NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 14, 2022

Becoming More Emotionally Available in Your Relationship With Experiential Trauma Therapy

The focus of my last two articles has been on emotional availability (What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Available? and How to Become More Emotionally Available in Your Relationship). The current article focuses on how experiential trauma therapy can help you overcome unresolved trauma so you can become more emotionally available (see my articles: How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect How You Feel About Yourself and How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect Relationships).

Becoming More Emotionally Available in Your Relationship

How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect Your Ability to Be Emotionally Available
In my last article I discussed how being emotionally available in a relationship can be more challenging when you have unresolved trauma. 

Emotional survival strategies that were adaptive during childhood trauma, including emotional numbing and suppression of emotions, are no longer adaptive in adult relationships (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

How Unresolved Trauma Can Affect Emotional Availability

In addition, emotional triggers, which are part of unresolved trauma, add to the difficulty of letting go of these maladaptive strategies.  When triggers occur, it's difficult to know if your reaction is from the past or the present (see my article: When the Traumatic Past Lives on in the Present).

Self help strategies are temporarily helpful in the moment to manage triggers, but these strategies don't help you to overcome trauma.

Experiential trauma therapies are mind-body oriented therapies which include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, Somatic Experiencing, AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), Parts Work, and hypnotherapy (see my articles: Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind and Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy).

A Clinical Vignette: Becoming More Emotionally Available With Experiential Trauma Therapy
The following clinical vignette is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed:

After his girlfriend, Sara, gave Ted an ultimatum that either he get help in therapy or she would leave him, Ted sought help reluctantly in experiential trauma therapy.

In the past, Ted attended cognitive-behavioral therapy to deal with emotional triggers that often overwhelmed him, and he learned strategies to use when he was triggered.  

But even though Ted had these strategies, the triggers continued to occur, and when he was triggered, he withdrew emotionally from Sara, which was upsetting to her (see my article: Understanding a Partner Who Withdraws Emotionally).

Sara was working on her own unresolved trauma in experiential therapy and Ted's emotional withdrawal triggered her own history of early childhood emotional neglect.  

Sara told Ted that she felt hurt and angry when he became emotionally distant and she couldn't remain with him if he didn't get help.  

Initially, Ted believed he could overcome his trauma on his own, but since his attempts continued to be unsuccessful, he knew he needed help.  

Ted's therapist got a detailed family history to understand the origin of his psychological trauma, which included a long history of childhood emotional neglect.

Working Through Trauma in Experiential Therapy

At first, Ted felt defensive about his childhood history.  He knew his parents were also highly traumatized people themselves because of their own family backgrounds, and he felt disloyal talking about them in therapy.  

But his therapist helped Ted to understand that therapy isn't about blaming parents, especially parents who were struggling to do the best they could (see my article: Moving Beyond Blaming Your Parents in Therapy).

Ted also learned about intergenerational traumawhich is trauma that affects one generation after the next in the same family.  Until then, Ted didn't know about intergenerational trauma, and it made him think of his maternal and paternal grandparents and their own psychological struggles. 

Ted didn't want to keep hurting Sara, and he didn't want to lose her.  He also thought about his future. He thought about the children he hoped to have with Sara after they got married.  He told his therapist he didn't want to pass on his trauma symptoms to his children.  He wanted these symptoms to end with him, which increased Ted's motivation in therapy.

As a first step, his therapist helped Ted to expand his internal resources and coping strategies.  

She also helped him to expand his emotional window of tolerance so that, over time, he developed a greater emotional capacity to handle his triggers when they came up.  

With increased emotional capacity, Ted decreased his emotional avoidance strategies.

Since Ted was a perfectionist, like his father, who demanded perfection from Ted and shamed him when he couldn't live up to his father's expectations, his therapist also helped Ted to see the connection between perfectionism and shame.  

At that point Ted had developed sufficient coping strategies and expanded his emotional window of tolerance enough so that his therapist knew he was now ready to process his childhood trauma using experiential trauma therapy.

They began by doing Parts Work (also known as Ego States therapy or Internal Family Systems therapy or IFS).  Through Parts Work, Ted developed a sense of empathy and compassion for his younger self.  

He imagined being able to nurture his younger self, who was emotionally neglected.  Even though Ted was using his imagination, he had a genuine felt sense of healing. He also meditated on his younger self between therapy sessions and journaled about his experiences (see my article: What is the Felt Sense in Experiential Therapy?).

The next stage of his therapy involved EMDR therapy (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Using EMDR, over time, Ted and his therapist processed his childhood trauma.  Although EMDR and the other forms of experiential therapy tend to work faster than regular talk therapy, Ted and his therapist worked for over a year to complete his treatment. 

Becoming More Emotionally Available in Your Relationship

Along the way, Ted saw improvements in his ability to be more emotionally available to Sara.  Sara was also happy that Ted was more emotionally present with her.  Instead of numbing himself whenever difficult emotions came up, Ted now dealt directly with uncomfortable emotions and remained present. He was also more outwardly affectionate and emotionally attuned to Sara.

Self help strategies can help when you're trying to be more emotionally available in your relationship, but they're not enough to overcome psychological trauma, especially unresolved childhood trauma.

In order to cope with trauma, people develop emotional survival strategies that were adaptive at the time of trauma to keep them from becoming even more traumatized.  The problem is that those survival strategies also create their own problems, especially in adulthood when people enter into relationships.

Experiential trauma therapy therapies are mind-body oriented therapies that provide a window into the unconscious mind.  This is one of the reasons why it tends to be more effective than regular talk therapy.  

Getting Help in Trauma Therapy
If you have attempted to deal with unresolved trauma on your own without success, you could benefit from working with an experiential trauma therapist.

Once your trauma is resolved, you can live a more fulfilling life and be more emotionally available to yourself and your partner.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist

I work with individual adults and people in relationships.

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

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.