Relational and Sexual Trauma Counselling
Trauma is our emotional response when we experience something extremely negative, usually a physical and/or emotional threat to our safety.
It is an intelligent function, developed over 100,000 years, that kicks in when we are overwhelmed and flooded with emotions to act as a kind of “mute” function to help us cope.
What counts as an extremely negative event can vary widely for each of us, and our reactions to trauma can look different as well.
A traumatic event can be extremely difficult to cope with. Trauma can result from many events, experienced and/or witnessed, including accidents, and assaults.
An event can lead you to have trauma symptoms even if you were not directly involved in it. A traumatic event that you have experienced during childhood can have long lasting effects which can continue into adulthood and lead to ongoing emotional difficulties and distress.
Symptoms of Trauma
Types of symptoms which may occur are:
- feeling that the event is happening again
- intrusive memories of the event which are triggered by something which is a reminder of the event.
These symptoms are a common reaction to trauma, and many people find they decrease gradually after the event. However, if they continue to occur and cause continued distress, then professional assistance may be helpful.
There are 3 main categories of trauma:
1. Complex Trauma
Complex trauma happens over and over, frequently within the context of a specific relationship, time frame, and/or setting. The effects of complex trauma are cumulative, building up over time, and often result in direct harm to you.
2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after you have been directly or indirectly exposed to a terrifying event or intense physical or psychological harm has occurred to you, or you felt threatened.
Those with PTSD have persistent, involuntary, and frightening thoughts and memories of the event(s), may have intense physical reactions to cues of the event(s), and may strongly avoid any emotions or thoughts which remind them of the event(s).
3. Developmental Trauma Disorder
Developmental trauma disorder is a recent term in the study of psychology, and forms during a child’s first three years of life.
It is the result of abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment for the child, and hinders the child developing a secure attachment to his/her parent. It also interferes with the child’s neurological, cognitive, and psychological development.
Our trauma response and it’s legacy
As we’ve mentioned before, we humans have evolved to rely on our survival instincts. When there is a threat to our safety (either physically or psychologically), our brains turn on our “fight or flight” stress response system. As we prepare to deal with the imminent threat, our “animal brain” becomes more active, preparing us to fight or flee through various physiological responses including raising our blood pressure and heart rate.
While this is happening, our “thinking brain” becomes less active, inhibiting the brain’s frontal cortex which reduces our ability to think creatively and consider alternative perspectives.
The short-term benefit of this “fight or flight” response is that we have “made it” – we survive the traumatic event.
However, what was an adaptive response in the moment can become a maladaptive response over the longer term.
If long after the treat has passed, we still respond to situations that seem somewhat similar with the fight or flight response, our survival response system may become chronically activated resulting in persistent feelings of alarm or danger, fatigue, exhaustion and vulnerability, or we can be left with a chronic inability to assert or protect ourselves adequately.
If we are fortunate enough to have adequate safety and support after a traumatic event, we may be shaken, but we will be able to integrate the traumatic event into a cohesive narrative about our life, as an event that has passed.
However, if we are under-supported after trauma, or if the trauma occurred when we were very young or over long stretches of time, we can be left with an intense response to the traumatic event.
Even if the trauma is no longer on-going, early and chronic trauma can leave us with symptoms that “tell the story” of the traumatic event without words or understanding that we are experiencing events and feelings from long ago.
We may not remember the trauma, but we continue to relive it.
Taking your trauma into your relationships
When you experience significant trauma, it is common to feel deep down that no one can really be trusted, that the world is unsafe, and that you feel alone.
It can feel that intimacy is dangerous, or that a strong loving attachment is impossible for you.
If you are a trauma survivor you can believe you are flawed, not good enough, and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.
Developmental trauma, when early childhood relationships are sources of overwhelming fear or are completely absent, can lead to insecure or disorganized attachment.
This can give you chronic feelings of helplessness and loneliness and may have a particularly negative impact on intimate relationships. In trying to find ways to cope, you may latch onto thoughts like
- Don’t trust, it’s not safe!
- Don’t reach out, don’t be a burden to anyone!
- Don’t dwell on how you feel, just move along!
These ideas may help a person cope when they hurt so badly every day and just need to survive. But they do not help the emerging adult learn how to grow and relate to or rely on others. Even if the survivor finds a safe, loving partner later in life, the early messages from childhood may linger. These life lessons are all they have (so far) to survive the best way they know how.
Developmental trauma, such as neglect, loss, and/or violence, exposes the developing child to extreme stress which can influence their ability to cope with stress as an adult.
Additionally, the lack of secure attachment bonds in early life also interferes with the development of healthy resilience, trust in relationships, and emotion regulation tools, leaving the individual relatively ‘thin-skinned.’
If you are a survivor of sexual trauma, your past abuse almost always continues to interfere with your enjoyment of sex and intimacy in your adult relationships.
It’s very common to feel anxious about the mere thought of sex, and to emotionally and/or physically disengage from sexual intimacy, or to experience little interest or desire in sex altogether.
Working with a therapist towards healing from sexual trauma allows you to develop a healthier sense of self, to feel more positive about your body and about sex, become open to the idea of physical pleasure and intimacy, and learn to express yourself sexually in a natural way.
This journey of recovery requires courage and patience, but your therapist is there to help you every step of the way, and you will be rewarded with a healthier, more fun, enjoyable and rewarding relationship as well as a stronger empowered sense of self-worth.
Everyone who takes this journey is pleased that they did so, as it opens up so much more of their life to their innate potential and vibrancy.
At the Hart Centre, we have experienced therapists who are specifically trained in working through trauma and it would be our honour to help you.
Over time, we can help heal the effects that trauma has had on your psyche, helping you to stop unconsciously undermining the healthy relationship you desire and giving you your full life back.
Call 1300 830 552 and our friendly receptionists will help you find the best therapist for your needs, or contact us here.