On February 5th, 2016 the staff of Safe Harbor (along with about 40 other counselors from other agencies) attended “SERVE: A Brain-Based Approach to Working with Victims of Complex Trauma,” a talk given by Bonnie Martin, LPC. It was an educational opportunity for not only the Safe Harbor counselors and interns, but also other first responders in the community.
As an intern in my second semester with Safe Harbor, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to hear a woman so well versed in trauma care speak about how to work with victims of complex trauma. So that Friday morning, I showed up, sat down, grabbed my laptop, and waited for Bonnie to inundate me with new techniques and activities. What happened was not that. Bonnie spoke with all the energy and knowledge of someone truly passionate about her work. She spoke of her path to trauma work, her successes, her failures, and her findings. As I sifted through the stories, facts, and warnings I came away with a few key pieces of information which changed my perspective on working with those who have experienced complex trauma.Complex Trauma vs PTSD
Complex Trauma vs PTSD
People often confuse Complex Trauma with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Both involve recovery from trauma, and both impact brain function. However, as Bonnie explained it, PTSD is what occurs to a person when they live a “normal” life and then a traumatic event occurs. This traumatic event sparks trauma symptoms including nightmares, hypervigilance, and seemingly irrational behaviors. In PTSD, one assumes a baseline of normality exists first, then the baseline is interrupted, and the client then struggles to regain that baseline. In Complex Trauma, there was never a “normal” life. The trauma is so prolonged and so extensive that the client cannot remember a time before the trauma and does not have a baseline to return to. So when treating a client with Complex Trauma, a counselor must realize that he or she is introducing new information to the client with each non traumatic encounter. A non-traumatic environment will likely seem foreign and uncomfortable. The client may even create drama because it’s all they know. This could happen at home, school or work.
This is Your Brain on Trauma
When working with clients who have experienced trauma, it is tempting to treat the symptoms and unpack the trauma in sessions and assume that if the client discusses the issue fully, then they will feel better. In actuality, a brain that has experienced trauma has different biology – it is actually wired differently. Instead of an event being processed through the prefrontal cortex (the logic and reasoning part) and then either sent back with a reaction or sent to the amygdala (the fight, flight, or freeze part) for a reaction, an event is processed straight to the amygdala. So instead of a client being able to reason through an unfamiliar stimuli or a stressful situation, they immediately either fight, flee, or freeze. The longer the trauma lasts, the weaker the prefrontal cortex gets, and the stronger the fight, flight, and freeze reactions become. So in order to treat a client who has experienced trauma, a counselor must not only look at traditional talk therapy, but he or she must also help the client retrain the brain and strengthen the prefrontal cortex.
As any counseling professional will tell you, self-care is the most important part of the job. Bonnie had two sayings which stuck in my mind and perfectly summed up the importance of self-care in trauma work. First: You are not strong enough to do this work. Work smart, not strong. She emphasized that if you try to be emotionally strong enough to hold the weight of all of the problems of all of your clients, you will crumble. However, if you learn the basics of trauma care and how to be responsible TO and not responsible FOR your clients, you can be smart enough to survive in this tough field. Second: Be a mirror, not a sponge. A mirror is a hard surface, and reflects back to you. Be there to reflect the troubles of others, not to soak them in and make them yours.
Fall 2015 – Spring 2016
Thank you for writing this post. In reading it, I am aware for the first time that I suffer from Trauma. Your post helped me to recognize and realize why I react the way I do to stressful situations. I wish you success in this path to become a counselor. I am sure that you will impact and help many lives. You just impacted mine.
Thanks for this very important information!
Great article, Mary Margaret! I attended that same training last year and Bonnie was a fantastic trainer. As a Safe Harbor Shelter part-time staff person, the more we can learn about helping survivors, the better advocates and counselors we will be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this training.
Very informative! As a mental health professional just starting in my career this is good advice.