NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Overcoming Childhood Trauma With Experiential Therapy: What You Fear Now Has Already Happened

For adults who were traumatized as children, childhood trauma (also known as developmental trauma) remains active emotionally and physiologically throughout adulthood without help in therapy (see my article: Developmental Trauma: Living in the Present As If It Were the Past).

Overcoming Childhood Trauma With Experiential Therapy: What You Fear Has Already Happened

Adults with developmental trauma often experience the same fears they felt as children, however, they usually don't realize that they're experiencing emotions from the past rather than the present.

When old emotions get triggered in the present, they can be so powerful that they feel like they're related to the here-and-now rather than the past, but they are really old activation.

The trauma has already happened, but the emotional triggers make the emotions feel like they're current (see my article: Working Through Psychological Trauma: Separating "Then" From "Now").

The reason why they feel like they're from the present is that the trauma hasn't been processed in therapy.  In other words, the trauma remains "unmetabolized" (or unprocessed) in the brain and the nervous system hasn't been "updated" yet.

Although an adult with developmental trauma can try to tell himself that the current trigger is from an old feeling in the past, this usually isn't enough to keep him from getting triggered again.  This is because this type of self talk appeals to the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and not the deeper part of the brain, the limbic system, where the trauma resides.

Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma
As a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping clients to overcome traumatic experiences, I know that experiential psychotherapy is the most effective modality to overcome trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

As I've mentioned in my other articles, regular talk therapy doesn't get to the limbic part of the brain, which is why clients often develop insight (or an intellectual understanding) of their trauma, but their traumatic symptoms don't change.  They continue to get emotionally triggered in the present (see my article:  Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Your Emotional Triggers).

Experiential therapy includes EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Somatic Experiencing (also known as SE), clinical hypnosis, and AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy).  See my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Overcoming Childhood Trauma: What You Fear Has Already Happened
The following fictional vignette, which is similar to many actual psychotherapy cases, illustrates how experiential therapy helps clients to overcome developmental trauma so they're no longer triggered in the present:

Ann started experiential therapy to overcome her fear of getting romantically involved with a new man she was dating.

Two months before she started therapy, Ann met John at a party where they immediately hit it off.  When John took her out on their first date, Ann felt excited and happy to be spending time with him.  They talked for hours and it was clear that they had a lot in common and there was a strong sexual chemistry between them.

But as they continued to date and their feelings for each other deepened, Ann began to feel more fearful than happy to see John.  She knew that she still liked him a lot and that he liked her very much.  But she kept imagining scenarios where John would hurt her and stop seeing her (see my article: Wanting and Dreading Love).

The deeper her feelings became for John, the more fearful she became.  After a while, she was so fearful that there were times when she was tempted to cancel dates with John to avoid her fear. At the same time, she knew that her fear wasn't really about John.

So, she tried to reason with herself by telling herself that her fears weren't related to anything that John was doing or not doing.  But her self talk only calmed her for the moment until the fears resurrected again (see my article: Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship).

She recognized her fears about John as being part of her usual pattern with men.  Whenever she met a man that she really liked, she would become infatuated with him, but as they continued to see each other, her fears of getting hurt would increase to the point where she would end the relationship (see my article: Overcoming Your Fear of Falling In Love and Getting Hurt Again).

Ann didn't want to allow her fear of getting hurt to ruin her relationship with John.  So, she talked to her close friend, Sue, about it.  Sue told Ann that she tried for years to overcome similar fears in regular talk therapy, but talk therapy didn't resolve her problem.  She told Ann that she was able to overcome these fears in experiential therapy, and she encouraged Ann to find an experiential therapist.

After the initial consultation where Ann gave the therapist an overview of the problem and the therapist explained how she worked with experiential therapy, Ann gave her family history in the next therapy session.

Ann explained that she had been close to both of her parents as a young girl, but she was especially close to her father ("I was a real daddy's girl").  Every day she waited up for her father to come home from work so he could read her a bedtime story before she went to sleep.  He would tuck her in and wait until she fell asleep before he left her side.

But shortly after her sixth birthday, her father told her that he had to go away for three months "to get better."  When she asked him if he was sick, he explained that he had a disorder that was completely curable if he got help.  He told her that he loved her and asked her not to worry while he was gone.

Ann told her therapist that she never saw her father again, and her mother refused to talk to her about what happened to her father.

She explained to her therapist that it was many years later, as an adult, that she found out from her paternal aunt that her father had a drug problem and he went to rehab.  However, he left rehab shortly after he arrived, no one ever heard from him since that time, and the family presumed that he was either still in the grips of his addiction or he was dead.  She told Ann that the family tried to find him, but there was no trace of him.

With regard to Ann's fears about her boyfriend, John, her therapist used a hypnotherapy technique called the Affect Bridge to get to the earliest memory related to Ann's fears of being left by John.  It was not surprising to the therapist when Ann's earliest memory of this fear was feeling abandoned by her father.

Over a period of time, using EMDR therapy, Ann's therapist helped Ann to process her earliest memories related to feeling abandoned by her father.  The therapeutic work was gradual, but Ann felt better each time she did an EMDR session with her therapist.

Since EMDR uses a three-pronged approach of working on the past, present and future, Ann and her therapist worked on her fears from the past, her current fears, and her fears about the future.

By attending her EMDR sessions regularly, Ann gradually overcame her fear of being abandoned, and her relationship with John continued to deepen without her usual fear.

The fictional vignette in this article illustrates how developmental trauma can get played out in the present.

In the vignette, Ann already had an awareness that she experienced the same fears in her prior relationships, those fears led her to end those relationships, and her fears about the current relationship weren't related to anything that John was doing.

Although she was determined not to act on her fears in her relationship with John, her attempts at positive self talk to overcome her fears weren't successful because they didn't get to the area in the brain where the developmental trauma resided, the limbic system.

The Affect Bridge from hypnotherapy helped Ann and her therapist to trace back the origin of Ann's fear.  EMDR therapy enabled Ann to process the trauma from the past and her fears about the present and future so that Ann was no longer affected by her childhood trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling with developmental trauma, you owe it to yourself to work with a licensed mental health professional who practices experiential therapy.

Once you've processed the earlier trauma, you'll be free from your traumatic history so that you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.