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Experiential Therapy for Trauma Treatment

October 31, 2018

By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

Understanding trauma requires us to feel the stories of our lives to heal them. Traumatic recovery is all about not feeling. Even asking someone about their trauma can be befuddling, if not disturbing, for the client who has learned to put their head down, turn off their sensitivities, and push forward.

Trauma impacts a person’s emotional, physical, and spiritual state. During traumatic recovery, the individual’s mind and body disconnect as a coping mechanism. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be beneficial, but experiential therapy accesses parts of the brain that aren’t addressed through traditional talk therapies. 

The Impact of Trauma 

We often ask first responders to tell us about the horror of watching groups of people lock arms on the top of a building and leap to their death or recollect the screams of those buried in rubble waiting to be rescued. When we reduce therapy to only words, we ask too much. The impact of trauma is too painful, freakish, and shocking to put into words. 

Over the next several months within the lives of these first responders, divorce rates rise, alcohol and drug addiction shoot up, and spousal abuse cases become common because the terror and pain are locked in the part of the brain and body that words don’t reach.

When we ask a client to share their experiences of sexual or physical abuse, neglect, or frightening events, we’re asking them to move past their primitive defensive barriers to feel unprocessed emotions. Debriefing and describing these experiences in words is neither efficient nor effective. Many people caught in these experiences have sometimes barely believed they happened despite their profound and disturbing impact. 

Had the repair that might have allowed them to re-establish their equilibrium occurred after the painful event or rupture, they may have returned to balance, learned, and grown from the experience. If it didn’t happen, it becomes the task of therapy and recovery networks to somehow draw the information from the darker recesses of the mind/body to feel and heal these emotional and psychological wounds.

When we’re facing danger, whether that danger is a charging elephant or a drunk, raging parent, the thinking mind shuts down, but our feeling of fear signals the limbic system to rev up. We’re supercharged with the extra adrenaline and blood flow to enable us to flee for safety or stand and fight. When we can do neither, we freeze. We stand there in body but disappear in mind. We feign death.

Traumatic Recovery

Years later, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate remnants of personal experience, we feel anxious. The experience was so long ago and felt far from our brain. Being meta barrage of well-meaning questions can leave us staring blankly, unable to bring the “forgotten” parts of self into consciousness long enough to describe them. 

When asked how we felt, we may draw an emotional blank. The effects of trauma cause us to disassociate or shut down our authentic personal reactions and can’t connect to the question or the person asking it. Maybe our stomach gets queasy, we tense up, and we want to leave the room. However, we have no idea why. We think therapy is stupid or too intense. We suspect the therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing. Those lost moments hold critical pieces of our aliveness that have shaped how we live in our bodies and experience ourselves and our relationships.

These frozen moments live within us, vibrating with life but without a context. They’re disconnected from the whole. They haven’t been converted into language and placed into the overall framework of our working consciousness. They are disenfranchised and hang somewhere in the inner space. We catch glimpses of them, but their honest and visceral content can be locked away and out of reach. 

Our narrative has big, blank spots in it. It’s like parts of us were strewn over a room, but it’s too dark for us to see what’s there. Entering that room to gather the pieces of our personal experience and stringing them into a meaningful and understandable whole—allowing the shards of self to nestle into the framework of our life—is the work of therapy.

Traumatizing Experiences Remain Non-Conscious

When the prefrontal cortex is not doing its job of elevating experience to a conscious level, converting it into language, frightening or traumatic experiences don’t get processed in the same way as ordinary experiences. This inability to tell a straightforward trauma story can also look like memory loss around traumatic events. 

Herein lies a danger in trauma resolution. The risk is that a client may either create a story that seems to fit the expected profile or accept another person’s interpretation of events because they can’t come up with a satisfactory one of their own. A client might also jump at the opportunity not to relive the moment. 

This is uncomfortable and has been long defended against by distracting them from the present moment. The healing is tolerating the reliving, discomfort, confusion, fear, and anxiety that they couldn’t process at the time.

Trauma Triggers and Transference

The hippocampus is susceptible to encoding the context of an experience and, more specifically, related to trauma. Thus, fear and anxiety get wired together with unconscious memories. Experiencing reminders of the situation such as a smell, sight, sound, song, texture, location, or taste can become trauma triggers from linked memories. 

When the person gets triggered, their entire mind and body can become overwhelmed with the full context of the painful experience. They may begin to relive their trauma and feel like it’s happening all over again. The effects of trauma are mainly unconscious. They may transfer their uncomfortable feelings onto the person or situation who triggered them rather than recognizing their overreaction as unprocessed pain. 

For a Vietnam veteran, this might mean that going out for Chinese food is a painful experience because the smells from the kitchen trigger frightening associations. Home can become scary for the child berated in the living room or sexually abused in the bedroom. For the baby who couldn’t get their parent to engage with them and make them feel safe, a deep connection can feel foreign or uncomfortable.

Therapy approaches that allow the body and mind to stumble their way down a path to their truth tell a more complete, compassionate, and full version of the trauma narrative. To learn more about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and gain guidance on how you or your community can begin to heal, log onto

Healing From Trauma 

Healing from trauma requires forms of therapy that will enable us to feel and grope our way along the associative mind-body pathways that will lead us toward these forgotten fragments to accomplish this. I use roleplay because it stimulates and simulates the relational diad or family cluster that needs to be made conscious. Even if it’s simply an empty chair representing someone else or a part of the self, talking to rather than about invites a spontaneous connection to emerge naturally. 

We reach out and get to know our depressed self and connect with the inner child whose creativity we may have shut down. We befriend the lonely adolescent or encourage our inner adult. We invite the carefree self we’ve lost touch with to come back to us. This direct and targeted interaction is self-referential. It emerges spontaneously from a simple role play that can trigger a flood of words because we’re free to fulfill that inner hunger to reconnect, express ourselves, be seen, and find our voice within a relational context. 

Experiential Therapy 

Experiential therapy involves actions, activities, and role-plays that identify and address subconscious traumatic memories. This practice takes clients out of a traditional clinical setting, encouraging them to be present and let their guard down, and promoting open dialogue to heal from the effects of trauma. 

During experiential healing, clients can experience success, identify obstacles, increase self-esteem, and claim responsibility for their actions. Group therapy offers the opportunity to build trust, work as a team, experience a sense of belonging, and ask for help. These exercises allow clients to address their emotions, and clinicians can help their clients understand their trauma triggers—decisions, actions, and reactions. 

Clients can also learn healthier coping skills. Trauma can engross people in negative thoughts, leading them to believe that they can longer find happiness in recreational activities. Experiential therapy can help clients reprogram how their brain reacts to positive stimuli. Some forms of experiential therapy include equine therapy, expressive art therapy, music therapy, and psychodrama.  

In psychodrama, we reverse roles to understand what it’s like to see ourselves from the other’s point of view. We also talk from the role of our child self back to our adult self. We put ourselves in the shoes of those we’ve given the power to, experiencing their humanity with our own.  The client spontaneously warms up to their story with all of the emotion, action, and nuance associated with it. 

Trauma Treatment at The Meadows

At The Meadows, our approach to trauma treatment is informed by the expertise, expertise, and foundational work of our Senior Fellows. We offer many forms of trauma therapy, including equine therapy, expressive arts therapy, and psychodrama. The work of our Senior Fellows has heavily influenced our Meadows Model, leading many people to life-changing healing through our treatment program. 

If you or a loved one is seeking healing from trauma, addiction, or mental health conditions, we can help you determine the next best steps on your journey to healing. Call our Intake office at (800) 331-5931 or contact our team today.