The Science Behind Trauma Recovery

One in two Americans will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. So while many of us have had our own traumatic experience or know someone who has, several factors make it completely different for each individual case. Because of this, the causes and effects of trauma haven’t always been well understood. However, in recent years, new research centered around mental health has allowed us to offer more effective forms of trauma recovery and allow people to heal. It is important that anyone who has undergone a painful experience first understand what is defined as trauma and which method is best for helping them heal from their specific experience.

The History of Trauma Research

The earliest medical research studying trauma recovery dates back to 1865 when doctors began studying soldiers returning from The Civil War. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that our understanding of traumatic events began to expand, and science found that many different things can cause long term trauma such as surviving a natural disaster or going through a painful divorce.

We now define trauma as any event that overwhelms your ability to emotionally process it. It can be a single event, like a car crash or an assault, or a lasting situation, like an abusive relationship. If there’s a painful event in your past that you just can’t seem to let go of or stop thinking about, you may benefit from trauma recovery.

Have I Experienced a Traumatic Event?

Different people react to traumatic events in different ways, so the emotional effects of trauma will vary from person to person. Possible symptoms include:

  • Intrusive thoughts or flashbacks to the traumatic event
  • Hyperarousal, which is the state of being highly anxious and alert even when you are not in any danger
  • Depression
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Irritability or anger
  • Emotional numbness
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia

While you may only experience a few symptoms, post-traumatic stress is a serious problem for everyone who suffers from it. Fortunately, trauma recovery is possible even for people with long-lasting or severe symptoms.

How Does Trauma Affect Your Brain?

Any traumatic event will trigger your brain’s limbic system. This is located at the core of your brain, and it controls the way you feel and react when something unexpected or potentially dangerous happens. This is called your stress response, also known as fight or flight.

In other words, your limbic system is there to help you survive dangerous situations. There are two parts of the limbic system that are very important for this:

  • The hippocampus: The hippocampus stores memories of things that have happened to you. This is important for learning how to handle the situations we encounter in life.
  • The amygdala: The amygdala regulates our emotional response, like fear, pleasure or anger. The stronger our emotional response to something is, the more likely it is that the memory will be stored long-term in the hippocampus. Memories attached to fear are especially likely to be stored and recalled later.

While the limbic system is important for our survival, it’s also responsible for the painful symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Anything that reminds you of a traumatic event in your past can trigger your amygdala, bringing up memories of that event from your hippocampus. The goal of trauma recovery is to relieve these flashbacks and painful emotions by re-training your limbic system’s response to triggers.

Traditional Trauma Recovery

Traditional forms of trauma recovery typically fall into one of two categories. However, because both of these methods involve deliberately putting yourself through pain, whether it be verbally talking through a situation or repeatedly exposing yourself to what is causing you pain in the first place, many people shy away from therapy and go untreated.

  • Cognitive therapy. This involves talking through your thoughts with a therapist. They may challenge the ways you’ve been thinking about the traumatic event, yourself or the world around you. Sometimes changing our perspective can help with trauma recovery.
  • Exposure therapy. This involves deliberately exposing yourself to your triggers to build up your tolerance of them. This is usually a gradual process, starting with very small exposures and building from there. In addition to trauma recovery, exposure therapy is frequently used to treat phobias.

A New Way to Treat Trauma

In 2008, a therapist named Laney Rosenzweig introduced Accelerated Resolution Therapy (AR Therapy). AR Therapy derives from the principles practiced with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. In this type of therapy, eye movement (looking from left to right) is used to induce a relaxed state similar to REM sleep.

During AR Therapy patients can access fear-based memories without feeling distressed allowing them to reduce the painful emotions, and process and resolve the memory. AR Therapy also uses a technique called Voluntary Image Replacement to replace a frightening mental image with a calm, nonthreatening one.

Research has shown promising results for AR Therapy as an effective form of trauma recovery. Compared to older forms of treatment, it usually requires fewer sessions to get results. It also offers the benefits of trauma recovery without needing to discuss or describe the traumatic event.

Evidence-Based Trauma Recovery

At The Denning Center, our first priority is to help people heal from past experiences. Offering Accelerated Resolution Therapy and traditional counseling, we help our people live their happiest life and leave traumatic experiences in the past. Contact us to speak with one of our councilors.