Why We Face a Crisis of Meaning After Something Traumatic Happens to Us

Yes it is normal to believe that “nothing matters” after something traumatic happens to you. If something horrific happens to you, you may feel worthless or like you “deserved it.” Traumatic experiences, and anytime the autonomic nervous system is overwhelmed can actually change your moods, thought patterns, reaction patterns, and even one’s viewpoint on relationships, safety, and the world.

Even if something that other people label “minor” happens to you, but you feel out of control and your nervous system is overwhelmed–this can be stored as a traumatic experience that the mind and body reference again and again (even without your permission). And following such an incident, your automatic belief systems may also have changed without your permission. You may find yourself questioning your safety (even when you aren’t in an unsafe situation), your self-esteem (no matter how you felt about yourself previously), your ability to relate to other people and the world around you, and you may be suspicious of others (no matter who they are).

Traumatic experiences, or any situation where the nervous system (Autonomic Nervous System) is overwhelmed and the mind believes the body to be in danger can affect the brain for hours, months, or years to come. That is, if the incident or experience goes unaddressed.

Let’s learn a little about the brain and why trauma-informed counseling is such a powerful shift forward in the understanding of the human experience, the ability of therapists to help people, and in the ability for people to feel hope about eventually feeling better.

Studies have shown that trauma affects the brain, particularly in three areas: the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

  • Amygdala
    • Located in the limbic system which responds to emotional stimuli
    • Generates emotions, survival instincts, and memories
    • Detects fear and senses threats
    • If the amygdala is chronically overworking or suddenly overwhelmed by a traumatic event, it becomes hyperactive all the time.
    • Hyperactivity can lead to a chronic stress response or being “on edge” all the time or easily startled. This can make it difficult to concentrate, sleep, or feel calm.
  • Hippocampus
    • Located in the limbic system in the brain
    • Stores and retrieves memories
    • Differentiates between past and present experiences
    • When affected by trauma, the hippocampus may shrink
    • This can affect how easily trauma survivors can recall memories. It can also prevent the individual from being able to distinguish between current and past threats, sending them into a fight or flight response when confronted with stimuli that resemble past traumas
  • Prefrontal Cortex
    • Located in the front part of the brain, or frontal lobe
    • Plans complex cognitive behavior, expresses personality, aides in decision making, and moderates social behavior
    • Under normal conditions, the prefrontal cortex can respond rationally to moments of panic from the limbic system.
    • However, if the limbic system is overworking and overriding the prefrontal cortex, a person may not be able to rationally respond to fearful emotions

At times, following a trauma, the brain’s natural proclivity to protect a person goes into overdrive and results in various symptoms, including PTSD, Anxiety, Hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, and more. The good news is that the brain is flexible and can be retrained to respond appropriately to the environment. In fact, the brain science labels this flexibility: Plasticity. If helpful interventions are applied, the brain can and will rewire itself in a way that actually reduces the symptoms one experiences after a trauma. In fact, EMDR Therapy taps into the natural healing process by accessing the adaptive information processing centers of the brain in a safe way. Don’t worry, EMDR Therapy and Trauma-Informed Counseling techniques are not going to “coach” or “inspire you” to change your thinking patterns through “positive thinking.” EMDR Therapy and Trauma-Informed Counseling Techniques rely on empirically proven methods that are vastly different from popular expressions (“move on”, “get over it”, “just stop thinking about it”), and are quite divergent from post popular talk therapies that already exist.

Thanks to research, we have learned how the brain treats traumatic memories, how intrusive thoughts and flashbacks occur, and how even “small things” can trigger intense emotional reactions (depression, anxiety), far after the traumatic event has passed.  EMDR therapy and Trauma-Informed Counseling techniques join with the ways that the brain wants to heal–through adaptation. There is a lot more to learn about EMDR therapy outside of this blog if you want to know how it specifically addresses these triggers, events, and symptoms. Start here.

Once you have been through the process and addressed the traumatic memories, events, and triggers head-on with the help of an experienced EMDR or trauma-informed counselor–your mind will work on creating new paths of meaning, which will surprise you. Our mission at the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids, MI is to see you as a human being in your full humanity, and serve you utilizing the latest empirically-proven counseling methods. We refuse to reduce people to a diagnosis, bring in cultural judgements, or participate in elitist “all knowing” medical professional attitudes–we have a heart for people and we take advanced training seriously.

What to expect:

Stages of Most EMDR Therapy and Trauma-Informed Counseling:

  1. Assessment (Learning about what happened–you don’t have to disclose ‘everything’ but it helps).
  2. Containment and Stabilization (The Therapist helps you calm your nervous system and work to partition off the negative symptoms).
  3. Trauma Accessing (This is known in EMDR therapy as EMDR Phase 4– where the therapist works to desensitize the emotional trigger and traumatic pain that you feel).
  4. Abreactive Synthesis (The Trauma Accessing then actually targets the negative thoughts, stories, and narratives surrounding the traumatic event itself, to help the person make meaning).
  5. Skills Strengthening (Once a person begins to feel better and have less traumatic symptoms, the therapist will work alongside them to help them with skills to re-enter stressful situations and circumvent future triggers).
  6. Integration (Following “trauma accessing” – aka processing, the therapist and the client will figure out new narratives to integrate the memories into the past, so they no longer feel present. Following this process, the client will be able to actually feel like they are living in the present and feel some levels of happiness).
  7. Follow-Up (This is the maintenance phase of the counseling process where the client goes out into the world and encounters difficulties. They may come to the therapist for some “adjustments” or to “process triggers” but the majority of the work has been finished at this point).

The good news is, that after someone participates in Trauma-Informed Counseling therapy, such as EMDR therapy, they often notice that their crisis of meaning in the world, resolves, and they begin to feel like themselves again. Not everyone’s therapy is the same and we will customize your counseling to your specific needs and goals. However, you are interested in resolving bothersome symptoms, haunting memories from the past, intrusive thoughts, and mood swings–it may be time to participate in some type of trauma-informed counseling.

Learn more by reading about the Trauma Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids, part of Health for Life Grand Rapids.

Call the office: 616-200-4433

Or drop us a line on our contact form.

References:

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Grand Rapids

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