What Are Modern Trauma Therapies?
During the 1990s, counselling evolved due to neuroscience which looked directly at what happens to the brain during trauma and psychotherapy. One of the biggest things we learned was that events and periods that overwhelm us affect us so that our ‘bodies remember.’ That is, we take in what is called a body memory—an instinctive urge that our physical bodies have to protect us from ever experiencing whatever hurt us again.
This meant that anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress reactions, ADHD, OCD, etc., were less disorders, so much as they were the body entering various states of fight, flight, freeze or shut down to try to actively help us.
What this taught us was that the 20th-century focus on talk therapy was often not touching the depth to which our bodies remember painful events. It motivated researchers and practitioners to start digging into the neuroscience data to develop therapies that went past the surface level of our thoughts and words, deep into the midbrain and all the visceral sensations of the body.
Here are but a few of the new trauma therapies that work on these deeper levels:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
What is it, and how it works?
EMDR allows us to access hidden traumatic memories, bringing them into conscious awareness. The goal of doing this is not just to feel uncomfortable feelings but to bring them into clear awareness so they may be resolved and so that closure may be achieved.
EMDR facilitates this by having you ‘bring up’ or think about events or periods of life you’d like to heal from while your therapist guides you through a special point of focus. This may be a sight or sound that alternates left and right—for example, following their finger back and forth or feeling left and right buzzing pads. This is thought to stimulate alternating brain hemispheres in a way that helps the completion and processing of traumatic content.
While that may sound bizarre, EMDR has decades of research supporting its effectiveness. It is a highly structured therapy that is broken into eight phases. Generally speaking, those who commit to a course of therapy will have greatly reduced symptoms in terms of what first brought them in the door.
While EMDR is a highly sought-after type of counselling, you may feel more sensitive or even detect an increase in your symptoms during the weeks and months of your treatment. This is because to finish traumatic memories—or close targets as it is often called—you spend some time feeling the fullness of feelings you have buried. Your daily defence strategies are removed in a way necessary to acknowledge and complete neurological ‘unfinished business.’ For this reason, it is important to finish a course of EMDR therapy once you start it.
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Somatic Experiencing (SE)
What is it, and how it works?
Somatic Experiencing focuses somewhat away from discussing traumatic events, instead placing attention on the physiological sensations that have set up camp in our nervous system following periods of overwhelm. As a somatic therapy (body-focused), it takes the stance that repeating painful stories often just reactivates traumas, stirring up the same distressing loop between mind and body.
SE instead approaches the trauma less directly, gently locating physical impulses, instincts and defence responses that were unsuccessfully enacted during traumatizing events. First, great care is made to create feelings of safety, warmth and comfort so that when uncomfortable sensations appear, they have a ‘soft landing.’ SE practitioners are taught that most of the time, we need to feel safe and regulated, only dipping into overwhelming sensations when our bodies are ready.
This therapy helps you to ‘finish’ sequences of movement and impulse that you weren’t able to complete at the moment. For instance, if a client had been in a dangerous situation and wanted to run but felt frozen, they might be guided to slowly move their legs—activating and completing a ‘blocked sequence’ to achieve some closure.
The therapy alternates between frightening sensations and safe ones. This process—known as titration—helps to slowly loosen up and complete rigid stuck sensations, allowing greater peace, freedom and flexibility in thoughts, emotions and feelings. Repeating this over time allows greater intentionality in life versus staying stuck in chronic reactive traumatic responses.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP)
What is it, and how it works?
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy has a lot in common with SE. However, since the 1980s has developed into a complex therapy that includes other approaches alongside its somatic focus. It emphasizes integrating sensations of the physical body with emotional and cognitive (thinking and beliefs) processing. Included as well is attachment theory—a social science of human relationships that we’ll get into in a later article.
Through the therapy, you and your therapist will track physiological arousal—how ‘activated’ your body is in relationship to memories. Heart rate, tension, breath and movement impulses help to inform what instinctive physical sensations are ‘stuck in your body.’ You will practice ‘completing sequences,’ something that can be quite surprising to see when in action! For instance, clients may see their arm or leg moving on its own—a compartmentalized movement that wanted to protect them from danger at one point.
While the above is very similar to SE, SP has perhaps become the more credentialed and sophisticated of somatic therapies due to its integration with other modes of healing. For instance, the act of tracking and completing sensations is paired with a highly detailed protocol helping clients to make sense of what they’re feeling, relate it to their limiting thoughts and beliefs, and re-enact how traumatic body memories interact with their patterns of relating and attaching to others.
SP practitioners undergo rigorous training during which they learn an encyclopedia of so-called ‘experiments’ they may perform with clients in the room to help learn where the pain points are, how to access them and most importantly—how to titrate (connect pain to safety) to sensations, regulate emotion and provide significant relief.
The emotional cost of unfinished somatic and emotional distress is huge. We spend so much of our energy suppressing this old pain, instead experiencing it as aching, gut distress, sickness, inflammation, emotional dysregulation and the impulsive need to escape our feelings.
The above therapies are a few possible ways of digging deep into the body and finding greater peace. If you’d like to connect with our team for a free chat regarding what path may be best for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Carson Kivari is the Founder and Clinic Director of Thrive Downtown, with years of experience helping individuals and couples overcome anxiety, depression, and burnout. He guides clients on a journey of self-exploration and trauma release to find purpose, connection, and safety. Take the first step towards healing and contact Carson today to schedule a session.