When you think of trauma or PTSD, instances of extreme violence may spring to mind. You may associate trauma or PTSD largely with war veterans, abuse survivors or victims of serious crimes. You may not even believe someone who has lived an “ordinary” life can experience or suffer from the effects of trauma.
The truth is trauma can be caused by any incident in which a person experiences fear, helplessness and horror – an assault, an accident, the sudden death of a loved one, severe bullying or a traumatic medical procedure. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatised. Unsurprisingly, 1 in 2 people experience trauma at some point in their life and around 20% of those will develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
As a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist, I see many people who are seeking help with anxiety, depression, overeating, insomnia, chronic illness, unstable relationships or addictions. Trauma often anchors people in the past without allowing them to understand why they continue to have certain feelings and why they behave the way they do.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a more extreme version of trauma. Symptoms include flashbacks, intense emotions, hypervigilance, anger outbursts, panic attacks, tense muscles, nightmares, exhaustion, withdrawal from certain places or people and fear. Physical symptoms can include dizziness, agitation or excitability, fainting, heartbeat increases and headaches. Clearly, these can have devastating effects on a person’s ability to study, work or hold down a job.
The Filing Tray
While it would be easy to view PTSD as a mental health disorder, it is in fact a psychological injury. When trauma occurs, the Hippocampus – the part of the brain that helps process memories – doesn’t time-stamp the memory as an event that happened in the past. In other words, the traumatic event causes a filing error to take place in the person’s memory.
To extend the metaphor, I find it helpful to view PTSD as a ‘to be filed’ tray:
“It’s like a ‘to be filed’ document tray. You’ve been too busy to complete all your filing one day, so you drop it in the tray. Each day, you’re still too busy to go back to that filing, but the overflowing tray reminds you filing needs to be done, and it makes you anxious. When you finally try to do the filing, you realise there are no reference numbers, you don’t know who to ask for help, and you can’t read the documents to know where they should go, so back it goes in the tray. This cycle will continue until you ask someone for help. Someone who can understand the documents and knows where they should be filed, or at the very least can help you find out what you need to know, in order to file them correctly.”
Trauma, PTSD and the Workplace
When it comes to trauma and the workplace, the impacts are manifold and far-reaching. According to the 2017 Stevenson/Famer “Thriving at Work” review, workplace absences due to poor mental health and its symptoms cost employers and organisations billions of pounds a year and put an immense strain on the NHS.
In addition, public sector workers such as firefighters, emergency service workers and the armed forces are particularly susceptible to trauma. Unfortunately, the nature of these life-saving and essential roles – which are often at the frontline of violent events – means many will develop forms of trauma or PTSD. If left untreated, this trauma can have a significant, long-lasting impact on public sector workers’ ability to function and continue with their careers.
Why counselling is re-traumatising
One of the first steps many attempt to take in their recovery from PTSD is talking therapy. However, talking therapy or counselling, where people are consciously engaged in discussing traumatic memories or experiences, can actually re-traumatise the victim. This makes sense, as talking through a traumatic event also makes people relive it. Talking reinforces the neurological pathways involved with the fight and flight response, leading the brain to sense that the past threat is still present now.
A new intellectual understanding may be accomplished by discussing the event, but the brain is unable to process this new perception. When this happens, it will revert to its dysfunctional ‘threat’ patterns.
A non re-traumatising treatment
What, then, is the answer? How can we help people work through PTSD and trauma without talking about the event itself? To reprocess traumatic memories, I use clinical hypnotherapy, psychotherapy and a treatment known as Bi Lateral Analysis Stimulation Technique (BLAST), a more supportive, faster and less clinical version of the more well-known EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) psychotherapy technique.
BLAST belongs to a group of new treatments called Amygdala Depotentation/Desensitising Techniques (ADTs). These treatments are largely non-verbal and therefore non re-traumatising. These are a gentle yet extremely effective treatment. Using repeated right-left (bilateral) stimulation of the brain, clients review aspects of the traumatic memory while tracking my back and forth light-pen movements with their eyes. The combination of bilateral stimulation and other psychotherapy techniques provides new insights and understanding and replaces negative thoughts with positive ones. BLAST stimulates the Hippocampus to ‘time-stamp’ the memory. Therefore, the brain can file the memory correctly. Once the trauma is processed correctly, the intense emotions disappear, and the traumatic event becomes a distant memory.
Even though no clinical trial information is currently available for BLAST, I have observed first-hand how effective this treatment can be. Here are a few examples. Names and specific details have been changed for confidentiality reasons. All clients were treated by me.
Hannah sought counselling for a traumatic childhood of domestic violence, getting raped as a teenager and experiencing abusive relationships. Although Hannah had gained insight from counselling, she still suffered flashbacks and hypervigilance and had difficulty sleeping. She smoked cannabis as a coping mechanism. Hannah found it difficult to focus at work and manage her time efficiently. The day after session one – Hannah reported no more flashbacks, better sleep and more energy. Session 2 brought a dramatic reduction in drug use and Hannah reported feeling more grounded. After session 3 Hannah managed to stop smoking cannabis altogether.
Vicky was attacked in the workplace and feared for her life. Despite police involvement, the perpetrator was never convicted and Vicky felt anguish and guilt as she feared he may attack again. She received counselling which did not resolve her hypervigilance, fear, anxiety, intense anger outbursts and emotional instability. It caused issues with her relationships and at work. After one therapy session, Vicky reported feeling like a different person and said it had changed her life.
Peter was born with a spinal deformity that caused him to be bullied. After several operations, his back was straight, but Peter was left with anxiety and found it hard to deal with change. This had a negative effect on his relationships. Clinical hypnotherapy combined with BLAST resolved Peter’s anxiety and dramatically improved his coping skills and ability to deal with change.
Evidently, ADTs can have swift impacts for people struggling with trauma and PTSD. For leaders looking to produce an effective mental health plan in the workplace, this mode can be particularly powerful: it can be implemented fast, isn’t as time-consuming as many other therapies and yields near-immediate results (often after one or two sessions) allowing employees to recover and go on to thrive in their careers, trauma-free.
For employers looking to support staff suffering from trauma or PTSD, this mode of non-verbal therapy can provide an attractive alternative to those employees who may, understandably, feel uncomfortable talking through their experiences, particularly when operating in a workplace context. This, in turn, allows employees and employers to feel comfortable discussing the range of therapies available, and will hopefully open a dialogue about other (more effective) treatments that differ from the usual models such as counselling and talking therapies.
About the Author
Venka de Rooij is a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist who specialises in anxiety, trauma and PTSD using applied neuroscience methods. She also works with companies to develop emotional well-being programmes to reduce stress and anxiety in the workplace. As a speaker, she shares her story and ideas about physical well-being, trauma and mental health – for more information, visit greymatterstherapy.com