During my twenty years as a counselling therapist I have been honoured to work with many different people. I have learnt a lot from every one of my clients.
As students we learn about patterns, and about shared symptoms. We learn about theories and approaches in psychotherapy. We read research and some of us conduct research and we learn to analyse what is most helpful to the largest group of people who present with a cluster of shared symptoms. To be able to communicate with peers, across the mental health professions, these shared symptoms are categorized under headings with labels.
The positives are that there is a consensus on what might be contributing to the experience of psychological trauma and on the presence of shared debilitating symptoms and what might be helping in reducing these. It also means that treatment is mostly based on reducing these shared symptoms.
Of course, in the first-place people need to feel safe and secondly, they need to gain some control over the overwhelming feelings that are continuously present and intruding day and night.
Thirdly, it is important that people feel that they are not alone. This sounds more straightforward than it is. In our society we tend not to be the best listeners and therefore we unintentionally may be pushing people away. Examples include telling rather than asking others what they need or need to do, being dismissive about their state of mind, or minimizing the impact of the experiences.
These unhelpful responses form a hurdle to seeking help. It is not easy to reach out as it involves taking a risk and when not being heard, people likely will withdraw. So, there is a need for all of us to be more openminded by placing our assumptions aside. We can show genuine interest by asking a family member, friend, or peer open questions: How are you really doing…What can I help you with…How can I best respond when you….?
Those who are experiencing trauma symptoms need to give themselves permission to be selective in who they want to confide in, but in the first place I encourage them to focus on immediate family members such as a spouse and (adult) children or others that are in their “inner circle” as these are the people who care about them.
While it is important to be trained in generalities, we as mental health professionals also need to be taught how to remain present with an individual client and to place the client central in our work as a therapist. When working with clients with trauma symptoms mental health professionals need to explain how trauma affects the brain and the body and demonstrate skills and techniques to implement emotional regulation. It is crucial however, to point out that in order for therapy to be effective, two essential components are present and these are a respectful and trusting professional relationship and the adjustment of treatment approaches based on the needs and priorities of the client. Here again, asking questions and listening are the most crucial components of the development of a trusting relationship.
In addition to the above, it is important that those who have been confronted with extremely stressful events and extraordinary painful experiences, find their path to what is helping them to integrate what has happened into who they are and who they want to become.
People change after traumatic experiences. Many recognise that with every experience comes increased insight and wisdom and a deeper understanding about what it means to be human and how it feels to hurt deeply. Going through the process of healing provides a renewed appreciation of our vulnerabilities as well as our resilience. And this is what I would like to highlight: I have met people who have shown through all the adversities that were thrown at them…that they are strong and that they use these strengths to help themselves to bounce back. Many of them have a strong drive to go beyond their own healing as they use their experience to help others. Let us make sure that all feel safe, heard, and understood and supported in their healing journey.