Can Re-Living A Trauma in Therapy Be A Re-Traumatization?

By John A. Speyrer

Stan Grof in his most recent book (Psychology of the Future, p. 196) asks this question: "Since reliving of traumatic memories is typically very painful, why should it be therapeutic rather than represent a re-traumatization?" Dr. Grof believes that the Irish psychiatrist Ivor Brown and his therapy team answer this question very well. Grof writes,

They suggested that we are not dealing here with an exact reply or repetition of the original traumatic situation, but with the first full experience of the appropriate emotional and physical reaction to it. This means that, at the time when they happen, the traumatic events are recorded in the organism, but not fully consciously experienced, processed, and integrated.
Grof explains that when a client re-lives this material he is no longer the infant or child he once was, nor is he in the original situation. The consciousness of the person in the regression is in a two track state and the observing ego becomes a witness to the original emotion and physical components of earlier trauma. Thus the experience is one of a child or even much earlier, but one who is accompanied in the regression with one's other track which can analyze and evaluate the feeling from the perspective of a mature adult.

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Marcy W. Axness, in a conversation with Raja Selvam, entitled Working With Prenatal Material in Therapy - A Responsible Approach, also examines this question. Selvam, a practitioner trained in Somatic Experiencing and Bodynamics, feels that if during one's pre-natal work, one's life is not getting better and you are beginning to feel a loss of vitality then something is wrong with the therapy process. He believes that re-living those early traumas again and again may be just grooving a brain pattern.

He believes that after re-living our early traumas we should understand their relation to our present life and then we should come back to the present with a new option. If you can't do that after a reasonable amount of time, well then, your therapy is not working. Axness asks: So how do you get the therapy to work?

Selvam explains that during the regression you want to be careful about keeping your process work relatively contained by only do a little piece of your work at a time. This way it can be integrated. Working with only one very small piece at a time is very important, he believes.

Raja Selvam feels that often primal therapy doesn't work since the observing ego is lost during the total re-living concept. The witness, the part of the client still in the adult space, must always be present during the regression. This ego state's role is so important that the therapist should make sure that the client understands the message he received during the primal and brings it to the present - to the now problem situation which had its origin in the past. Not being able to let go the old feelings means an inability to correct your perceptions and complete your feelings. "The most important thing is that you always bring the person back to the present with a different conclusion."

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Somatic experiencing psychologist Peter A. Levine (Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma) believes that such regressive experiences can be a trauma in themselves and often exacerbate the original trauma. ". . . (T)here is a good chance," Dr Levine writes ". . . that the cathartic reliving of an experience can be traumatizing rather than healing." Levine believes that ". . . cathartic approaches create a dependency on continuing catharsis and encourage the emergence of so-called "false memories."

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Ingeborg Bosch, a Dutch therapist and author of Rediscovering The True Self (2002), agrees with those who believe that re-living the trauma is not disintegrative or dangerous.

She writes:

In clinical situations I have often observed the opposite of the incorrectly supposed danger of feeling intense pain. Helping a client who is acutely stressed or in a very fearful state of mind to open up to the fear and connect it to the past in a regression, is relieving. Not dangerous or too taxing. Regressing, feeling old pain while knowing it is old, is actually a very effective way to engage in so-called symptom reduction (this is Phase One in conventional trauma-treatment) and start the healing process simultaneously. It is the best tool I have found to help people who are in acute situations of 'ego-disintegration' to retrieve the right perspective on their situation: 'Whatever I'm feeling, it is not happening now.

Many therapists also use the strategy of creating a "sate place" when working with traumatized clients. The therapist helps the client to think up an imaginary place in which she feels completely safe, where she can retreat to whenever she feels overwhelmed by her feelings. Although this might sound nice to some readers, why would we need to have an imaginary safe place? We would only need such a place if we were not truly safe in the present and we were unable to change our situation. Such thinking implies it is possible that our feelings could really hurt us, and that we could actually be overwhelmed by our feelings. Both these ideas are explicit in the concept of the "safe place." The "safe place" concept prevents us from giving in to our worst childhood feelings while knowing that there is no actual danger, and therefore it takes away the opportunity to come out on the other side of the feeling unharmed.

Knowing that it is safe to feel all old feelings, that we won't be devoured by them, that they will pass by eventually, and that they are not too much for us to feel, is an important part of the healing process. It can be painful and unpleasant, but we will come out unharmed and one step closer to being healed.
- (From pages 99-100 of Rediscovering The True Self - Reprinted with permission)

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So who is correct about the re-traumatization issue? Does the problem really exist? I believe this issue has arisen because some pre- and peri-natal traumas can take an extremely long time to resolve and sometimes even insights are slow in arriving. Many clients hope that there has to be a better way after repeating the same primals endlessly, seemingly without resolution. And various therapeutic approaches have arisen to make regressive-type therapy experiences less disintegrative. I believe that the real problem is that sometimes more pain is unblocked than can be felt during one session or even during a long series of sessions. Sometimes, it seems to be the nature of very early hurts to require a large number of primal experiences for their resolution.

Most regressive therapy theorists would agree that defenses lowered too rapidly or too massively can worsen symptoms, but their lowering, I believe. does not add to the person's trauma. It only feels that way! And how one feels is dependent on the relationship between one's storehouse of primal pain and the varying levels of one's defenses containing the trauma.

When defenses are lowered too rapidly the overload of pain can seem like one has been re-traumatized. The endless repetition of primals also has this effect. This happens quite commonly as It is difficult to uncover only the amount of pain which can be worked through in a session. Uncovering a new set of defenses can result in massive overload and it may take some time before a pandora's box of new pain can all be integrated. This can be the result of therapist intervention. But even in a situation where the therapist does not push or only pushes minimally and acts almost as a spectator to the unfolding process, one can still massively lower one's own defenses and arrive at the next series of primals to be felt.

The next series of primals may take many months or even years to resolve. Who wants to wait that long and endure the suffering involved? During this time one can feel that he has been re-traumatized though, unfortunately, it is the nature of the process for this to happen. And when it does happen one may use selected anti-depressants and/or tranquilizers to restore one's psychic equilibrium by reducing the overload of pain to an amount which, over time, may be steadily and slowly felt in primals.
[See Michael Picucci's The Journey Toward Complete Recovery, Chapter 10, The Uses of Medication In Recovery.]