From the beginning of psychology as a serious science, the goal of treatment has always been to reduce the pain and suffering of the patient. Life can be traumatizing, challenging, and disillusioning, as well as inspirational and rewarding. However, for a patient who has experienced threats from others, and who has been assaulted, abandoned, and/or abused, it is difficult to find relief from flashbacks and memories of the past.
Our brains learn to be hyper-vigilant for any signs of danger after abuse. A patient may continue to experience painful memories of the abuse. It is believed that the traumatizing events do not get stored into long-term memory, which explains why people continue to relive the trauma they experienced even if it was many years ago. This is most common in cases of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD].
Once a person has been traumatized, certain neurological changes occur in the brain. While the left hemisphere, (the logical, task-oriented side of the brain), stays focused, the right hemisphere is more likely to dwell on survival behaviors. For example, consider a young woman driving her VW car when a passenger suddenly took the steering wheel and turned the car directly into on-coming traffic. Since both cars were VWs driving as a speed of 60 miles an hour the collision had a 120 mile an hour impact. Thirty years later, this woman cannot tolerate anyone touching her while driving which sends her into a state of high anxiety.
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A single traumatic event, depending on its type and intensity, can generate pain comparable to that caused by multiple events. As time passes, the more fearful and disconnected a person may become and the more focused on ways to escape or avoid the stressor a person may become. Some mechanisms may be to withdraw from social events, or begin using drugs or engaging in other destructive behaviors. Eventually, a patient will present with symptoms of a disorder such as PTSD, major depression, or a number of other ailments when resolution is unavailable.
Therapists often hear female victims of abuse blame themselves. “I shouldn’t have been walking home alone,” or “If I hadn’t worn that revealing blouse, I wouldn’t have been raped,” are explanations frequently expressed. Even women who were victims of sexual abuse as a child may still blame themselves many years after the event. No matter when the abuse happened it is not the patient’s fault, especially if it happened during childhood. The victimization was inflicted by the perpetrator.
Often patients experience irrational thoughts because they cannot retrieve the strengths that have pulled them through difficult times in the past. Therapists will focus on helping a trauma victim develop a sense of wholeness that is different from the fractured person the patient became after the abuse. The concept of being “fractured” comes from the internal conflict a trauma victim experiences. Part of the person may feel self-punitive, destructive, angry, and alienated from others. The other part of the person may feel helpless, apologetic and dissociate from their reality.
The goal of therapy is to bring the left and right hemisphere together by developing an internal sense of “Self” that builds on the strengths of the patient’s resources that were used in the past. The therapist will assist the patient to develop secure attachments and other competencies the left hemisphere had been storing. Healing consists of integrating the fractured parts of the “Self” into one compassionate, accepting, and loving “Self.” The main objective is to dispel the negative behaviors that have been employed as a way of coping into healthy and productive behaviors.
Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.