Treatment of psychological trauma
What is psychological trauma?
Psychological trauma is the result of a painful excess of emotional intensity that shatters the mental functioning of an adult, or that severely distorts the development of a child’s mental functioning.
The most common psychological traumata are generally due to: a) a rupture in the basic feeling of safety; b) a lack of necessary human interaction; c) being the object of excessive or inadequate manifestations of aggressiveness / sexuality.
Though we usually associate the word trauma to something massive and obvious, it is important to note that it can equally result from something small and accumulative.
In the same way that the physiological tissues of the body can handle a certain force of impact without deteriorating beyond their capacity to recover, the mental tissue can withstand a certain quantity of emotional impact without being damaged beyond its capacity to heal. However, beyond a certain threshold, the impact is too strong, and it negatively modifies the physiological and mental tissues permanently.
From this moment onwards, if treatment is not applied, the damage will tend to become chronic and will compromise the rest of the person’s functioning. In the same way that a broken leg, that has not been adequately treated, will seriously limit the individual’s movement ––as well as causing muscular unbalances, and hip and spine misalignments––, untreated psychological trauma will leave the person “limping” emotionally, as well as creating a whole series of compensatory behaviours that will paradoxically worsen the original state.
How does psychological trauma affect us?
Without going into great depths that would be out of place here, we can understand the mind as a processor of stimuli (internal and external) that uses them to maintain itself and to evolve. This processor also needs to discharge the stimuli that exceed its capacity to use them for growth, and this discharging is frequently associated with pleasure (e.g. creative and physical activity, sexuality, etc.) At a neuronal level, every stimulus creates activation in the neurons that has to be processed, absorbed or discharged one way or the other.
This mind-as-processing-system has two stimulation thresholds, a low and a high one, below and above which it cannot function. Below a certain threshold of stimulation, the mind of an adult starts to deteriorate and the mind of a child does not develop. Above a certain threshold, the mind of an adult fractures under the excess of stress and the mind of an child distorts itself in an attempt to adapt to the excess. This is easily visualized if we use the analogy of muscular development, in which the stress applied to a muscle must be within the range of its possibilities and minimum needs.
Trauma by excess, trauma by defect
Trauma is generally associated to an excess of stimulation that comes from outside the subject and that damages him/her severely. Traumata due to physical aggressions or sexual abuse are examples of this and are the most visible forms of trauma.
However, the body also produces endogenous stimulation that needs to be processed and discharged, but this endogenous stimulation has a specific characteristic: it often needs the active participation of another person who provides the necessary conditions for it to be processed and discharged.
A clear example of this is the excited-angry state of a baby that’s hungry. This excitement is endogenously produced and the baby needs an external caregiver to feed it (not in any random way) in order to be satisfied and be able to calm down. If there is a defect in the way food is provided, part of that endogenous stimulation will not be able to be discharged and will overwhelm the baby’s fragile processing system, creating trauma. This example is equally valid for other internal needs such as tender physical contact, sexuality and aggressiveness.
When there is a lack of sufficient contact with another person that provides the necessary conditions to satisfy inner needs, an invisible trauma is created that expresses itself in a fragile mind exposed to a constant excess of inner stimulation.When there is a lack of sufficient contact with another person that provides the necessary conditions to satisfy inner needs, an invisible trauma is created that expresses itself in a fragile mind exposed to a constant excess of inner stimulation.
Treatment of psychological trauma
A very common characteristic of psychological trauma is that it tends to repeat itself over the subject’s life. This repetition can be obvious, such as traumatic memories that incessantly haunt the individual, or it can be much less obvious, such as traumatic situations that are repeated throughout the person’s life without he/she understanding why or even being able to recognize them.
Those who have suffered trauma tend to find themselves in a vicious circle that incessantly repeats the trauma. We believe this may be due to two reasons: a) repetition can be a way of trying to control and relive the experience so that, this time, it can be overcome and fixed; b) repetition may result from an element of the traumatic situation latching onto something in the individual’s unconscious that then becomes chronically over-stimulated by the trauma and is distorted in such a way that it cannot avoid constantly seeking something excessive.
Treatment of trauma therefore consists in helping the patient to break out of the damaging repetition and to find ways of being able to process and discharge the excess of chronic stimulation from which he/she suffers. This process puts mental development back on track and allows the individual to be stronger and more flexible when faced with life’s adversities.