Sadly, many people with lived experience of complex trauma are further harmed when seeking help from the mainstream mental health system. This includes accessing traditional therapy & counselling services.
The mental health system focuses on treating symptoms, not the root cause. Diagnostic labels invalidate the trauma at the root of an individual’s mental distress, with words like ‘disorder’ instead implying the problem is with us. And for many, the intense 1-to-1 power dynamics we experienced in our early traumas are again present within the client-patient role in therapy.
For an individual who has already spent a lifetime suffering, this is the exact opposite to the kind of help we really need.
Instead, a holistic trauma-informed approach which values lived experience & peer support is the way forward. This allows the trauma at the root cause to be compassionately validated, and creates a supported pathway to healing.
Cognitive therapies such as CBT and DBT can only go so far. Trauma is stored in the body, often at a very unconscious level (see van der Kolk’s excellent book, The Body Keeps The Score).
To process and heal trauma, a safe connection has to be restored – or perhaps, created for the first time – with the body. Safe relationships, with the world & with others, can help to heal relational trauma and help the body & nervous system learn to regulate itself.
The most promising therapy recognised by the mainstream mental health system today is EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming. While it takes the structure of traditional therapy, i.e. 1 hour, 1-to-1 sessions with a ‘professional’, it is also different. You don’t have to talk – you just have to follow a moving visual or auditory stimulation with your eyes. Whilst we’re not quite sure exactly how it works, evidence is already emerging to show its positive effects on people who suffer with severe mental distress. Something is going on here that can greatly help people, and it’s happening at a body-level, rather than a cognitive one.
Alternative therapies can prove much more effective at helping to heal from trauma.
I used to dismiss any kind of alternative therapy, preferring peer-reviewed science. But my own lived experiences have shown me the opposite. Traditional therapy has caused me nothing but harm. And I have tried many different therapists, many of whom were even supposedly trauma specialists at the top of their international fields.
Instead, I found the most benefit from all of the things I would previously have dismissed as ‘woo woo’. There’s something called craniosacral therapy, which as far as I can research, doesn’t have much of a scientific basis. Skeptical was an understatement. But I have had two sessions of it, and those two hours have had a profound impact on me. Compared to literally hundreds of hours of traditional talking therapy, even with a trauma specialist, the effect is quite simply amazing.
- TRE / Shaking
- Craniosacral Therapy
- Meditation & Mindfulness
Community & Wellbeing
We are so quick to forget that we are really just animals, living in nature. Humans have dealt with trauma for many thousands of years before us. And some tribes around the world still have very different ways to overcome their struggles.
Many of these traditional healing methods involve ceremonies, coming together as community, to celebrate the simple things in life surrounded by the best of what nature has to offer.
I became very close to the moon during my own healing journey. So much so, I changed my name to include her in it!
Reconnecting to the very essence of life found in nature can help to ground us, feel a sense of connection to our bodies & emotions, and allow our nervous systems to regulate themselves in the environment they were designed for.
- Pets & Animals
- Seasonal Ceremonies
- Drumming & Music
This is another great avenue to explore. I know that myself and many of my peers with similar lived experiences of mental distress & complex trauma have also found peer support useful. So useful, I want to give it its own section on this page.
Peer support is particularly good for people with lived experience of complex trauma. This model removes the power dynamics found within traditional therapy, which can otherwise remind us of similar dynamics experienced during earlier interpersonal trauma.
However, peer support isn’t right for everybody. A few years ago, I wasn’t in the right place to be able to appreciate it like I do now. I was conditioned by society to believe that I was ‘broken’ and I needed a ‘professional’ to fix me.
Instead, I researched and educated myself about the effects of trauma and began to realised that this wasn’t what I needed. I knew instinctively that I needed to continue to validate my experiences and share them externally, now I had found the right words to use. I found immense safety to do this within special peer support groups. But I needed to learn a lot about trauma first, in order to understand my own experiences, before I could begin to share them.
I’m so passionate about peer support, I’m keen to raise awareness of it and help other mental health services embrace it. You can read more about peer support as part of my work as a lived experience expert.
A Trauma Healing Journey
As far as I have experienced, I think a good way to support a trauma healing journey is to:
- Begin with psychoeducation – understand how trauma impacts you & how healing is possible
- Create a safe space amongst peers for emotional support
- Include elements of ‘traditional’ therapy (such as EMDR)
- …and some alternative ones (craniosacral therapy, yoga, breathwork)
Hopefully we are not far from the day when mainstream mental health systems are able to provide trauma-informed care & support in this way that we so desperately need.