When I was growing up, my dad used to read me a funny poem about mythical town that was situated on a beautiful cliff. There was a very pretty valley below, and the townspeople would often go to scenic overlook. They weren’t terribly careful, though, because people looking over the valley kept falling off the cliff. The townspeople held a meeting to figure out how to deal with this serious situation. Half of the townspeople decided that the town should put up a fence, to stop people from falling. The other half of the town decided it was smarter to put a full-time ambulance in the valley, to help the people who were hurt. I tell this story at almost every training that I give on PTSD and trauma.
When severe violations of safety, trust, or vulnerability occur, including outright threats to survival, humans are wired to shut down higher-order neural functions and fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive the threat. Clients suffering from post-traumatic stress are faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to carry negative personal history in the present moment without letting it dictate or control their behavior.
Hearing traumatic material from clients is tough work and can result in what the literature has termed vicarious traumatization of therapists. That is, the therapist can be traumatized by hearing a client’s story and absorb their pain. Therapists are human, and because we care, it hurts to hear another human’s pain. This is part of why we are effective helpers. However, it is crucial to have strategies for coping with our own pain and holding a client’s pain without feeling traumatized, so we can be effective helpers.
Traumatic events like accidents, domestic violence, combat, natural disasters, and sexual assault can have a huge impact on people’s lives. They shake our belief systems to the core and influence our ability to connect with others. As a clinician and a researcher, I have been amazed by our ability to survive and thrive after trauma when given the right set of tools and support.