4 Ways That Trauma-focused Therapy Is Different From Regular Mental Health Counseling

988, Mental Health, Therapy, Trauma

You’ve probably heard the word ‘trauma’ used a lot in recent years, but what does it really mean? How do you know if you’re dealing with trauma – and how do you handle it, if you are?

Could you benefit from trauma-focused counseling?

What Is Trauma?

Trauma occurs when someone is exposed to an “incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.”

The Brain’s Response to Trauma

When you experience trauma, your brain and body go into “fight or flight” mode. When faced with a threat, your brainstem and limbic system work together to trigger the body’s fear response in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, resulting in increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, which prepare the body to react to the perceived threat. The body eventually calms down, but if your body’s fear response is regularly being activated, the brain and body are constantly operating in survival mode. This leads to a dysregulation of the nervous system.

Childhood Trauma – Adverse Childhood Experiences

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) because their brains are still growing. This overactivation of the SNS can lead to irregular brain development – the stress caused by persistent SNS activation can result in “loss of neurons, difficulty in the production of new neurons and a decrease in brain growth factors.”

The following situations are considered adverse childhood experiences:

  • Child abuse
  • Neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Household members abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Any other traumatic stressor

Some of the things that are considered childhood traumas might not seem all that bad – especially if it just seems normal to the individual. If you routinely witnessed your parents fighting as a child, you may not think much of it, even if the fights sometimes turned into physical altercations. 

You might think “Everyone’s parents fight, I just dealt with it,” but these adverse effects on wellbeing can last for years. When your experiences “debilitate you and cause you to question the safety of your emotional environment,” you are experiencing trauma.

What Is Mental Health Counseling AKA Therapy?

When someone is going to therapy, they’re attending counseling sessions with a mental health professional known as a licensed counselor, clinician or therapist. Licensing varies from state to state, so two clinicians might have different titles. In Virginia, they’re typically called licensed professional counselors, or LPCs.

These counselors are trained to evaluate individuals’ mental health and implement certain techniques that can help them to understand and manage their emotions and any mental health conditions.

Related: Does Therapy Have to Be Expensive? 5 Ways To Pay for Mental Health Counseling

What Is Trauma-focused Therapy?

Trauma-focused therapy, also known as trauma-informed therapy, recognizes that traumatic experiences in the lives of clients have an impact on their current mental, behavioral, emotional and even physical wellbeing. This could be trauma that happened recently or a while ago – it can even be trauma that happened in childhood. Mental health conditions experienced in adulthood are sometimes due to unresolved childhood trauma. 

4 Ways That Trauma-focused Therapy Is Different From Regular Mental Health Counseling

According to SAMHSA, trauma-informed treatment has four qualities:

1. Trauma-focused therapy recognizes that trauma has widespread impacts – but that recovery is possible

Trauma-focused therapy looks to examine past traumatic experiences and see how they’re connected to the individual’s current mental health. While this can be a scary prospect, addressing this trauma can help you to resolve your current issues and make steps toward living a less stressful and happier life.

2. Trauma-focused therapists recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma

Clinicians who are trauma-informed are aware of the signs and symptoms of trauma in both children and adults and can use their knowledge and experience to diagnose and address trauma.

Signs of Trauma in Children

  • Becoming hypervigilant and overly sensitive to anything they perceive as a potential threat. This leads to an inability to understand what is and what isn’t a threat and extreme responses to non-threatening situations
  • Headaches
  • Problems sleeping
  • Unexplained body pain
  • Poor school performance
  • Behavior problems

Signs of Trauma in Adults

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Anger, irritability or mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being startled easily
  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Social withdrawal
  • Suicide attempts or suicidal ideation
  • Substance abuse
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained body aches or headaches
  • Muscle tension

3. Trauma-focused organizations respond by fully integrating their trauma knowledge into their policies, procedures, and practices

At Region Five, we take trauma-focused care seriously. Our clinicians are routinely trained to understand and treat trauma, and, through our CSBs, we provide trauma-informed crisis intervention, individual counseling, family counseling and more. We also offer same-day access to services and connection to local and regional resources.

4. Trauma-focused therapy seeks to actively resist re-traumatization

When addressing trauma, you’ll be asked to talk about the things you’ve experienced. This can cause re-traumatization, especially if you have to tell your story multiple times (for example, to a police officer or doctor and then later to your counselor or social worker). Trauma-informed therapists are mindful of re-traumatization and actively try to avoid it. 

Trauma-focused therapists know how to minimize the effects of re-traumatization by:

  • Building trust – they will show you that they want to know and understand you
  • Establishing a routine that provides safety and familiarity
  • Identifying potential triggers – understanding the things that makes you feel unsafe and avoiding or minimizing those triggers
  • Prioritizing consent – they will let you know that you don’t have to answer questions that make you feel uncomfortable or upset
  • Calming symptoms of trauma – they’re able to help you calm down after discussing trauma by guiding you in breathing or mindfulness exercises, and will teach you how to do those exercises on your own
  • Connecting individuals with resources – they can quickly and easily connect you with crisis lines and other local or regional supports

Experiencing Trauma? Help Starts Here – Hope Starts Now

If you’re experiencing symptoms of trauma, we want to help. We’re committed to helping you, and all of our community members in the Greater Tidewater Hampton Roads Area, access quality and affordable behavioral health care and supports.

Want to get started with mental health counseling? 

Click here to find your nearest CSB and make an appointment for same-day access.

Need help right away?

Call the Region Five Crisis Line, anytime, 24/7. A trained counselor will listen and, if you want, give advice and connect you with local resources that can help. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, are struggling with substance abuse, or just need to talk to someone, don’t hesitate – we are here to help! 

Call 757-656-7755 to talk to someone now. If you’re not in the Region Five area, you can call or text 988 to reach the nationwide crisis line.

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