Recovery from the Effects of Trauma and Grief

Trauma comes in a number of forms, often centering around something that has happened to us. It could be the loss of a loved one. It could be something done to us as a child. On the other hand, it could be something we have gotten into trouble with and our behavior is creating trauma for us and those who love us.

Addressing types of trauma below, you will find some description of how various situations might be approached. Every situation is unique and must be addressed as such.

Experiential Treatment for Past Trauma

It is not unusual for human beings to block out feelings and or memories of painful events in order to attempt to keep some kind of discomfort (such as fear, shame, guilt etc.) at bay. The problem is that, if an experience is inhibited or compartmentalized, it is likely to cause physical problems, emotional problems and or behavioral problems over time.

In experiential treatment, clients are trained to bring their thoughts, feelings and “felt sense” (bodily sensations) associated with an experience back together again. Typically this process allows the experience to become active again, which is what is needed (but has been avoided) to get that energy moving and released. Emphasis is placed on doing this in a safe a productive way. The client now has a trained advocate who will sit with, structure and process their experiences with them. Clients find they can deal with their experiences safely and feel better. They learn that they can “turn the boat into the waves” without capsizing.

The key is to be willing to sit with some discomfort. Energy, in the form of memories, emotions and physical felt sense need expression to be released. When we are willing to safely sit with these situations our brains appear to process the energy and we feel better. At the time of the actual experience, we may have been too scared, sad, threatened and often alone to face what we were feeling, but with a trauma-informed advocate we can finally get past issues that have frequently been not only uncomfortable but held us back in significant ways.

Experiential Treatment for Ongoing Trauma

Many times clients are looking for help with past traumas. At other times, however, a person is in the throes of a trauma right now and needs immediate help to cope. At these times I have found experiential treatment to be helpful. In this case we do not reactivate old painful experiences, but provide tools to process the physical manifestation of the present trauma. This entails training the client to allow safe expression of what he or she is already feeling in order to release pent up energy. The mind works overtime in these situations to make things better but thinking alone gets us nowhere. This is where working with a person familiar and trained in trauma work can help.

There are ways to sit with and express what the body is feeling so that the whole system (mind, emotions, and body) has a chance to process the experience and gain some sense of calm and control. In order to do this, we take time to dial back external readiness (think fight or flight) to pay attention to the internal state. Clients find this process alone helpful at these times. We are then able to work to release distress felt in the body by channeling energy from high intensity distress areas of the body to areas which have been trained to relax. This may sound mystical until you’ve tried it. Because of my many experiences with this, I am convinced that we as humans have built-in capacity to deactivate trauma. We just haven’t known how to do it.

Experiential Treatment for Grief Issues

Many people enter therapy for grief issues. Many times they have lost a loved one and are having a difficult time coping and functioning. Sometimes they have lost several family members and or dear friends and they’ve realized that this cluster of losses have not been processed and are affecting their mood and ability to live life. At these times it can be quite helpful just to talk to someone. After spending some time with the story and becoming comfortable with one another, it then becomes possible to work with a therapist to physically express the feelings held inside. As with anything traumatic, our brains may feverishly attempt to solve the way we feel, often to no avail.

By learning how to coordinate our thoughts, emotions and physical feelings, we can find relief. Stored energy needs to be released and coordinating our thoughts, emotions and physical feelings allows our experiences to begin to process. This is done in a safe way with a trained and trusted guide (the therapist), resulting in feeling less distress and more energy (again) for life.

Experiential Treatment for Fidelity and Sexual Habit Issues

In my over 40 years of experience working with fidelity and sexual habit issues, I have found that many men get into serious trouble with their partner due to poor boundaries with self and others, leading to poor choices which cause great harm. Together with his wife, we start the process of looking at what he will face after it is discovered and confronted, how best to respond as he and his spouse begin to address the storm and what needs to be put in place for successful true recovery (not just abstinence).

