Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 13-15
Trauma is a word used a lot these days, but exactly how does it impact our mood, how we feel about ourselves and our lives overall?
I like to use a metaphor to explain trauma’s impact. Imagine you are in a canoe trying to get to a calmer, more pleasant place along a river. This place represents some meaningful change in your life; there, you can pursue your dreams and feel more stable and confident. However, past trauma creates currents so strong you keep getting pushed back up the river. Over time, your efforts can feel hopeless and futile.
The currents might be a barrage of negative thinking and beliefs about yourself that keep sabotaging your progress, like “I am not enough,” “There’s something wrong with me” or “No one really cares about me.” These core beliefs, formed in a time of trauma, can lead us to fall out of the canoe or land in places along the river that feel stuck, unsafe and scary.
Trauma can also increase our desire to numb our feelings. Numbing can lead to behaviours such as addictions, procrastination, perfectionism or obsessive-compulsive rituals, so it is tough to make progress. These behaviours can last for decades, and we can be unaware of what is giving them power and allowing them to repeatedly push our canoe back up the river.
Trauma gets under the skin
Another way trauma impacts our metaphorical canoe is by affecting our bodies. A traumatic event that happened decades ago can leave emotions stuck in the body. These are called embodied emotions. We can sense them in tension and sensations, but they are hard to release without awareness and mind/body techniques.
These emotions can dramatically effect how we feel, our thought processes and our core beliefs about ourselves. The emotions might be, for example, feelings of hopelessness and despair from tough times in childhood, when our parents argued constantly. Embodied feelings might send repeated messages to the unconscious mind like, “What’s the point in trying?”
Trauma can also cause a wide range of physical problems over time, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue; others have pointed to a connection to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and rheumatoid arthitis.1
Trauma in our body also relates to feeling triggered. Sometimes we have a big reaction to a relatively small event and wonder why. When this happens, feelings from long ago resurface so that we relive them again and again. It can take a long time to restabilize after a trigger.
Psychological consequences of trauma are also diverse, including loss of memory and concentration, mood swings, disorientation, confusion, nightmares, intrusive images and social isolation.2 In my own counselling practice, I have noted these reactions, alongside overwhelming fear and/or hypervigilance (constant alertness), emotional numbing, panic attacks, intense anger, shame and guilt, to name a few.
The science of trauma
The field of neuroscience has helped us understand the nervous system and how our brain works, which helps our overall understanding of our behaviour, emotions and cognitive processes. Neuroscience also highlights that our body needs to be included in the process of healing and helps to explain why, as I often say, we can’t talk the trauma away.
While many counselling models use talking about distress as a core purpose in the counselling process, neuroscientist Bessel van de Kolk argues that some of the best therapy is primarily non-verbal.3 He reinforces that a therapist’s job is to help clients connect with their feelings and notice what is going on within themselves. Training for what is called trauma-informed practice includes helping counsellors and other professionals understand what is helpful in working with trauma and to be aware of avoiding details of traumatic events so that clients are not re-triggered. Often the client’s challenge is to be willing to feel feelings and share them openly in a society that, at times, reinforces that you shouldn’t feel the way you do.
We now know there are many types of traumas, including complex trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), race-based trauma, collective trauma, historical trauma and intergenerational trauma, to name a few. Collective trauma refers to “the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that effect an entire society,”4 while intergenerational trauma occurs “when trauma is ignored and there is no support for dealing with it” and “the trauma [is] passed from one generation to the next.”5
To connect with and release traumatic memories, trauma-informed practice highlights key principles, techniques and models that help facilitate healing. These include:
- embodied memory: images from the past often resurface in dreams, sights, sounds and physical sensations. Trauma-informed practice focuses on these and on the body’s felt sense of what it remembers.
- breath work: when we focus on embodied memory, doing some breathing can help us become aware of bodily sensation—for example, that the throat is constricted. Through continued breath work, there may be a feeling of sadness stuck in your throat; when you reflect on your sadness, a memory may emerge that helps you understand your sadness.
- tapping: this is a mind/body technique that proponents believe makes it possible to clear emotion from the body; derived from concepts in traditional Chinese medicine, the idea is to tap areas of the body in order to release blocks and increase healthy flows of energy.6
- art-focused techniques, visualizations and metaphors: these can also help people explore traumatic memories.
- mindfulness: helps the body stay within its capacity to process memories and calm the body overall. Both the counsellor and client attune to what is surfacing in the body and what may be helpful in releasing what’s called activation, meaning emotions and physical symptoms associated with trauma.
- calming: there are a variety of other models, some newer and innovative, some longer standing, that assist with calming the body and helping to release embodied emotion, including movement, acupuncture, cranial sacral massage, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), Indigenous focusing-oriented therapy, EFT (emotional freedom technique) and TRE (tension and trauma-releasing exercises).
- Experiential unity model7: building on principles of neuroscience, this is my own model, which I developed and have used for over 14 years. It begins with a “right-brain,” creative orientation, using metaphors and images to process trauma. My model has been used in group and individual therapeutic settings to treat depression, anxiety, addictions, grief and other concerns.
Trauma-informed practice is also applicable in a wide variety of organizational settings, like schools and the legal system. Organizations can develop protocols to pay attention to, for example, what information they require from clients, and ensure that their intake processes are not triggering. Staff can be trained in noting hypo- and hyperarousal symptoms so they are alerted when trauma is activated and they can put supportive procedures in place to help.
Trauma-informed practice is a collaborative process. It’s about increasing, overall, our compassion and understanding of those who are experiencing the long shadow of trauma and walking alongside them in their healing.
About the author
Alyson is a clinical counsellor and past adjunct professor at UBC. She has authored five books, as well as a scholarly chapter. She founded and now directs the Trauma Informed Practice Institute. Alyson’s new self-help book, Heal Trauma: How to feel it, Unlock patterns and Release it, was published in February 2023 and can be purchased at a reduced price from her website: alysonquinnwrites.com
Richmond, C. (2018, Nov 29). Emotional trauma and the mind body connection. Web MD. webmd.com/mental-health/features/emotional-trauma-mind-body-connection
Cascade Behavioural Health. (2023). Symptoms, signs and effects of psychological trauma. cascadebh.com/behavioral/trauma/signs-symptoms-effects
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Allen Lane.
Hirschberger, G. (2018, Aug 10). Collective trauma and the social construction of meaning. Frontiers in Psychology 9, 1441. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01441
Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (1999). Aboriginal Healing Foundation Program Handbook (2nd ed.)
Healthline. (2023). What is EFT tapping? healthline.com/health/eft-tapping#treatment
Quinn, A. (2022). Experiential unity theory and model: Treating trauma in therapy. (2nd ed.). Lexingon Books. See: alysonquinnwrites.com/experiential-unity-theory-and-model.html