Thanks to a Deeper Understanding of Trauma We’re Changing Our Approach

It used to be that when we heard the word trauma we mostly thought of war veterans with PTSD or a severe life threatening event. Thankfully, our perception and understanding of widespread experiences of trauma and the overall impact it has on our lives has undergone a dramatic growth spurt in the last several years. 

A few months ago I was having a conversation with an acquaintance whom I’ll call Tom. In the midst of a casual conversation about our current state of affairs, Tom’s brow furrowed with intense frustration as he said to me, “Why don’t people just take responsibility for their behaviors, pull themselves together and grow up! Therapy is a goddamn waste of time!” 

Given my line of work, I was rendered momentarily speechless by his emotionally charged, resentful stance. It took me a second to ground myself and relinquish a knee jerk reaction in defense of the many effective therapeutic modalities we have available that are very much a part of my professional practice. I wanted to give him a hard shake by the shoulders and say, “Hey, don’t you get it? People are doing the best they can given what has happened to them.” Instead, I took a deep breath, reached for empathy from my own personal experiences, and probed for deeper understanding. 

I discovered that ten years prior, Tom invested a substantial amount of time and money in traditional talk therapy for his teenage stepdaughter. While the intensity of their family struggle was now in the distant past, questions like, “What happened to you?” or “Can you tell me more about how you feel about that?” immediately triggered an impatient and incredulous response from Tom.

Slowly, my own prickling energy settled as my ability to empathize with Tom came back online. I recalled a time in my early twenties when I was studying to become a family therapist. After reading book after book and attending class after class, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being forced to view future clients through the narrow and predefined filters of the DSM-V list of diagnostic disorders. The standard curriculum twenty years ago seemed to dictate an adherence to categorizing mental health conditions followed by a prescription regimen as the primary path for treatment. My motivation to pursue a degree in psychology was to see, access and help people, not memorize archaic diagnostic conditions predicated on insurance, prescriptions and policy. 

I began my academic studies at the same time I was immersed in the work of helping horses heal from severe and violent trauma. When given the right support, I witnessed hundreds of troubled horses transform the pain of a dark past and restore their capacity to connect with human beings who’d earned their trust. As such, I became keenly aware that there didn’t appear to be a parallel between the lessons emerging from my field work and the regimented coursework in front of me. I remember throwing my hands up and shouting into the wind “How does this help anyone?” as I poured over the pages of my text late into the night and adding sleep deprivation to my growing list of frustrations. 

Soon after, my burning desire to help people heal from the ripple effects of trauma led me to make the difficult decision to pause my pursuit of a degree in family therapy. Rather than succumb to my frustration with outdated curricula and treatment modalities, I decided to begin curating my own solutions by studying contemporary pioneers in the field such as Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Gabor Mate, Richard Schwartz, Bruce Perry and others. (More on these names and their publications below.) This self-guided research, combined with my equus training and some intensive coaching courses, gave rise to a new professional practice as a life coach, which I have enjoyed for 17 years. 

When I reflect on Tom’s story, I remember my own intense impatience with what I regarded as an outdated field of psychotherapy two decades ago. It reminds me of other obsolete practices in western medicine, such as bloodletting, an early 19th century procedure that involved draining blood to cure maladies and diseases. At the time, this was truly the best evidence-based practice that doctors believed would re-establish a healthy state of homeostasis in the body. Daniel J Boorstin famously stated “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance–it’s the illusion of knowledge.” In spite of the best of intentions, our history in western medicine is fraught with treatment modalities derived from a limited understanding of the workings of the human body…and mind! 

Similarly the field of psychology is presently in the midst of an exciting transformation from a previous century largely influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. Researchers, scientists, physicians and leading psychologists are finally connecting the dots to discover that trauma is most often the common thread behind so many of our troubling behaviors. And most importantly, we are experiencing an accelerated rate of breakthroughs in treatments that are helping people transform trauma in positive and sustainable ways. 

When Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading research psychologist in the field of PTSD, published The Body Keeps the Score, in 2014 it quickly made its way to the bestseller list sustaining 141 weeks, reflecting the deep resonance his message carried with an audience that spanned well beyond the progressive therapist. In the last few years it has re-emerged at the top of the bestseller list as we reach for resources to help us navigate the immense stresses of a global pandemic. 

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk along with many others such a Dr. Bruce Perry’s What Happened to You?, Dr. Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice, Dr. Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts & recent film The Wisdom of Trauma, Dr. Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Richard Schwartz’s No Bad Parts and Dr. Diane Poole Heller’s The Power of Attachment all speak to the variety of ways our nervous system, attachment system and bodies somatically respond to states of overwhelm and traumatic events. 

Thanks to many of these innovative explorers in the field, we are discovering key access points to effectively unlock the traumatic events that are often stored in our bodies and hearts. Just as I’d witnessed from my equine teachers, in the presence of a safe relationship and with a focus on trusting the innate healing intelligence of the body, we truly can transform our distressed behaviors back to a state of resilience and wellbeing.

Witnessing this incredible growth within the field of psychology has inspired me to return to school. As I prepare to start back into classes this spring, I feel a deep sense of gratitude that we are uncovering a variety of ways to constructively disrupt the cycles of generational trauma, developmental trauma and PTSD symptoms. It makes my whole body smile to see that we are charting a new approach to restoring our capacity for embodied presence and safe meaningful relationships with one another. 

Over the next several months I’m going to share with you some of the profound insights we’re learning about the impact of trauma on our lives and most importantly our capacity to heal and transform from the challenging circumstances we each face everyday.

For now, I invite you to be kind and gentle with yourselves and know that we all face a variety of challenging and traumatic events throughout our lives. Most of us develop an array of unconscious coping strategies that can cause us to take up a hypervigilant or protective stance that often has more to do with our past than our present. We were never meant to traverse the healing process alone. In future posts I hope to offer insights and stories that may help you understand your own journey a little better while sparking a new light of hope for your own capacity to transform the effects of trauma.

With Much Love and Immense Respect,
Koelle Simpson