Healing the Emotional Scars of Trauma
by Zoe Zimmermann
Sometimes a current trauma is linked to past traumas, and the work gets complicated. Cecilia (not her real name) was injured in two car accidents that happened close together. During the second accident, she thought she was going to die. She came to me when she felt she was not able to heal emotionally and physically. She had clear symptoms of PTSD: extreme anxiety in general; when she was driving, or a passenger in a car, she was especially anxious and afraid, constantly startling. Every time she drove by the place of the second accident, she had the beginnings of a panic attack (heart beating faster, fear, muscles cramping). She became angry easily when driving and at other times. She couldn’t sleep at night and just didn’t feel like “herself.” Before the accidents, she was very confident and unafraid.
Working with Cecilia necessitated dealing with three levels of painful and traumatic experiences: individual (the physical/emotional PTSD from the accidents), family (family abuse) and cultural (white racism toward Latin-Americans). In all, we had seven sessions to heal these two accidents and the childhood/cultural events they triggered. After the first two sessions, she already reported feeling less anxious and less tense in her life in general. She still wasn’t sleeping well, though.
I’d like to share just the most complex parts of working with Cecilia, which came in the later sessions.
At the beginning of the session, she reported that her anxiety had decreased even more, that when she was in bed, she had no anxiety (this was new for her—she had had pretty high anxiety trying to go to sleep), and she was sleeping better. She was still somewhat nervous when driving. But she wasn’t as quick to react emotionally and was not getting angry.
I asked her which part of the accident felt like the anxiety she was feeling currently. She said she got panicky when she remembered looking behind her and seeing the car coming quickly.
She suddenly became very sleepy. In my experience, this is a trauma reaction that happens when people remember in the present going into a strong past trauma experience (when the car was jolted forward, she thought she would die and spaced out). Now, she was very sleepy. (level 10) When asked where she experienced it in her body she noticed it in her upper body and head. We tapped on the feeling of overwhelm, shock and “sleepy feeling in my upper body and head when I looked back and saw the car coming fast.” After the round of tapping, she reported the sleepiness had increased somewhere during the tapping, like a strong wave, and then decreased.
We focused on “looking for an out,” and not seeing a way out. The sleepiness got worse.
“Even though a part of me is really overwhelmed and just wants to go to sleep, I deeply and completely accept myself.” She realized she was critical of herself for blanking out. “Even though I put myself down for blanking out, I acknowledge and appreciate that part of me that needs to blank out.” She said the sleepiness decreased when she acknowledged the part of her that blanks out. (level 4)
She suddenly realized that she blanks out a lot in her life— when her work gets overwhelming and sometimes with clients, when she feels their overwhelm. “Even though I’ve learned to blank out when something is too much for me, I thank myself for figuring out how to deal with overwhelm. I always have the choice to fade out and disappear, to blank out. And maybe I also have the choice not to do something. Maybe blanking out is a sign of not wanting to be present for something and I can choose on purpose not to do it.
She told me that she thought about suicide regularly as a child. It seemed like a “way of taking care of myself.” We tapped on “even though when I was a child, so many times it was deeply painful and a part of me wanted to check out, I deeply and completely love and accept myself. I send my young self love and compassion and remind myself that my life now is good. Even though the accident had that same deeply painful and scary childhood feeling, and a part of me went into that place of wanting to leave the planet, I deeply and completely accept myself.”
For most of the session, she had been incredibly sleepy on and off (the trauma experience was moving through). Sometimes it was worse and sometimes better. Now she felt completely awake. She realized that, in her life, she gets sleepy when she feels she has no choice. If she can find the choice, a way to engage that works better for her, the sleepiness is not necessary. She told me she just wanted to hug me and thank me for sticking with her through this horrendous sleepiness and for helping her come out the other side.
Cecilia reported her life had changed in a huge way. Without what happened last time, she never would have realized how she’d been dealing with people. Whenever she started getting overwhelmed, she stopped doing whatever she was engaged in, and found that her energy increased. She was sleeping much better and anxiety continued to decrease.
She said that, as a child, she lived two lives. At school and in other environments, she had to learn how to “become white.” She realized that she still used this as a coping method to some extent, even though she didn’t really feel (intellectually) that she had to anymore. She realized that the feeling of “not good enough” was a big motivator for her to succeed in her life.
I brought her back to the experience of “living two lives” and asked her what happened now when she thought of that. She said she felt the sutures tighten in her head and that there was a visual blotchiness (again, sign of trauma). I asked her—without trying to think about it—what memory came to her. She remembered children saying she was dirty because of her brown skin, and always being picked last to play games outside. She felt tightness in her cheeks and a feeling of tiredness.
“Even though my cheeks tighten and a part of me is overwhelmed when I remember outside at school and the kids saying I was “dirty,” I deeply and completely accept myself.” (Now I guessed at what she might be feeling, and, when I asked her, she said it was right, so we tapped on it) “Even though it’s almost like I don’t want to go on, even though it’s like something extinguished me…” Her cheeks felt better and the tiredness decreased a lot. (level 2)
She realized she had rejected herself from early on and that it was hard to say she is smart and strong. “Even though I rejected myself from way back, even though I almost annihilated myself due to a combination of outer rejection and family abuse, I deeply and completely accept and love myself now.”
She felt a tightness at the top of her head and a well of grief (level 8), which we tapped on. The tired tightness in her head disappeared and the room became clear (whereas before her vision had been blotchy). She still felt the well of grief. “Even though I feel grief for all people and I grieve when I hear my clients’ sad stories, even though I learned in my family to take others’ pain into me, and it wears me out, I deeply and completely accept myself. I appreciate myself for being so compassionate. And maybe I can let them have their pain and feel it, without taking it in, letting it flow out of me. Maybe that helps them more than me taking it in. (She agreed strongly with that).
