The Trauma Informed Counsellor – An Introspective Look
By Carolynn Turner, RCC
Counsellors have an innate desire to help and support. We are then specifically trained to attend to others, to consider how others might experience us or need us to be, to support others to become aware of their patterns, to stand beside others as they move into their growing edges and to offer others stability and healthy relationships. How often do we attend to ourselves and offer ourselves this level of attentiveness? We know that self care is important and maybe we know the ‘doing’ of self care, but do we take the time to consider the ‘being’ of self care? Do we regularly make space for reflection, or to pause and consider what we need, from the inside out? As a counsellor who regularly trains students and provides consultation and supervision to certified counsellors, I often hear how ‘self care’ will fix the struggles. All too often this self care is directed outward where it easily becomes just one more item on your to do list. Bubble bath. Check.
Counsellors excel at helping others look inward, but can easily overlook the need to attend to ourselves from the inside out. So, right now, I am inviting you to pause and focus on yourself for the duration of this article.
You’ve all jumped unbelievable hurdles over the last several months. You’ve entirely redefined how you do your jobs. You’ve had your clients stop booking appointments. You’ve had more clients than ever. You’ve offered complimentary services. You’ve been bracing yourself for the ‘second wave’ pandemic of mental health. You’ve stepped-up as society’s safety net. Now, you’re ‘allowed’ to go back to work where you will again need to redefine your job. You may feel like you have very little control in your professional world these days. Where is your safety net? You are understandably required to maintain distance from those around you, but this may prevent you from receiving a gentle touch or a warm embrace from a friend or colleague. There may be parts of your job that brought you meaning, which have been stripped away as a necessary form of Covid protection. This all constitutes grounds for a traumatic response. “Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” (Herman, 1992, p.33). In order to keep yourself safe in the midst of all of this, you disconnect to prevent yourself from taking in the entirety of it all. You disconnect your head and heart from one another; you disconnect your left and right brain; you disconnect from yourself and those around you. This is a trauma response.
Take a moment to notice the entirety of all of that. Just pause, and be present to it all.
This disconnection begins with hyper-arousal. Hyper-arousal can easily be confused with thriving; ‘doing’ is highly valued in our society. Hyper-arousal looks like being on high alert, making sure all of the boxes are checked, feeling rigid with your expectations of yourself and those around you. You might have a need for your home to be more clean than it’s ever been, your WorkSafe plan to be meticulous and perfect. You might find yourself fixated on details like mask or no mask, or plexiglass, or no plexiglass. You might find yourself with higher than normal expectations of others. You might feel anxious. You might be toiling over whether you’re expected to go back to work or not, or how clients will respond if you don’t go back to in-office work. You might experience chaotic outbursts or anger. You might find yourself restricting your eating or overeating. You might feel surprisingly impulsive. These are all responses consistent with hyper-arousal. To be clear, having extra time and balancing something pleasurable with cleaning a closet or two or baking some sourdough bread is not what I am referring to. Hyper-arousal is being in the eye of the storm and feeling compelled to something completely unnecessary. Living in this state of constant doing, without any settling or being, is unsustainable for people’s systems. It can only be done for so long before you drop down into hypo-arousal.
Hypo-arousal looks like numbing out and being disconnected from yourself and those around you. You might feel unavailable or not present. You might drive from one location to another, completely forgetting the driving part. You might get to the end of the day and mindlessly sit in front of Netflix or scroll social media for the night. You might struggle with memory loss, walking into a room and then forgetting what you are there for. You might even have conversations where you forget or lose details or don’t remember the conversation at all. You might feel like you are on autopilot, moving from one thing to the next, robotic even. You might be going through the motions and checking the boxes, but your life lacks vibrancy and inspiration. You might feel like you have no access to your emotions or that you are totally numb and flat. You might sit with clients and be with them, but struggle to feel them and attune to them. You might find when it comes time to be with your partner, you’re distant. Maybe you’re avoiding or withdrawing from intimacy-eye contact, touch, or passionate kisses. You might be 1000 miles away even if you’re in the same room. You might find yourself looking through the person across from you. You might even feel as if you are moving though a dream, separate from yourself or the world around you. Living in this disconnected state is also unsustainable for people’s systems.
