The Trouble with Trying to Heal Trauma Too Fast

It’s a cliché phrase by now, uttered by every health professional at some early point in their careers, but I became a psychotherapist because I wanted to help people. Why else do any of us do it? For many of us, being able to provide support and guidance to people who are moving through the darkest periods in their lives is what keeps us returning to our offices to sit with even the most difficult clients.

But there are also the times when it seems as if a person can’t be helped—like when they’re so trapped in the bodily memory of a past trauma that therapy gets stuck in the event with them. Times like these can elicit an empathic and professional panic—a helplessness to help—that triggers a kneejerk instinct to pull clients out of their pain as quickly as possible.

In treating trauma, this can mean moving clients right into re-experiencing the event for cathartic effect, in the hopes of healing them quickly. Sometimes this works and clients do feel some relief in the therapy hour. But according to Internal Family Systems developer Dick Schwartz, this type of therapy has costs.

I recently recorded a dialogue with Dick and Mary Jo Barrett for the Networker’s State of the Art virtual conference where he explained why it’s such a mistake to work directly with clients’ trauma without first addressing the parts of them that they’re holding back. In the following clip, he shares what happened when he made this mistake himself and what he’s learned in the aftermath:

The rest of this session—called “Treating Trauma: A 30 Year Perspective”—goes further into the latest advances, innovations, and blind spots in modern trauma treatment. I hope you’ll join us for this and our other brand new, practice-enhancing dialogues from State of the Art, which include: Esther Perel and Bill Doherty on working with couples today, Chris Germer and Diana Fosha on the mindfulness movement, and Dan Siegel and Rick Hanson on neuroscience’s relevance to therapy. It’s certainly been an eye opening experience to participate in conversations that highlight the latest triumphs, failings, and discoveries in our field, and I look forward to sharing it with the Networker community this November.

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2 Responses to The Trouble with Trying to Heal Trauma Too Fast

  1. olafh says:

    As a previous EMDR practitioner (I got to the level Consultant) and at present time IFS L3, working in trauma with this approach meant a huge change: there is no doubt about the power of EMDR to desensitize/reprocess a trauma, but the risk to have complications after a session dedicated to a traumatic issue is minimized with IFS; it´s as simple as asking would you let an unknown visitor go down to the cellar without permission of the members of the family? Dealing with protectors, mainly those or that who knows the trauma history of the client means collaboration, means security, means hope, means the compromise to come back and help that protector, means more chances of balance, integration. OLAF HOLM

  2. daisys says:

    Jumping ahead on re-experiencing in order to relieve trauma can be like forcing a child to grow up too fast–such as when small children are routinely neglected and they take on the adult role. Children can do this occasionally as a survival response, but if they must do it too often they miss their normal social and emotional development (this happens when, for example, a mother is drinking or drugging).
    Compare it to natural birth. Birthing is very stressful for both mother and child; it would be nice if the baby would just pop out. Instead the baby goes through the difficult passage that is the birth canal–a step by step passage–and in an important way the experience prepares him/her for the stresses and contradictions of life “on the outside” (of the womb).

    I had this happen with an extreme trauma that I endured all my childhood–dealing with a parent with what Fromm called a necrophilous orientation. I “sort of” knew about it for decades, something very creepy I couldn’t get past. The counselor I was working with couldn’t understand that I was stuck.
    The day I came face to face with a perpetrator of a similar orientation–and my response–took me over a year to recover from, assimilate and override my traumatic response. I could not have coped with it before then.

    Recovery should be somewhat like natural birth–a difficult, but natural process.

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