The Emotional Side of Trauma

Understanding that trauma includes emotional injury will help more people get the care they deserve.

The word trauma is so important to help those who suffer from emotional injury. Yet, people so often think of trauma as only including physical or sexual injury. Many overlook its role in their overall health and quality of life. They don’t know they are struggling with a changed nervous system that leads to a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms. Confusion about the emotional injury we call trauma is a barrier to care.

That’s why it’s important to help more people understand the emotional side of trauma. By being clear that we use a definition of trauma to include the impact of mental and emotional issues, we can help more people better understand and talk about their mental health care.

Promoting an inclusive definition of trauma

When I talk about trauma survivors, I am speaking about anyone who has survived any type of physical, emotional, or sexual trauma. Working with a trauma survivor means working with anyone who seeks to heal from the resulting personal impact on their lives. It doesn’t matter whether the impact looks like PTSD, CPTSD, coping mechanisms, dissociation, difficulty in relationships, addiction, eating disordered behavior, a myriad of other “symptoms,” or any of all of the above.

Recently, I tried to bring clarity and dive a little deeper into the exact terminologies and what they look like. I’ve addressed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)PTSD,  and how CPTSD is different from PTSD. These specific terms have their place in describing deeper aspects of trauma. However, we also need a way to talk in general about injuries that disrupt healthy ways to regulate our thoughts and feelings.

I use the words “trauma” and “trauma survivor” to encompass all types of trauma and include all of those whom it has impacted.

Here’s why…

Why a broad definition of trauma is so important

Trauma is not always easily definable. It doesn’t always fit into a certain category. Trauma is an individual’s perceived lack of safety. Whether an event or a relationship leads to trauma depends on what other sources of stability or health were available to the individual.

No one is in a position to say whether another’s experience amounts to trauma or not.  What anyone perceives as trauma is up to each individual. Nobody gets to determine how a trauma impacted you besides YOU!

By requiring diagnoses and definitions up-front, like single incident trauma, attachment trauma, complex traumaPTSD or CPTSD, I believe we are asking people to address their trauma before they understand anything about the nature of trauma! It can sometimes place further barriers where they are not helpful or necessary.

Clinical terminology can be limiting

I believe that sometimes, the terminology and diagnoses can hinder people from getting the help they need. It’s why I don’t like the borderline diagnosis or the terms Big T and Little T. (Did you know that complex trauma often falls into the category of Little T?!) Many complex trauma survivors — those with CPTSD — don’t even realize they’ve experienced trauma, which is why I’ve written articles like, “You might be a trauma survivor if… 

I believe that ultimately, it’s important to own the term “trauma survivor.” But it is unrealistic to expect people to promptly self-diagnose as a complex trauma survivor, or single incident trauma survivor, or a person with PTSD or CPTSD.  If we jump into a specific definition of trauma too soon, we may confuse and lose people who otherwise would be willing to take that first step — noticing their coping skills are no longer working in their current daily life and reaching out for help.

Being inclusive when it comes to trauma…

When I talk about trauma, I am talking about all trauma. I use the term trauma survivors, because it’s inclusive. It covers everyone with the symptoms (coping skills) we talk about. It covers those who have experienced single incident trauma or complex relational trauma as children — and every shade of gray in between. CPTSD, PTSD: It’s all trauma. All deserve help and healing.

For some people, learning about CPTSD as a diagnosis can be helpful. Knowing others share this diagnosis can help them feel less alone and more supported, knowing there are others who feel similarly.

A therapist’s role…

It’s so important for therapists to be able to sit with their clients, and make space to witness their struggle. Trauma-informed therapy opens a safe space to hold their emotions, and understand what they are experiencing, feeling, and what their perception is.

Bullying could be traumatic to some. It might not be to others. It could be a case of complex trauma. It might not be. This is why it’s so important that we be present to listen to a client’s story and understand their perspective. How does it impact their life — then and now?

Our first responsibility is to open and hold that safe space. Not try to check a box or categorize people.

The term “trauma survivor” for me, encompasses a very large umbrella. It takes time to be able to understand the depth of the trauma that developed for people, and the continued impact on their everyday life. Trauma that is complex and relational in nature presents symptoms that are relational. And just like the concept of relational trauma, helping a trauma survivor requires a more complex understanding and being present with the client.

“[N]o recovery from trauma is possible without attending to issues of safety, care for the self, reparative connections to other human beings, and a renewed faith in the universe. The therapist’s job is not just to be a witness to this process but to teach the patient how.”

― Janina Fisher, Ph.D.

At Brickel & Associates, I want to ensure that as many people get the treatment they need and deserve — without being alienated by the terminology, or having a clinical definition of trauma. So when it comes to helping individuals recover from trauma, I don’t want to add any extra pre-qualifiers for them to get help.

If your coping skills are no longer working in your life today, we are here to help.

Need support? 

If you experience symptoms of trauma or have experienced any kind of trauma in your life — whether complex, single-incident, or not-yet-sure — a trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.

Resources

About the Author

Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT is the director and lead therapist at Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she founded in 1999. She specializes in the therapeutic treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples, families and groups. Robyn E. Brickel offers treatment and psychoeducational services for many life issues and transitions, such as: A history of trauma and/or abuse, including Dissociation; Addictions, as well as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues; Body Image issues and Eating Disorders; Self-Harming behaviors, including Emotional intensity and instability; Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; Challenged family systems; Chronic illness; Co-dependency; Dysfunctional relationships; Life transitions; Loss and bereavement; Relationship distress; Self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; Stress reduction. She is an LMFT, as well as a trained trauma & addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

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