger painful memories we do not feel our safety threatened in the present moment.

In the second case, talking about a traumatic event from the past may trigger extreme distress in the present moment. We may feel, against all rationality, that the event is happening again or may happen any moment. We may understand logically that this is not true but our nervous system is in fight or flight (or freeze) mode.

When past traumatic experiences get triggered, we might become panicked. We might perspire, tremble, clench. We might feel rage or despair. We might freeze, go numb or dissociate.

As you can see, trauma can trigger a lot of different symptoms. What they have in common is immediacy and a sense of disproportion. We might be confused to see someone get so triggered or so shut down by just a few words or a sound or some other small cue.

It’s important to understand that the post-traumatic response is much more visceral than it is logical. It’s a body experience more than a head experience. Feeling more than thinking. When someone is panicked or dissociated it is very hard to get through to them with reason. Trauma therapy that works directly with the body rather than entirely cognitively, or that engages reason in slow, small steps can be effective.

By instructing someone to tell the story of their traumatic event we may be setting them up for re-traumatization, as happened with the client mentioned above. If we understand something of the nature of trauma, and learn to recognize its signs, we can better support people who are struggling with its lingering effects.

Pacing is critically important when working with trauma. There is a window of tolerance that must be carefully observed. Go too fast, push too hard, and a traumatized person can quickly go into hyper-arousal or dissociative states. Nothing useful happens in these states.

Here are some signs that a trauma response may be activated in a person –

  • Trembling, clenching, flushing of skin
  • Darting or wide eyes
  • Swallowing, fidgeting
  • Shallow breathing, minimal movement, “freezing”
  • Far away sounding voice, avoidance, sense of not being present
  • Rage, aggression or terror

If you suspect that a trauma response is activated, it’s best to slow down whatever process you’re engaged in. Back off the hot topic. De-escalate any conflict or stress. Simplify your language. Show support and caring with words and body language. Attend directly to the nervous system activation that is happening in the moment. This is vitally important.

As my sessions with this particular client continued, she slowly revealed details of her ordeal. It isn’t that she didn’t want to tell her story – on some level she wanted desperately to talk about what happened. But every time she did it made matters worse. By parsing out the details at a pace that was manageable for her, and by attending to her nervous system directly at every step, and by working relationally and building trust, I was able to help this woman get some relief from her symptoms.

Telling her story – to me and to key people in her life – was actually an important step for regaining perspective, moderating nervous system arousal, and healing the sense of alienation she experienced. But she had to build up to it slowly. Only by understanding the effects of trauma and having a map to navigate it in therapy could I work with her in a truly helpful way.

Understanding and treating trauma requires training, study and practice. I use somatic processing rooted in mindfulness and Hakomi principles. This allows me to gently work with the trauma that is locked in the body, without forcing clients into potential overwhelm or retraumatization.

To learn more about trauma, PTSD and treatment I recommend Peter Levine’s books –
Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness

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