To protect yourself, start by re-attuning to yourself from the inside out. Re-engage and reconnect your body’s systems.
Start by dropping down into your body and noticing any sensations that arise. Just notice them. Maybe it is tightness in your chest or throat, or a heaviness on your shoulders. You might find it difficult to notice any sensations at all. That’s ok. It takes practice. Disconnection from our bodies is a common response to trauma and “nearly all of us have experienced traumas that can lead us to disconnect from our bodies” (Montgomery, 2012).
Next, give yourself permission to feel your emotions. Can you put a word to what you notice? Exhausted. Anxious. Confused. Scared. Numb. Angry. Overwhelmed. They’re all valid. Your emotions might not feel pleasant and you may be tempted to push them away or label them in binary ways like helpful or unhelpful, good or bad, or even right and wrong, rejecting the ones that are “negative”. However, I encourage you to welcome them all and to consider all emotions as information that give you insight into your wants and needs.
Now, notice your thoughts. Maybe you’re thinking, how am I supposed to keep myself safe? My family safe? My clients safe? What happens if someone gets Covid from my office? How do I respond to clients asking why I’m not returning to the physical office when so many of my colleagues are? What’s wrong with me? Notice all of your thoughts. Don’t counter them, or try to change them. Just notice them. Welcome them if you can, just as they are. Notice any desire to judge them or stop them, and gently let them have their place. These thoughts are true for you, right now.
Next, notice your relationships, both to yourself and to those around you. Take time to notice how you’ve been treating yourself. Look inside. Has your critical voice been beating you up when no one else is listening? Have you been kind to the child part of you? Has your anxious part been eroding your confidence, your very sense of self? Notice your relationship to others. Are you feeling present and connected to your loved ones? Are you slowing down enough to make eye contact? Do you still laugh and tease? Do you have space for intimate connection?
This might feel like a lot to take in. You might even notice yourself pushing your own awareness away.
You may even notice a new part coming up and interrupting your presence. It might be difficult to take this all in. The grief of the disconnection might be overwhelming. Sometimes, taking the entirety of the situation in is uncomfortable and you might even worry, how will I be with my clients if I am sitting with the entirety of my fear, anger, anxiety, sadness or other reactions? This is a good question. If you recognize yourself in this, seek professional support. Not being present to the entirety of it all leaves you vulnerable to the effects of trauma. The more present you can be to your reactions, and share them in safe relationships where you’re understood, the more you provide a barrier for yourself from being traumatized. Remaining connected with others who care and can help you to feel seen, heard and understood allows you to feel calm, and collected; it’s a space where you can mindfully navigate your world. As counsellors, we are often pragmatic and sometimes downright stingy about seeking our own professional support. We seek consultation regarding client situations. We seek consultation when something goes sideways, or when we anticipate it could go sideways. We may dip into our authentic selves to seek collegial support. And likely we tie things up in a nice neat bow for our colleague so we both feel better. Collegial support is not the same as your own therapy. Maybe it is time to consider seeking your own therapy.
In the meantime, I invite you to become present to your whole self. Welcome it. Let all the parts integrate. This is healing. Pause to invite self compassion. Pause to let yourself grieve. Pause to feel anger. Pause to laugh. Pause to make eye contact. Pause to listen to the birds. Pause to feel the breeze on your skin. Pause to feel the warm sun on your face. Pause to let yourself experience self care from the inside out.
Carolynn Turner (MA, RCC, EFT Therapist, Level 2) – I graduated with my MA in Counselling Psychology from UBC following a career teaching at the high school level and counselling those having intensive behaviour, or severe mental health struggles (Category H in the school system). I have worked for the former President of Anxiety Canada in her personal research lab at UBC, served as a member of the Board for the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors, and as the VP for Region 5 for BCACC. I am currently part of the Clinical Team for Wounded Warriors Canada delivering the following group therapy programs: COPE (Couple’s Overcoming PTSD Everyday) program and the TRP 1 & 2 (Trauma Resiliency Program) and a co-developer of the SRP (Spousal Resiliency Program). I am the current Chair of BCACC’s Region 5.