Grandmother and granddaughter laughing together

Why It Can Be So Hard to Meet the Needs of a Trauma-Impacted Person, Part 3

In my last two blogs I invited my readers to begin a process of considering why can be so hard to meet the needs of a trauma-impacted person. I have shared how frustrating it can be, and yet we need to understand how trauma impacts a person’s brain architecture and whole way of living, especially trauma that happens early in life.

I shared the story of my friend and how her granddaughter needed to boss our CEO around, and how he appreciated that she was just trying to meet her needs of control when it was taken from her as a small child. It is a truly beautiful story as this now young preteen continues to blossom and come into her own!

I have often been in close relationships where someone felt safe enough to share their experiences of being traumatized. When people are in relationships where another person can be kind, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and willing to hear another’s story, having a person with some basic trauma-knowledge can provide an opportunity to help meet some of their needs. If doing any kind of processing with someone with a trauma history is too intimidating, please do not attempt to do what is in the rest of this blog. I know that sometimes in deep, close relationships, people need a safe place to share and it is an important part of getting their needs met.

Please note in giving this information I am not suggesting that anyone attempt to be a pseudo-therapist. At the same time, we can learn a lot from what therapists say is important when interacting with someone with trauma-related needs.

Peter Levine is well-known as an outstanding trauma therapist. He created a kind of therapy called Somatic Experiencing. His excellent book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past; A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory he offers many key principles about what is involved in helping to meet the needs of trauma-impacted children and adults.

The forward of his book was written by Bessel van der Kolk, who provides some valuable insight about healing: “Good therapy consists of learning to call up the felt self without becoming overwhelmed by what’s lurking inside. The most important sentences in any therapy are ‘notice that’ and ‘notice what happens next.’  Allowing yourself to observe your inner processes activates brain pathways that connect the rational and emotional parts of the brain, and this is the only known pathway through which a person can consciously rearrange the perceptual system of the brain.”

Lay-people can certainly invite someone with trauma-related needs to notice what they are thinking, feeling, sensing, believing, and even any memories that pop up for them, always stating that they do not have to share anything more than they are comfortable sharing and to immediately stop if they start to feel overwhelmed.

Levine talks about what he calls “basic steps in renegotiating a traumatic memory,” which involves the therapist doing the following:

  1. “Help create here-and-now experiences of relative calm presence, power and grounding. In this state the client is taught how to visit positive body sensations, as well as his difficult, dramatically based sensations. A layperson can explain to someone that paying attention to body sensations can tell them a lot about where their trauma is stored.
  2. Using this calm, and body platform, the client is directed to gradually shift back and forth between the positive, rounded sensations and the more difficult ones. Again, the layperson is not trying to be a therapist so maybe should stay clear from having the person talk about extremely difficult experiences and sensations. At the same time, the memories of extremely difficult experiences can come up for a person and gently acknowledging how difficult it can be to experience sensations related to those memories is a very appropriate response.
  3. Through this sensate tracking, the traumatic residual memory emerges in its traumatic, truncated (i.e., thwarted) form. The therapist continues to check that the client is not in an over-activated (or under-activated) state. If they are, the therapist returns to the first two steps. Good advice for the layperson and something they can even teach the person with whom they are interacting. “If we are going to process some of your traumatic memories, please keep in mind that I am not trying to be a therapist to you. At the same time, we both need to appreciate when you share any of your memories, it can activate a tremendous amount of pain for you. At any point please just stop perhaps by raising your hand and even saying, ‘I can’t share anymore right now.’” That way both of you can ensure as much as is possible that the person with the trauma-related needs can be safe when they share something about their trauma.

Levine goes on to share that one outcome of a very gentle process is that the trauma-impacted person becomes better able to regulate their reactions by understanding what is going on inside them through noticing their sensations. Typically, this is a process that takes a long time and when the trauma is deep enough, the process of helping somebody learn how to be more regulated in their inner world needs to be gently explained over and over. When I think of my friend who adopted her granddaughter, I know it has taken years for this child to get to a place where she is much better equipped to deal with those once out of control trauma-related needs and behaviors.

Levine goes on to say that the trauma-impacted person needs to be in a state of reasonable self-regulation and able to be relational before they can reason. We can see that this is a gentle process that involves moving from a state of calmness and safety to one that allows the trauma-impacted child, teen or adult to revisit sensory experiences related to their traumatic memories, but to only do so in ways that do not over-activate the person’s brain state. The person needs to feel a sense of adequate safety during any processing. Please note that most never feel totally safe and there can be some degree of hyper-vigilance, perhaps forever.

This visual of moving very gently through being in the present in a very safe and calm state to being invited to visit and re-visit the trauma memories via the sensations that the person experiences are important to understand for anyone who is interacting with someone with trauma-related issues and needs. The process includes helping the person feel empowered enough to recall and even to some extent re-experience traumatic memories to allow the traumatic energy to be freed as well as the memory to no longer have power. This recall often happens spontaneously when someone starts to share their trauma story.

For the trauma impacted person, being able to understand the power that the memory has had can deflate that power so that the memory can now be safely stored in the past.

Those helping people with deep-seated traumatic memories need to be prepared with their own personal safety plan that includes being very firm about the importance of someone getting professional help beyond what you can do in your conversations. There is no exact formula but at the same time but perhaps you are getting clearer about some of the basic principles involved in helping someone with trauma-related needs.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Notice your own thoughts, feelings and sensations as you process what is in this blog. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself if just reading this is at all overwhelming for you.
  2. Notice what is important any time one person is helping another person who wants to share information about their trauma history, especially how you know to take care of that person as well as yourself.
  3. To what extent can you see how understanding the principles for helping to meet the needs of a trauma-impacted person is essential that you can do so in a kind and caring way that does not harm the other person.