She felt really good at this point. She again said that she’s been feeling totally different, way better; the difference is “like night and day.” She also felt that she had turned a corner physically. We tested by going back to the confusion (none left) and the grief (none left)
Cecilia again said that she’d been having lots of realizations about how she conducts her life that have helped her become more efficient. Mainly, she was now able to make clear boundaries around what she wanted to do and not do, what she wanted and to decline doing too much. The spacing out that she’d been doing for as long as she could remember had disappeared. She wasn’t anxious anymore. She realized she hadn’t slept well in years but was now sleeping well.
She said that she was triggered by a situation with another person where she felt she’d done something wrong and that she was a bad person. I asked her whether this feeling of having done something wrong and feeling that she’s a bad person reminded her of anything in the past. She said that, in her family at home, everything had to be right to avoid getting yelled at and hit.
I noticed that she looked “fuzzy” to me and asked her if she was experiencing anything like fogginess, dizziness, spaciness. She said she was definitely foggy. She said that she felt there was nowhere to go for help, no one to tell. We tapped on the feeling of being trapped and alone (level 7). She again felt the feeling of having two lives, of segmenting and compartmentalizing herself. We tapped on feeling she had to hide parts of herself.
Then she told me that she had twice tried to kill herself as a child (fortunately, she was too young to know how to do it). We tapped on “Even though I felt so trapped I tried to hang myself and smother myself, I deeply and completely accept and love my young self and now. I appreciate that this was the only way out I could think of. I’m really glad I’m still here.”
Then she felt sadness about all the struggle and pain that she, her family, and her friends had gone through. (level 6) We tapped on that. Finally she felt compassion for her family and we tapped on forgiving them because they were doing the best they could with what they knew, and the best they could in their circumstances.
After the last session, Cecilia called and said she had been feeling very anxious again, and was again having a lot of trouble sleeping. Her body was tense when she woke up in the middle of the night. She said that it was all calming down somewhat, but was still not as good as before the last session. I guessed that a new aspect had come up in the last session that we hadn’t worked on yet. She said she’d thought the same thing.
At the beginning of the session, I summarized the various things I’d seen from the last session that might have triggered something. She responded to one of them, the part about trying to kill herself. She said that, although she’d done that, she also knew that part of her wanted to live. I noted that this was true, and that I was really happy she was alive and doing so well. And that there was a part of her that was really unhappy. She agreed, saying that she had to keep that part hidden, and that her mother always wanted to keep the “family business” hidden.
There was a lot of tragedy in her early life. She said that, when you have a lot of relatives, as Latino people do, there is a lot of poverty and a lot of tragedy. It’s part of life. I asked her for an example.
She mentioned her grandmother, who had a very hard life with a lot of pain and loss. But Cecilia always loved staying with her and wanted to live with her, because she felt loved, safe and peaceful there. She realized that she, herself, was an island, or had an island in her.
“Even though I was in despair, and there was so much despair around me, I found an island of peace inside myself. Even though I was in despair in my family, I deeply and completely accept myself. Inside me, an island of peace was created that I learned from being around my grandma, where I felt safe and loved. Even though there was despair in me and around me, I deeply and completely accept myself and love myself. I still have that island of peace inside of me.”
Now she was foggy again. She remembered that, after she left our last session, she felt embarrassed about having told me about trying to kill herself. She thought I would think she wasn’t ok, that “people” think you can’t get over something like that. I asked her who had done or said something that would make her think that. She said that, in her family, you can’t show vulnerability because it gets used against you, so she has to always show strength and positivity.
We tapped on what I saw as shame (she agreed) about being in despair, fear that I would see her as weak, that a part of her saw herself as weak. But that her fears about me didn’t come true. Acknowledging her fears and her strengths and accepting all of who she is with love.
We also tapped on “even though I feel shame that I tried to kill myself (this was hard for her to say near the beginning of the round), I deeply and completely accept all of me, my strength, my despair, my joy, my vulnerability.” She really liked this. It made her feel compassion toward herself as a child, and the shame was gone.
She remembered that, when she was hurt by something or felt badly, her father always said, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” “Even though I incorporated my father’s words, “Oh, it’s not that bad” into myself and because of that learned to hide all my hurts and despair, I deeply and completely accept all of me. He might have said that so that he could ignore what he was doing. I acknowledge it was that bad and I felt it and was present for it.”
She noted that, in the middle of the tapping, the room got dark (a sign of trauma reaction) and then, as we moved toward the end of the round, the room lightened up to normal again.
I tested by going back to trying to kill herself and then telling me about it. She said that she felt distant from it in a good way and that all she felt now was compassion for herself and also her family. She felt at peace.
She said that our sessions had felt deeply healing in her body and mind. Checking in after a week by e-mail, she said she was sleeping well, not anxious, not angry, and not fearful while driving.
by Zoe Zimmermann
Zoe Zimmermann is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Boulder, CO who has been working with individuals, couples, families and groups for over 24 years. She is a certified EFT Practitioner specializing in alleviating the effects of PTSD and trauma: accidents, surgeries, abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics,etc. She also specializes in relationships of all kinds: work, couples, families; and with pain and illness alleviation. Zoe trains psychotherapists, body workers and other healing professionals in the US, Germany and Austria on how to work with trauma, family of origin issues, career and personal-lifetransitions. As an organizational consultant, she has offered executive and management coaching, conflict resolution facilitation and trainings, and offered trainings to alleviate trauma and vicarious trauma in organizations.