Polaris Counseling & EMDR

Bryce Carithers, MA, NCC

Trauma Therapy

Trauma affects the way we think and feel about the world and ourselves…

  • There are things I can’t get over, can trauma treatment help?
  • I feel ashamed for not doing “better” when I’m constantly trying to.  
  • I’m always anxious and don’t know why!  
  • I want to be able to… without feeling like…

The effects of trauma can show up in many different ways depending on the individual and their circumstances. Sometimes they are obviously related to the cause, such as clearly remembering or feeling a painful event as though it were today, not wanting to see a certain person out of fear, or avoiding certain activities or places. Other times, the effects are less specific, such as recurring nightmares, persistent anxiety, not feeling in control of life, or repeating unhelpful patterns in relationships or life in general.  The bottom line is: the impact of adversity is not limited to a certain experience or problem; it is different for each person.

Many people realize they are suffering from the effects of trauma only when they notice its unwanted impact on their current life.  Often they become aware that they have lost control over feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. Unresolved trauma can have an impact romantic relationships or work and school performance, can lead to struggles with attention, sleep, and health issues, or can simply be experienced as a constant feeling of distress, loss of confidence, or low feelings of self-worth. Typically, our most important thoughts about ourselves are based on past experiences.  If these thoughts are overwhelmingly negative or critical, they can keep us from achieving the quality of relationships and life we most desire.
Some of the most common problems that people come to trauma counseling for are: 
Emotional problems:
Anxiety, or persistent fear or worry
Depression or sadness
Lacking feelings of self-worth or self-esteem
Irritability or anger
Loss of passion or interest in things once cared about
A sense of guilt or shame

Cognitive problems:
Self-critical thoughts
Intrusive memories, thoughts, images or sensations
Changes in concentration or memory
Remembering difficult past experiences very vividly and “heavily”

Behavioral problems:  
Avoiding or being highly reactive to certain people, places, or situations     
Lack of engagement in things once enjoyed
Acting “jumpy” or “on edge” (scanning the environment, staying near exits)

Physical problems:
Chronic pain (stomach problems, headaches, body aches)
Sleep disturbances or nightmares
Anxiety symptoms (racing heart, fast breath, sweating, knot in stomach)
Feeling “out of touch” with reality or one’s body
Changes in eating patterns or energy levels
Struggling with difficult experiences is normal and doesn’t have to result in feeling stuck 
Adversity is a given part of life and something that everyone struggles with to some extent at some point. While this can show up in any number of situations or experiences, trauma is internally experienced as overwhelming to the body’s nervous system.  This means that the memory of the traumatic experience gets stored differently in the brain than other types of experiences, and therefore still has an influence on current feelings, thoughts and behaviors. What makes an experience overwhelming and traumatic has less to do with the “magnitude” of the event, and more to do with the circumstances and person’s ability to understand and respond to it at that point in time. This ability is impacted by how someone makes sense of their world and themselves, the amount of internal and external support available, as well as by the details of the actual event or experiences.
It is not uncommon for difficult experiences in childhood and adolescence to have an impact later in life, often without us being aware of the connection between the two.  Early experiences, both good and bad, shape our way of thinking about ourselves and others, affect our expectations of the world, and can be reinforced throughout life to ultimately play a significant role in our physical and emotional well-being. When people trace their most negative feelings and thoughts about themselves back to emotionally abusive parents or other early psychological abuse, they may realize for the first time that painful experiences they told themselves were insignificant are still negatively impacting their life. In 1995-1997, the CDC and Kaiser Permanent conducted a study to explore the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on adult health and quality of life. ACEs included physical and emotional abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and “household challenges” (witnessing domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, or criminal involvement). They found that almost 66% of adults had at least one adverse childhood experience, and 20% had three or more.  As the number of negative experiences increased, so did risk for such adult problems as substance abuse, mental health issues, financial and interpersonal problems, and physical ailments such as heart disease.

