Each month, Dr. Levy answers a common question he has received from professionals, caregivers and parents during three decades of pioneering work on attachment theory, treatment and training. Previously, he discussed the Seven Functions of Secure Attachment and the Dependency Paradox. This month, he explains why it is important and effective to communicate about trauma experiences.
Question: What is the benefit of having clients (children, teens and adults) tell and retell their trauma stories? Doesn’t this just make them feel worse, as they remember details of their traumatic experiences?
Answer: Parents and even mental health professionals will sometimes avoid talking with children, teens and adults about their prior traumas, fearing that such a discussion will cause more pain and reinforce the trauma. However, experience shows us that when clients share their stories within a context of attunement, support and safety, while developing a coherent and sensible narrative, they can face their fears and pain, and begin to heal the trauma.
There are several reasons why communicating, one’s story is therapeutic:
1. It encourages the two hemispheres of the brain to work together to create a rational narrative. One therapeutic goal when working with individuals who have experienced trauma is to facilitate the integration of the two brain hemispheres. The right side of the brain processes emotions and explicit (autobiographical) memory. The left side is logical, making sense of feelings, experiences and memories. When children, teens and adults talk about their experiences and emotions, while being helped to create an honest and logical narrative, their right and left hemispheres are working together. The task of developing a rational narrative is accomplished during several therapeutic interventions, including the first-year attachment cycle, inner child metaphor and psychodramatic reenactment.
2. Sharing traumatic experiences in a safe and supportive space helps to rewire the brain. Having a child tell their story in a context of support and attunement is crucial for the development of secure attachment. Therapists and parents listen to the child’s emotions and perceptions with verbal and nonverbal responses of empathy and understanding. The child learns that they are no longer alone and therefore are more able to face and share painful emotions and memories with the support of caring adults. This promotes a change in the internal working model from the old; “caregivers are dangerous and can’t be trusted,” to the new; “caregivers are safe and can be trusted.” Since new experiences rewire the limbic brain, sharing one’s story in the context of support, empathy and safety fosters changes in the architecture and biochemistry of the brain. It creates connection biologically and emotionally.
3. Retelling stories helps to modify self-identity. Children learn that they can face their scary and painful past, and tolerate their emotions and anxiety, without losing control, going “crazy” or using old defenses like avoidance, denial and dissociation. They can evolve from the old victim mindset to a new survivor mindset, knowing they are competent and can cope.
4. Using language to describe and communicate feelings and experiences reduces the need to act out. Individuals learn to identify and talk about their thoughts and emotions in a safe environment rather than display their inner struggles through self-destructive and negative behaviors.
To learn more about the therapeutic strategies we use at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center to encourage communication about trauma, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.