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How Trauma May Be Impacting Your Relationship

Updated: Mar 25

Written By Ashley Gray, LCSW, MFTC

Trauma can feel like an invisible force in your relationship; causing anxiety, blow-ups, distance, regrettable behaviors, seemingly out of nowhere. These behaviors can feel automatic, like you can't slow down enough to think differently or make a different choice. It can feel like there is a part of you that you're not fully acquainted with, but desperately need to understand.

What this looks like in terms of relational patterns is thinking patterns about yourself or the relationship that do not fit with what is evident in the relationship. For example, fears that your partner is cheating when there is nothing to suggest or maybe even logistically allow for this. It can look like a partner getting really upset or scared or closed off without any warning or an obvious trigger. It can look like impulsive decisions that you wish you could stop, but don't know why. It can look like not being able to ask for what you want or need, not being able to have hard conversations, people pleasing, being flooded/triggered in conversation. It can also look like, difficulty connecting emotionally or physically, even when you want to. This can feel so scary, lonely and overwhelming. This paragraph is not exhaustive of what can occur, but these are some of the most common situations that I see.

In my last blog post, I mentioned that a common sign of past trauma interrupting your relationship is not being able to slow down enough to choose better co-regulation or self-regulation skills. The reason that this happens is because when you experience trauma your mind and body come up with shortcuts to prevent a recurrence of that traumatic event. You likely are not fully conscious of how or why it is happening. Your mind and body are not giving you the chance to override these responses because doing such a thing feels dangerous. This is not your fault. The trauma is not your fault and your automatic responses are not your fault. However, your responses and your impact are your responsibility, so it is important to learn how to heal from these past traumas. This healing helps create a better life for you and those around you.

To manage these behaviors, you may have tried to talk yourself out of these behaviors, making excuses for them, trying quick fixes, practicing coping skills, talk therapy, or even just accepting them. These things alone, often are not enough to move past these automatic responses. This can be so discouraging to try your hardest at everything you can think of and not make the progress that you want. So, what is a person to do!? The answer is often incorporating not just your mind, but your body in reprocessing the trauma. Somatic forms of healing is what I'm referring to here. Some examples are EMDR, brainspotting, somatic experiences, neurofeedback, etc. These forms of therapy will have you engage physically in your healing rather than just talking about your trauma. This is important because trauma gets stored in your body in addition to being recorded in your mind. If the goal is to reprocess your trauma, so that you can interrupt your negative thought patterns and maladaptive behavior, then your body needs to be involved in the process as well.

I am a therapist trained in EMDR, so that is where my focus will be in this post. EMDR has eight different phases that you work through. In the beginning phases, your therapist will be gathering information from you regarding your strengths, weaknesses and how you respond to stressors. Then you will work on learning coping and grounding skills, this can be referred to as resourcing. You cannot begin the EMDR process until you have sufficiently worked on these skills. This is done because if at any point EMDR becomes too overwhelming, coping skills will need to be used to help you feel safe in your mind and body again. It is also important to note that at any point, you can stop EMDR. You do not need to push through if things become too overwhelming. Your therapist will work with you to identify signals to let them know that you want to stop the process. Then, you identify your targets. Your targets are behaviors that you want to change because they aren't healthy or aligned with your goals in life. When identifying your targets with me, we will look at how your behaviors show up, when they show up, what the attachment longing is behind the behavior. These things are a part of Somatic Attachment Focused EMDR (SAFE), which is the type of EMDR that I am trained in. SAFE EMDR incorporates attachment and checking in with your body throughout the process. After the targets have been identified, your therapist will create a treatment plan with you that they will revisit with you after each memory that you process. Then, your therapist will work with you to record the memories related to the identified targets. You do not need to share the entirety of your memories with your therapist. If it is too painful to share the memory with your therapist, you may use a code word that helps you identify the memory without sharing it with your therapist. Phase four is where the reprocessing begins.

Reprocessing is the part that we picture when we are talking about EMDR. This is where your therapist will engage you in some sort of bilateral stimulation (back and forth movement). Depending on the therapist, this bilateral stimulation can be done through watching your therapist move their pointer finger back and forth in front of your face, alternating tapping on your arms or legs, vibrating paddles that you hold in your hands while you listen to a tone in ear and then the other, watching a light go back and forth on a light bar, etc. As you engage in this bilateral stimulation you will be thinking of your past memories and noticing the sensations in your body, pausing periodically, to reflect on what you're noticing. You can decide to share this information with your therapist or keep it to yourself, as long as you're reflecting. You'll process each memory starting with your earliest memory and moving toward your most recent memory, until you make it through your target. Your therapist will be recording necessary information along the way to make sure you're staying on track from session to session. Your therapist will be guiding the entire process, so that you can relax and allow your mind to process what it needs to. Then you'll work on each target until you have completed your treatment plan. Once you complete the process the original memories should be much less distressing to you or maybe not distressing at all. You also should be able to use healthier thinking and skills when triggers present themselves again, so that you can connect with yourself and others rather than engaging in your old patterns.

This whole process can take quite some time. If you're engaging in this process via 50 minute therapy sessions, it can take months, sometimes longer, to get through your targets. Some people prefer to move through this process a bit more quickly by engaging in EMDR intensives. An EMDR intensive is when you spend, at least, an entire day (6-8 hours) or a half day (3-4 hours) working through the EMDR process. You may prefer to do several days of an EMDR intensive, perhaps all at once or over time. Different therapists offer different day lengths may offer two to three days in a row. I offer half-day intensives (3 hours) or full-day intensives (6 hours) on Fridays. There are of course breaks for lunch, snacks (provided for you), bathroom etc. You can schedule for more than one day with me, but these days will be at least a week apart.

For couples where both partners have experienced trauma, I also offer EMDR for couples in both regular sessions and/or through an intensive. With couples EMDR, the process is mostly the same with some unique opportunities for co-regulation and witnessing your partner's process.

 If you have interest in booking an EMDR intensive with me, or if you have questions you can check out the information on my intensives here. For information on the pricing of EMDR intensives click here.

For more information about doing EMDR with me, check out my EMDR page here. If you would like to do EMDR with me as your therapist, click the contact buttons at the top of this page.

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This post is written by individual and couples therapist, Ashley Gray of Arvada, Colorado. Ashley works with her clients using Gottman Method Couples Therapy, EMDR Trauma Therapy, Prepare and Enrich, attachment focused therapy and techniques from Emotionally Focused Therapy. As a therapist, she is passionate about helping people build healthy relationships and supporting people with the resources they need. In her free time, Ashley hikes, paddle boards, reads, spends time with her husband and her cuddly dog. For more information about Ashley and her practice, click here.


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