Trauma and How Counselling Can Make a Difference!

Posted by: bailey on November 6th, 2014

Trauma and How Counselling Can Make a Difference!

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a highly subjective experience and can be caused by a wide range of experiences. Broadly it can be described as an experience that overwhelms the normal coping of an individual. The nervous system is what is responsible for protecting us when we are in danger. Even when we are overwhelmed the responses from our nervous system are often meant to protect us …although sometimes it does not feel like it. Often the overwhelm causes a dysregulation of the nervous system functioning resulting in a wide range of reactions and symptoms. When the nervous system is overwhelmed, dysregulation results in higher or hyper arousal (increased energy in the nervous system) or low or hypo arousal (decreased energy in the nervous system) than what might be optimal for us. This hyper or hypo arousal is what results in various reactions or symptoms.

Traumatic Reactions and Symptoms

Traumatic events vary, as do their effects. Reactions to trauma are often the body’s way of adapting and protecting itself. At times the reactions can be protective and at other times these reactions do not serve us any longer.

High and Hyper Arousal of the Nervous System

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Heart racing
  • Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event
  • Distressing dreams
  • Distress at exposure to cues that are reminders of the trauma (triggers)
  • Avoidance of triggers
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Irritability or anger
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Emotional flooding
  • Hostility and rage
  • High startle reflex
  • Difficulty swallowing or “a lump in the throat”

Low and Hypo Arousal

  • Depression
  • Feeling flat or numbness
  • Lethargy or exhaustion
  • Withdrawal
  • Amnesia
  • Episodes of dissociation and depersonalization
  • Feeling of ineffectiveness, of permanent damage, or deadness
  • A sense of guilt or shame
  • Despair or hopelessness
  • Loss of previously important beliefs
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal movement, such as tremors or difficulty walking
  • Speech problems, such as the inability to speak or slurred speech

Both High/Hyper Arousal and Low/Hypo Arousal

  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Excessive risk taking
  • Acting or feeling as though the event were recurring
  • Digestive system problems
  • Pain
  • Inability to trust
  • Lack of connection with others
  • High or low sexual desire
  • Inability to have orgasms

How does therapy support people with trauma reactions?

Psychotherapy helps heal trauma by helping the client regulate the nervous system and create healthy new patterns. Regulation of the nervous system or bringing the energy in nervous system into a healthy normal pattern can be done through creating a trusting relationship with the therapist and through strategies that are taught within the session that the client practices at home.

As trauma affects the whole body using a body-based or somatic approach such as Somatic Transformation can help shift the trauma in a comprehensive way. Practices of the therapist include:

Somatic empathy- where the therapist uses bodily awareness to imagine, attune and resonate with the perceptions of the other.

Somatic inquiry- a process where the clinician approaches the other with wonder, interest, and awe to explore specific phenomena of inner and outer lived experience.

Somatic interventions- choices by the therapist to focus, discuss, and move so a to facilitate embodiment of a person’s lived experience. This experience may include sensations, movements, emotions, images, archetypes, and thoughts.

Somatic reflection- co-synthesizing to embody and integrate the meaning emerging in the session.

Trauma work is often done in stages.

Stage 1-

Often within the first stage of therapy the aim is that clients understand and manage their trauma reactions as well as develop safety and coping skills. Safety is broadly defined and involves real or perceived threats to self and others. It is often the longest stage of therapy and is likely to make a substantial impact on the client’s life. It is a critical stage as it provides the foundation for all other therapeutic work. The felt sense of safely is regulating to the nervous system.

Stage 2-

The goal of stage two is to gradually confront the trauma and make sense of it at a pace that is safe, manageable, and not overwhelming. The foundation of safety in the first stage of the model allows the client to work between the trauma and trauma avoidance with a relatively regulated nervous system. The client does this while oscillating between vitality and strength and the trauma. In this phase of treatment the individual attempts to process trauma, resolve impasses, promote posttraumatic growth, and integrate the traumatic experience.

Stage 3-

The final stage of this treatment model involves moving beyond traumatic experiences and facing the task of creating a future. This stage moves beyond previous work. After having acknowledged the loss related to the trauma, a new self must be developed. Empowerment and reconnection are the core experiences of recovery. There is exciting growth that occurs at this stage.


Courtois, C. (1999). Recollections of sexual abuse: Treatment principles and guidelines. New York: W.W. Norton.

Haskell, L. (2003). First Stage Trauma Treatment: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals Working With Women. Canada: Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

Levine, P. (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. CA: North Atlantic Books.

Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. CA: North Atlantic Books.

McEvoy, M. & Ziegler, M. (2006). Best Practices Manual for Stopping the Violence Counselling Programs in British Columbia. BC: BC Association of Specialized Victim Assistance and Counselling Programs

Stanley, S. (2014). Personal Communication. Victoria, BC.



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