The Splinter Effect of Trauma

Written by Raquel DeLuccia, MA, LAMFT for Therapy with Heart.

I’d like to talk about trauma for a moment. Many of my clients believe that trauma has to be a catastrophic event in their life. Some examples of this would be: a horrific car accident, severe abuse, sexual assault, or the experiences of a combat veteran. However, what we have learned about trauma is that those events would be categorized as ‘big T’ trauma. ‘Little t’ trauma can be just as impactful if not more so, depending on the individual.

 Here is what I mean by that.

 A series of acute traumas in one’s life including bullying, neglect, being repeatedly criticized or rejected when hurting (to name a few) are processed by the brain in the same way as a Big T event. I once heard someone refer to a trauma event as “anything less than nurturing.” When I phrase it in that way to my clients, I often see a shift in their expression and a knowingness come upon them that this idea is all too familiar. When something happens to us that our brain cannot fully process it becomes frozen in the brain stem or stuck. Imagine touching a big piece of jagged, unsanded wood that then creates a splinter lodged deep into your finger. Would you leave it there? What would happen if you did? It would become infected over time, even if you didn’t feel it on a regular basis. It would eventually have to be removed as it is a foreign object in the body that the immune system would attack.

 I want you to think of adverse life experiences i.e. ‘big T’ or ‘little t’ trauma as having the same impact on our mind and bodies. 

When trauma gets stuck, it continues to impact us over time if not appropriately processed. It creates negative core beliefs that we hold onto subconsciously such as “I’m not good enough, I’m worthless, I’m unlovable.” Body sensations and emotions are also associated with this trauma splinter as well as images of an event or memory. So knowing this, what do we do to remove the splinter? How do we heal?

In my practice I utilize a therapy technique called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). It is an 8 phase process in which we begin to wiggle the splinter loose, eventually dissolving it. EMDR utilizes BLS (bilateral stimulation) to activate the memory networks in your brain and gain access to the negative belief, emotion, body sensation and image associated with a particular adverse life event (big T , little T trauma). The BLS ( I use hand held buzzers) allows the brain to reprocess the event and neutralize the disturbing nature of it, leading the brain to replace a negative cognition with a positive one. It also causes the emotion to change , the body sensation to clear and the image becomes blurred and difficult to recall.  It is important to note that this process does not erase the memory. Instead, we neutralize it by bringing its disturbance down to a 0 level. This means you can talk about the event without becoming triggered or feeling any associated symptoms. 

What I love about EMDR is that it bypasses the conscious mind. It allows the brain to access parts of your life that have been blocked, either by suppression (intentionally pushed down) or repression (unintentionally pushed down/ unavailable to the conscious mind). Both suppression and repression are defense mechanisms used to protect us from reliving trauma events so that we can carry on in daily life. However, this doesn’t mean they are eliminated. They are often triggered by present events, creating symptoms like anxiety, fear, stomach aches, shoulder tightness or that nagging inner critic telling you that you won’t be good enough to succeed. EMDR awakens these parts of the unconscious mind and allows them to move through, be processed and heal.

I have seen incredible transformations for individuals who allow themselves to let go of their filter and defenses and let their brains do the work. So the next time you feel like you don’t have a reason to feel the way you do because “nothing that bad has happened,” think again. Remind yourself that your experiences matter and you deserve to heal. Find an EMDR trained therapist and give yourself permission to remove that splinter.

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