At the same time that the offending party is disclosing to his wife and therapist, is keeping new boundaries with women, and developing empathy for his partner, it makes sense to do a deep dive into childhood issues (trauma, neglect, anything that caused him to experience enduring lack of safety, love or value) to remove obstacles to growth and to discover more about the “why” behind the behavior. What are my issues and how have I medicated them? What habits do I have and how have those habits, though pleasurable, become liabilities for me? Who in my life is concerned about and or has expressed concern about my habits and how have I hurt them? What behaviors have I tried but honestly failed to control?

As one man said, “you have to discover to recover.” Where difficult experiences, patterns or trauma exist, it is now understood that “talk therapy,” in and of itself, probably won’t be as effective as treatment that includes some kind of experiential work. Experiential work has to do with re-exposure to our difficult experiences. We find ways to carefully go back into difficult experiences in order to allow for some level of re-experiencing and reformatting them that is safe and therapeutic.

Deeper processing of our issues is critical not only to releasing trauma and understanding ourselves more deeply, but to our becoming less defensive, more empathetic and less driven to habit(s). Clients also typically report feeling lighter and having more energy to live their lives. This is why practitioners often encourage clients to take a deeper dive into their issues.

Helpful Tools in Experiential Treatment

One of the first things we do in treatment with the men is the genogram. Relationships with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings are discussed within the context of the family and community milieu. We are looking for any trauma, of course, which can include deprivation of care as well as outright abuse. We are not looking to blame or excuse but to understand and deal with what has been formative. We often find troubling experiences and or patterns that have had an enduring negative effect. As we do the deeper work we also support and highlight positive experiences and relationships that may not have been fully appreciated. We want to help the men internalize positive experiences along the way in order to provide an immediate strengthening effect for the work they’re doing. So often, this new-found strength opens the door to deeper, harder work that was previously not accessible!

Many people will say they never had any trauma. However, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect families. Even if there is no trauma, we are especially interested in any experiences that have had an enduring effect on a person’s sense of feeling safe, loved and valued.

As the genogram is covered in early sessions, it may become clear that we need to look more deeply into some of the experiences and conditions our client has faced. At this point, we may do what is called a “Trauma Egg.” Here we make a more complete list of traumas and experiences that we will explore in treatment. This is often done in preparation for intensive therapy, which involves longer sessions bunched closely together. This intensive approach allows us to explore and treat, in depth, a number of the most significant experiences and or issues that have been presented. The intensity of this approach has proven useful in helping clients explore themselves more deeply and to be more vulnerable in doing
so. It has, in my opinion, proven to be far more efficient than the typical weekly hour-long individual sessions over a longer period of time, the sustaining of which also takes quite a bit of intentionality and discipline.

Exploring Memories and Experiences That Need Work

Once trained in grounding and having a safe place established, the client is encouraged to explore memories and experiences that need work. Sometimes the memories are too painful to bring up all at once. Sometimes we go frame by frame through a difficult and or painful experience, allowing the experience to be seen and processed gradually and much more fully than it was when the event happened. It turns out that re-experiencing events more fully in a safe way can be very therapeutic for us. But we don’t stop there. In the moment of exposure, our clients can be helped to see and empathize with themselves as the person who experienced the discomfort (a younger you, for example). At this moment a person can re-work or re-encode beliefs they’ve held about themselves and others and see their circumstances in a new light.

As work on old issues is done, the men report and demonstrate that their efforts towards “sobriety” (no longer acting out, whatever the behavior) are more effective. Having reduced internal pressure to medicate in the old familiar ways while simultaneously building new perspectives and pathways appears to make it possible for most men to get into and sustain recovery. We don’t say old habits are “cured” because the old habits are still present, as the men find out if they don’t continue to practice recovery on some level. We don’t call it “remission,” because that would imply that we can somehow render our old habits inert. Our emphasis is on the practice of new habits that intensive experiential therapy clears the way for as we rework what is actively stored inside us.

Getting to the roots of trauma is most often done within an Intensive Therapy Program.

Learn More About Intensive Therapy Programs

Gregory M. Crow, Ph.D.