To heal from trauma means finally dealing with the source of the trauma, whether it’s childhood abuse or neglect, combat experiences, or a natural disaster or a violent assault. How can this be done, however, when trauma provokes such negative and overwhelming feelings – feelings that most try hard to keep safely buried?
Therapy can be a vital step, helping the person feel safe enough to revisit their trauma without being retraumatized in the process. Getting the right support is key, however. Not only is it important to connect with a therapist well-versed in effective therapeutic approaches, it’s also vital to seek out a person with whom you feel a personal connection.
Multiple studies confirm that a person who feels good about their relationship with their therapist is more likely to have a positive outcome. A recent study from Bowling Green State University researchers takes the concept a step further, noting that a deep connection between a therapist and patient can lead to “sacred moments” that increase well-being on both sides.
With that in mind, here are four things to look for to make your therapeutic experience most effective:
Knowledge. Your therapist should, of course, be up to date on treatment options – techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches new ways of thinking of old experiences; neurofeedback, which can help rewire the brain to overcome trauma-induced changes; equine therapy, which can be a helpful supplement for those who find it hard to trust human connections; and EMDR, which can help with the process of moving beyond the past.
Ask your therapist to explain which treatments they consider most effective and the training they’ve had in each. Some therapists have come by some of their knowledge through personal experience with trauma. While it’s not appropriate to delve into their personal background, you can ask if they’ve gone through the treatments (most do, as part of their training), what they’ve gained from the experience, and why they think it may be right for you.
Openness. There is no one right way to treat a person with trauma and beware of the therapist who insists there is. He or she should be open to a variety of evidence-based approaches, be willing to supplement with alternative therapies, and take your input seriously.
An ability to help with all of trauma’s manifestations. In an attempt to numb the feelings that arise from trauma, many turn to drugs or alcohol. In fact, about two-thirds of those who seek treatment for substance abuse report they were emotionally, physically or sexually traumatized as children. If substance use is part of your response to the overwhelming feelings that result from trauma, your therapist should be prepared to help you deal with both rather than insist they be treated in isolation. Coming to an awareness of how one feeds off the other, creating co-occurring disorders, is key to stopping the cycle.
An empathetic style. When you’ve been traumatized, it can be hard to feel safe, so the personal style of your therapist is important. The first meeting can tell you a lot. Do you feel as though they are trying to set you at ease? Does the necessary questioning make you feel as though you’re being judged or does it make you feel better understood? It’s important to be realistic and accept that no matter who helps you, the process of digging through past trauma is bound to be difficult, but you can minimize the distress by seeking a therapist who helps you lower your guard rather than retreat further into your defenses.
Despite the care you show in picking a therapist, there is no perfect formula and it may take an attempt or two before you find a good match. It’s worth the effort. When you do connect with a therapist and develop that safe therapeutic environment, healing can begin. In time, the past becomes the past, the present can at last be experienced free of negative associations, and the future becomes worth working toward.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry and writes a blog about addiction. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a number of programs that specialize in treating emotional trauma including The Ranch in Tenn. and Malibu Vista women’s mental health center in Calif.
****From my experience, please ensure to seek out an Experienced Trauma Therapist for PTSD