There Is No Such Thing as a “Quick Fix” In (Trauma) Therapy
When working with new clients, I often hear the question “How long will therapy take?”
Understandably, clients are eager to feel better, heal and move forward. They want to pour out all their details and emotions during the first session because they feel as though it might help them heal their trauma faster. But, because we are dealing with deep emotional pain, we have to slow down and take it one step at a time.
I’d like to be honest with you on this matter – no therapy (especially trauma therapy) is a quick fix. It’s important that you understand this before making a decision to move forward. Sometimes, you can “stop the pain” and fix apparent problems in just a couple of sessions, but rarely does it last. Why, you might ask? Because, to put it simply, you cannot just sweep the dirt under the rug and expect it not to blow up in your face one day.
Things will hurt a bit more before they feel better
I’m happy to admit that I have had clients accuse me of making them feel worse than when they first stepped into my office. To that, I have always said that it usually hurts a bit more before it can start to heal. But this time, it’s going to heal for good.
Did they start looking at me with suspicion and a face that read “I’m never coming back”? Of course, they did. But this is where the explanation comes in.
Think about a profound wound in your body. It’s an open wound and it’s infected. Would you stitch yourself up before cleaning the wound? Before making sure you got rid of all the necrotic tissue?
Does it hurt to clean a wound? Sure, it does. But that’s the only way to make sure that the wound heals properly and doesn’t cause any further damage to your body.
I truly wish that I could help my clients heal instantly. But the truth is, healing trauma takes different amounts of time for different people. Diving right into the deep end to face your pain isn’t usually the best approach to achieve long term change. Healing takes time to explore your strengths and develop awareness of the many different ideas and perspectives you have.
You can read more about trauma here.
As a trauma-informed therapist, I would like to share some insight into how long therapy takes to heal trauma, and explain why doing it right (slowly, and with a trauma-informed approach), is worth it, even if you don’t think you have experienced trauma.
Why I Advise Against Diving Into the Details in the First Session
When you come to therapy, you are looking for relief. You want to feel better. That’s completely understandable and completely realistic. But there are necessary steps to take in order to achieve this.
“The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”
― Babette Rothschild
You may think the fastest path to relief is to completely share all the details of your trauma right away. The quicker you share the trauma, the faster you can heal trauma, right? Well, not exactly.
You can share the details about your trauma with every new therapist (or person) you meet. But this doesn’t bring you closer to healing, because prior to healing, trauma will shape the way you view your trauma and the way you talk about your trauma. Until you have processed your trauma, the story of your experience will come from a mindset shaped by the trauma itself. These are:
A Dissociated State
You can tell your story matter-of-factly from a state where you are not fully present and not paying attention to your mind and body. The coping skill you have so far used to cope with this trauma is avoidance. The only way to tell your story or recount your trauma is without any feelings (as though it happened to someone else). However, what you may not be considering is that this only perpetuates a cycle of dissociation and trauma.
A Triggered State
A triggered state is the way in which you are reliving your trauma and feeling badly as you tell the story. You talk about your trauma as though you are living in a body memory or a flashback. You are then living in that pain again without a healing resolution. Think about it this way – It’s like trying to get to the root of anxiety during a panic attack. It’s just not going to work.
Neither of these states brings you closer to healing.
How to Work with Trauma at a Safe Pace
Sharing the details of your trauma with a brand-new therapist is like ripping off a bandage to show a doctor a raw, unhealed injury. If you tear off a scab before the wound has healed, you’ll only find yourself bleeding all over again.
Likewise, you need a safe relationship with a qualified, trauma-informed therapist to work with emotional or psychological trauma. If you don’t, and you don’t yet have the skills to stay present, you will be unable to recognize that you are safe in the present moment and that the trauma is no longer happening to you. As such, you may be unable to avoid a fight-flight amygdala response.
Every time a client tells their story from an unsafe place, that client risks reliving the trauma.
Safety and Stability First
Before you discuss any details of your trauma, you first need to feel stable and safe in and out of my office.
Before we focus on the details of your experience, it is imperative that we first develop ways for you to feel safe and stable in your current world. I will further help you to establish your resources and stability to increase your healthy coping skills.
For example, I may use imagery to develop new ways to respond in any instance that you may feel triggered. We may develop a “container” of sorts that you’ll use both in and out of the office. This container is an imaginary box to hold the feelings and memories. It’s a way to contain your emotions until you are in a safe place or a trusted relationship, to sort through the pain and not be alone. You can think of it like a shoe box with index cards in it, to organize your thoughts and responses. The next time we meet, we can take them out to process them slowly, one by one.
It takes time to develop new, effective coping skills and abilities. This growth occurs throughout the process of building a trusting therapeutic relationship, and then building safety within yourself. It is at this point that you can better handle the emotions that may come forth when you think about and share your painful story.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Safety Includes the Time Between Sessions
But what if you feel safe with your therapist right away?
What if you feel safe enough with me (or any therapist), that you want to share all the details in a first session? In this case, I would ask you – What if you don’t know yet how to tolerate those feelings outside the therapy office? Once you leave the session, do you need to have to drink, use, cut, or do something else in order to avoid a constant state of overwhelm?
It is important for you to know that there is danger in facing too much too soon because the emotional pain you have allowed yourself to feel in therapy feels so similar to the pain of the past. It doesn’t yet have a safe place to live in your present life. Before we can begin to process the trauma, we need to help you be safe in the moment, and safe in your current life, so that a new ending to your story can be created.
“No recovery from trauma is possible without attending to issues of safety, care for the self, reparative connections to other human beings, and a renewed faith in the universe. The therapist’s job is not just to be a witness to this process but to teach the patient how.”
― Janina Fisher
So, Really, How Long Will Therapy Take?
In order to answer this, we first need to understand your history, your strengths, your resources for support and your current situation. Is this a single incident trauma, or are you facing complex developmental trauma? Are you experiencing ongoing abuse in which you are still living with the abuser? Do you have a fairly secure foundation and support system, or do we need to work together to build these?
The point that I am trying to make is that the length of therapy is less important than the quality of our relationship and support. Can you learn to have a more secure foundation? Can you develop relationships outside of therapy that will support your healing? What matters more is to work with you and the experiences you bring – from a place of safety and stabilisation. This is how true healing can occur, and I can’t think of a better way to spend our time together.
It Takes Time to Heal Trauma
Believe me, it’s worth the time!
Many people spend thousands of dollars and years and years trying to feel less badly any way they can using drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography or anything else that will help them avoid negative feelings, memories and stress that is unliveable. They do what they can to cope because they’d rather feel anything besides the pain, the fear and the sadness.
I understand that the weight of your emotional pain is huge. I respect that pain. I hear that pain. I am here to work with you through that pain. We will move through that pain together, one step at a time, in a way that we both know you can handle.
If you are ready to take the next step, please get in touch with me today. I would love to speak with you to kick-start your journey towards healing.
Until next time,