These findings support the observations of many therapists that our negative experiences can have lasting effects into later part of our lives. The origins of later problems can range from seemingly insignificant childhood experiences, such as a conflict with or critical comments from a teacher or parent, to child abuse and neglect, interpersonal violence, or personal injury or loss.  Regardless of the type or cause of a current struggle, trauma and PTSD counseling offer new coping skills while untangling the threads of the past to better understand how and why you respond, think and feel the way you do.  This new understanding can then be used find a place of healing that is shaped by your current goals, values and intentions, rather than by the pain of the past.  
Working with a trauma counselor can help you learn skills for reducing symptoms, overcome current struggles, and work towards your long term goals 
When it feels like our past defines and controls us, the reason can usually be found in the relationship between trauma and the brain, and there are a realistic ways to work towards relief from current pain.  As a trauma therapist, I start by gaining an understanding of what level and type of therapy you are ready for, and what you hope to gain from counseling.  I will not push you to address anything you either don’t want or see no need to explore, and will provide you with the support and information you need to address difficult, but necessary things.  Some people get what they need from developing skills for managing current problems and symptoms.  Others prefer to trace struggles back to their sources and address those.  I will trust your intuition on what you need to heal and grow, and we will use a flexible and collaborative approach to nurture a comfortable and effective working relationship.

In many cases, therapy then moves into developing skills for having more control over current emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.  Over the first few sessions we will explore problems you are currently facing, how you’ve tried to solve them, and what your ideal outcome would be.  I take a flexible approach when helping clients learn and improve their skills, and I draw from a variety of counseling theories and approaches, using the techniques that would be most helpful for each person and situation.  The theories that I primarily rely on for skill development are Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Some clients prefer to take another approach and use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to address and overcome difficult parts of their past. EMDR was originally developed for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and has since been expanded to help people work through many types of difficult experiences. After successful EMDR treatment, memories are stored in a more adaptive and helpful way, rendering them less interruptive and reducing their negative impact.  People are then free to develop new, healthier beliefs and feelings about themselves and the world around them.  To learn more about EMDR and what a typical session looks like, see the  EMDR page  of this website.
As a Trauma Counselor, I strongly believe in our innate ability to heal and grow
Helping others work through and overcome difficult and traumatic experiences has been the basis of my career for the past 10 years.  I’ve worked with clients of varying identities and with a wide variety of traumas, and have had the privilege of working with and learning from other professionals with a variety of backgrounds and specialties. These experiences have reinforced my belief that we can rely on our innate resilience to help us through our darkest moments, and that our bodies and brains are inherently designed to heal and overcome. While adversity and struggle may be inevitable and difficult parts of life, we can also make them the springboard from which health and growth arises.

Frequently Expressed Concerns and Questions

I don’t really know if my experiences are “traumatic”, they were just hard and I feel bad about them…
There is no one definition of trauma.  What qualifies an experience as “traumatic” is completely subjective, based on how you responded to and processed a situation, rather than the objective facts of the event. An experience is important when it is overwhelming to you and has a lasting negative impact in some way.  If you feel that certain experiences still have an emotional weight or heaviness, or are somehow related to current problems, that is enough information to being working toward a healthier state of mind and emotion.

I’m scared that addressing my past will stir things up and make it worse.   
While there are no guarantees in therapy, it is possible that taking a closer look at problems can temporarily make them feel more difficult or important.  In fact, this is usually a necessary part of the healing process, and it will typically ease as the skills practiced earlier in therapy become more natural and the process continues.  As always, you should be in charge of your therapy process, and if something feels overwhelming it is always okay to stop and reassess what’s needed before continuing. 

Am I going to have to remember every detail of something and tell you all about it?
Not at all.  Some people remember every detail of an experience, and some just recall the feeling it left them with. Others are aware of their current problems, but have no idea how these might be connected to the past, and some people struggle to remember anything at all about certain periods of their life.  Memory is a tricky thing. Trauma therapy can be a place to untangle the connecting threads to reveal a pattern that makes more sense. Even if you do remember all the details of an experience, it is not necessary to provide me with all the specifics in order to achieve healing and growth from it.  As my client, you are in charge of your therapy, and I am there to hear as much or as little as you feel comfortable sharing.