Exploring the ‘Trauma’ in Trauma-Focused Hypnotherapy
The conceptualization of trauma is an essential element when considering trauma-focused hypnotherapy. You may find various definitions of what trauma is, including the cluster of symptoms which are associated with it. But trauma can be a little more elusive in definition, just as it can be variable in frequency and intensity of those who are exposed to it. Exposure to trauma does not guarantee a clinically diagnosable syndrome either. One of the most frequent associations with trauma is of soldiers returning from war who have developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, approximately 12% of those returning from combat develop PTSD.
While this is a sizable figure, what accounts for those soldiers who do not go on to develop PTSD? The definition of trauma proposed here can shed some light onto the differences in reaction to exposure of traumatic events.
Trauma can be conceptualized as resulting from a part of our identity being forcefully ripped away from us. If, for instance, a person who has been sexually assaulted had carried around the identity of “I am safe” throughout their life, then it would stand to reason that following this assault, the person no longer feels safe. The identity which says “I am safe” has been torn away and is no longer congruent with their world experience. The shock of the loss of this identity can lead to various symptoms as the person struggles to reassess life without this identity of safety. This person would likely be hypervigilant, fearful, and experience difficulty feeling safe with the inherent vulnerability which comes in falling asleep.
Yet not all people who are assaulted will experience clinically significant symptoms. Again, what could account for the difference between those who are assaulted who get PTSD and those who do not?
The answer may lie in the definition of trauma. If we hold onto rigid identities which do not account for the extreme ends of human potential along a continuum of behavior, then we are more prone to react with traumatic response. If, however, we have taken upon ourselves the openness of these extreme ends of human potential, then there is no identity of “I am safe” to have ripped away in the first place.
One method which helped me more fully understand this concept is in considering two hypothetical people: Bob and Barbara.
Bob is an elderly man in his mid-80’s. He is a kind man who has been failing in health over the past few years. His family and friends were notified of health complications which landed him in the hospital. All of Bob’s loved ones have come to visit and support him. The gatherers comfort each other as Bob’s condition continues to deteriorate over time, particularly when his doctor asks if all of his affairs are in order. Bob’s friends and family say their goodbyes, make their peace, and prepare for his inevitable death.
Barbara is a young and vibrant woman in her late 20’s. She is recently married and has been excited about plans to begin a family with her husband. Barbara is an avid jogger and takes to the neighborhood each evening before getting ready for bed. This jog helps her wind the day down, stay in shape, and clear her head for the upcoming day. Only this evening she does not come home from her jog like clockwork as she usually does. Her husband makes frantic phone calls to no avail. The sound of a siren blaring nearby is enough to draw his attention. Just a few blocks from home, he sees her body strewn across the sidewalk where a car had ventured off the road and hit her. Barbara is pronounced dead at the scene. Her husband is shaken to his core, and so are her friends and family members when they hear the shocking news. The last thing he had been expecting to do was plan her funeral.
Barbara’s best friend, Stacey, was also the granddaughter of Bob. In the space of three months, she lost both her grandfather and her best friend. Stacey’s reaction to both deaths was different as night and day. She loved them both dearly. But because Bob was elderly and had been nearing death’s door for years, the understanding that Bob would not be around forever was one which Stacey had been able to dissect and come to grips with. His passing was sorrowful but also expected. Barbara, on the other hand, was young and had her whole life ahead of her. The thought that Stacey would lose her best friend at a time in life full of such promise, is one which Stacey had never considered. The grief and loss over Barbara was complicated and shook her to her core. The difference was not in a lack of love for one or the other, but rather in her acceptance of potentials: she had accepted that Bob was nearing the end of his life for years; she had never accepted the possibility of losing Barbara. Stacey considered Barbara her best friend, an identity she anticipated carrying with her for decades to come.
As seen on Trauma-Focused Hypnotherapy