How to Heal from Trauma, Signs of Secondary Trauma, and How EMDR can Help with Trauma Recovery and PTSD with Therapist and Trauma Expert Alyssa Mancao

For many of us, trauma is something with a capital “T”, a big event or situation, such as a car accident or pandemic, that impacts us in dramatic and unforeseen ways. Yet, as I discuss in this week’s blog and podcast with licensed clinical social worker and therapist Alyssa Mancao, trauma with a lowercase “t” is something many people have to deal with on a daily basis. This kind of trauma, institutional or otherwise, is often normalised and suppressed, which can have a lasting impact on someone’s mental and physical health, compelling them to fight for survival in the face of persistent stressors in their environment.

Thankfully, as Alyssa has seen in her social work and her private practice, many people, given the right help, can and do recover from trauma and learn how to reconnect to themselves and their communities in deep and meaningful ways. How? Alyssa focuses on bringing back the human element in therapy, going beyond evidence-based practices and focusing on the individual’s unique story and experiences. She recognizes that many of the people she works with are dealing with little traumas like bullying and failed relationships on a daily basis, and that their mental and physical symptoms are a function of survival.

In an understanding and non-judgemental setting, Alyssa focuses on how the normalization of everyday traumas can lead to an increased tolerance for distress and the minimization of one’s story, and that true healing starts with the recognition that things are not okay—we need to validate, not suppress, our experiences. In her practice, she helps her clients highlight the dissonance they are experiencing in their mind and body, teaching them to listen to how they feel and how their body reacts to their thoughts and memories before their emotions and feelings erupt like a dormant volcano.

Yet Alyssa doesn’t just focus on talk therapy. Her expertise lies in EMDR treatment, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This kind of therapy focuses on eye movements through physical stimulation such as noise (using a buzzer, for example), light, touch and so on, and is a way to reprocess what someone has experienced. It works with the frequencies in brain, mimicking REM sleep, which helps release tension, and unlock memories, thoughts, beliefs, exposures in very brief, manageable under the guidance of an experienced therapist. It essentially allows someone to dig deep into the body’s experience of trauma, which is an important part of the healing process.

As I have mentioned before, all thoughts have attached information and emotions, including how our body reacted when we first experienced the trauma. When we are faced with a past trauma, we can experience this as nightmares, raging thoughts, tense muscles, feelings of sadness or confusion and so on. EMDR unlocks this physical and mental trauma in a controllable way, allowing someone to process what happened to them and reconceptualize it.

EMDR is client-focused, allowing someone to control the pace of their memories, and will look different for each person. As Alyssa says, everyone can benefit from this type of therapy (under the guidance of a professional), but their ability to process what happens depends what stage they are in the therapeutic process. EMDR can be challenging if someone gets overwhelmed easily, so it is better that they learn to build self-regulation skills with their therapist or counsellor before undergoing EMDR. And someone will know when they are done with EMDR therapy when they no longer experience visceral, bodily reactions to their traumatic memories, or when their distress level goes down to a “0”. 

This kind of therapy can also help people process and deal with “inner child” issues. This term refers to the experiences of our youth that have the ability to affect how we think and act today. These experiences, whether they are emotional or physical wounds from our parents or other people, affect how we cope in the present and the decisions we make, so they need to be acknowledged and dealt with before they take over our lives.

You can face and heal your “inner child” by validating your own story and experiences:

  1. Acknowledge what happened so you can deal with it. We can’t feel what we are not aware of! Learn to be okay sitting with the bad and uncomfortable, because this is the first step to healing.
  2. Create a dialogue with it: what can you say to that younger version of you? How can you be your own inner parent and validate your experiences? If your feelings could talk what would they say? You can even write yourself a letter. In this step, you are learning how to be strong enough in yourself to help yourself heal.
  3. Experience it. Don’t suppress your feelings, as they will only come back stronger and affect your mental and physical wellbeing. Deal with them and reconceptualize them, or change the way you see your past. My SWITCH app is a great tool for helping you learn how to manage your mind, deal with the childhood roots of your stress and anxiety, and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that impact gut health through the mental process of reconceptualization. It is now on sale less 50% for a 3-month subscription!

Of course, as human beings we also heal in the context of safe relationships. You can talk to your parents or guardians if you feel that they have the capacity to acknowledge what you want to say to them and deal with it, and it is safe. But ask yourself what you are looking for if you do this. Do you want love? Some kind of resolution? Perhaps validation? Remember, you can give all these things to yourself! You already have it within you to do all the things you need to do to help yourself.

Most importantly, to begin this healing process, you need to learn how to forgive yourself. Forgiving someone can help you disconnect from the other person. You are not excusing their behavior or choices, but you are detaching yourself from the power your traumatic experience has over you. But forgiving yourself is far more important!

Why? When bad things happen to us, we tend to blame ourselves. This is especially true if you have grown up in a family or culture that tells you that, from the moment you are born, you are a sinner. Thinking we are “bad apples” comes with a lot of mental baggage and trauma, and can have a very negative affect on our psyche. Indeed, many people who feel that they are inherently bad or evil are constantly battling with guilt, the feeling that they have done something bad, and shame, the sense that they are bad, which, over time, can really damage their mental wellbeing and ability to handle life’s challenges and traumas.

We need to recognize that no person is born bad! There is hope for all of us. We all have the ability within us to change ourselves and our communities for the better, no matter our past.

We need to surround ourselves with people that love us, support us, and see the good in us. If this means that we should end a relationship or friendship, that is okay. As Alyssa noted in a recent MindBodyGreen article on ending friendships, sometimes you need to say goodbye, especially if that “friend” constantly puts you down or is always competing with you and cannot be happy for you when you succeed. You need to ask yourself how being around this person feels, and is it a drain on your mental health? Don’t be ashamed to validate your own feelings and experiences, because they are real and how you feel is important! Pay attention to the signals your mind and body sends you, because your health and wellbeing is precious.

For more information on gut fungi and mental health, listen to my podcast with Alyssa (episode #157), check out her website, Facebook and Instagram. To find someone who practices EMDR therapy near you, see here. If you enjoy listening to my podcast please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family, and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

Podcast Time Stamps

4:15 How Alyssa’s clients gave her hope, and the power of human resilience

5:46 What Alyssa thinks about evidence-based therapy and why she started her own therapy practice 

9:33 The difference between little traumas and big Trauma 

14:41 What is EMDR therapy and can it help you? 

25:33 What is the “inner child” and how do you heal childhood wounds?

33:29 Should we forgive those who have hurt us?

36:15 Why being told you are a sinner is bad for your mental health

37:48 The difference between shame and guilt, and how to overcome them

41:55 When is it time to end a friendship?

49:00 You have everything you need in you to heal yourself!

If you would like to learn more about trauma and mental health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit in Dallas, TX December 3-5, 2020! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click hereEarly bird special pricing end 5/31!  

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