I have been a counselor for more than fifty years, but I’ve only been a trauma-informed counselor since I learned I had four ACEs. Let me explain. ACEs stand for “adverse childhood experiences.” The ACE studies began as a collaboration between the CDC and Kaiser hospital in 1998 and more than seventy research papers have been published since then.
The ACE studies found that adverse childhood experiences—including such common events as growing up in a family where parents were divorced, had alcohol or drug problems, or suffering from mental illness—harm children’s developing brains. The studies found that disrupted brain function leads to changes in how we respond to stress and damages our immune systems so profoundly that the effects show up decades later.
I learned that ACEs cause much of our burden of chronic disease, most mental illness, addictions, and are at the root of most violence. The original research listed 10 ACEs. As noted I had four. My parents were divorced. My father suffered from depression. My mother from severe anxiety. As a result I was left alone a lot and didn’t receive enough consistent love and support.
Most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and people with four ACEs have a significant risk of developing health and relationship problems as adults. These include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lung problems, depression, divorce, suicide, addictions, and relationship problems. I’ve had chronic lung problems, bouts of depression, divorced twice, was suicidal at a number of stages of my life, and had numerous addictions.
When I reached out for help, most health practitioners saw me through the lens of the mainstream medical model and tried to figure out what was wrong with me, what diagnosis I should have, and what kind of medications I should take. I did receive some help over the years with this approach, but the benefits were limited. Once I learned about the ACE studies I went looking for trauma-informed healers, but they were few and far between. Luckily, there are more now. Here are seven reasons you should seek out a trauma informed healer.
#1. Trauma is not what you think.
In the past we thought of trauma as a serious disruption in a person’s life such as the trauma of war, being raped, or facing death from a natural disaster. But we now know that common experiences in childhood can cause trauma that can have a lasting impact on our physical, emotional, and relationship health.
#2. Everyone alive today has suffered some degree of trauma.
We’ve all been affected by the world-wide pandemic. We all have had to face fears of getting infected, been isolated from loved ones, had our work-life disrupted, and some have gotten sick or have loved ones who became ill and died. Though the world is getting back to normal, there will be lasting impact on our lives and the experts tell us that humans are still out of balance with the natural world and until we change we will face the risk of future pandemics.
#3. The medical model treats symptoms rather than underlying causes.
The medical model treats the symptoms of trauma as though they were specific disease entities. There are treatments for depression, anxiety, addictions, anger, PTSD, and more. Pharmaceutical companies come out with new and more powerful drugs that are purported to treat these problems. But all drugs have side effects, many of them can be worse than the problem they are promised to treat. No drug, no matter how effective, can address the underlying cause of the problem.
#4. Asking “what happened to you?” is more helpful than asking “what’s wrong with you?”
Neuroscientists, psychologists, and people who have lived through trauma, are finding new, more effective, approaches for helping people. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D is one of the world’s leading experts on understanding and treating trauma. He is the senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy.
Dr. Perry says, “I define trauma as an experience, or pattern of experiences, that impairs the proper functioning of the person’s stress-response system, making it more reactive or sensitive.” Stress is part of life, but things like adverse childhood experiences and later stresses disrupt our response systems. We have problems which can better be understood by first discovering what happened to us.
In his book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, written with Oprah Winfrey, they say, “Healing must begin with a shift to asking ‘What happened to you?’ rather than ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Many of us experience adversity that has a lasting impact on our physical and emotional health. What happens to us in childhood is a powerful predictor of our risk for health problems down the road.”
#5. More people will get help if they are not labeled as sick, crazy, mentally ill, addicted.
My wife, Carlin, wrote a wonderful book, Love it, Don’t Label It: A Practical Guide for Using Spiritual Principles in Everyday Life. Too many of us have been labeled sick, crazy, mentally ill, or addicted, or given other labels. The labels are meant to diagnose our problem and to guide us to a treatment from professionals who we are told know more about our problems than we do.
Though some get comfort from being told what their problem is and that there is a treatment for it, more people feel shamed, blamed, and disempowered. Joining with a person to explore their past, and working with them to create a better future, will encourage more people to reach out for support.
#6. We were wounded in our early relationships. We need a healthy relationship to heal.
The ongoing ACE studies make it clear that our early experiences in our families impact our adult relationships. If we grow up in a family where our parents were not able to give us the consistent nurturing and care we needed, we grow up with a brain that is over-reactive to potential loss. We become more irritable or angry when our partner doesn’t give us the love we need. Or we tend to withdraw from relationship, hoping to protect ourselves.
Because all this goes on, for the most part, subconsciously, we don’t recognize the connection between our childhood wounds and our adult relationship problems. The good news is that once we do recognize the connection, we can heal. In fact, the reason we chose the partner we did was that we trigger each other’s old wounds and we now have an opportunity to heal the present as we heal the past.
#7. Safety and connection are the key ingredients to healing.
In order to heal, we need to feel safe with our partner. That can be difficult when our early wounding makes us hypersensitive to loss and we often react with anger or by withdrawing, which creates more distance and increases our fears. Sometimes we are able to create safety on our own. But often it helps to work with a trauma-informed counselor.
One of the world’s leading experts on trauma and healing is Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, offers the following guidance for choosing a therapist. He or she:
- Must know and understand the impact of trauma, abuse, and neglect on the child and how it impacts our adult relationships.
- Must master a variety of techniques that can help to (1) stabilize and calm a person down, (2) help to lay traumatic memories and reenactments to rest, and (3) reconnect the person with their fellow men and women.
- Ideally the therapist will also have been on the receiving end of whatever therapy he or she practices.
- Though they may have their own methods and practices, they should be open to your exploring options other than the ones he or she may be familiar with.
- Must always give you a feeling that you are safe.
- Must feel comfortable in his or her own skin and with you as a fellow human being.
- Must not be stern, judgmental, agitated, harsh, or fearful.
- Must be able to handle your feelings that come up in counseling, including those that may be directed at the therapist.
- Bottom line, you must feel that the therapist is curious to find out who you are and what you, not some generic “patient,” need.
If you’d like more information about trauma-informed counseling and my upcoming courses on healing relationships and the five stages of love, drop me a note to [email protected] and put “5 stages of Love” in the subject line.
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