Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

24 August 2016
Recovery from trauma takes place within a “relational home”

Tanya Ward argues that healthy and supportive relationships are often central to recovery from trauma.

Tanya Ward is currently a Bachelor of Social Work Honours student and has been a Lived Experience Representative for COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness) since 2011. She has also represented FaPMI (Families where a parent has a mental illness) and the Northern Area Mental Health Service as a Carer Representative. The views expressed in this article are Tanya's.

This article is part of a recent series on mental health recovery. Access the related practitioner resource and webinar recording.

Trauma, and recovery from trauma, are often perceived as psychological or physiological experiences; things that happen solely within individual minds, brains or nervous systems. While the intrapersonal elements of trauma and trauma recovery are essential, they are only a part of the story. In this short article, I draw on both research and my own experiences to argue that trauma and recovery always occur within interpersonal contexts.

Practitioners who adopt an intrapersonal, individualised approach to recovery can do much to help individuals regain a sense of power, safety and self-worth. These positive thoughts and emotions are often eroded during traumatic experiences and when re-experiencing unprocessed trauma memories, which remain encoded in the brain in the form of images and sensations (Howe 2005; Ringel & Brandell 2012). Contemporary directions in trauma recovery now also involve body-based therapies that assist clients in accessing trauma memories when verbal narration and cognitive reflection are not available to conscious awareness (Ringel & Brandell 2012, p. 8). 

My personal recovery from developmental and complex trauma was a deeply personal, psychological and physiological experience that required an individualised therapeutic approach to help me process thoughts, beliefs, emotions and bodily sensations associated with my traumatic experiences. However, I did not perceive my recovery simply as a personal experience; rather, it was a dual process, which occurred at both the personal and interpersonal levels.

The psychotherapist and author Robert Stolorow (2007, p. 10) suggests that “trauma is constituted in an intersubjective context in which severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held”. A “relational home” is a context in which painful emotional experiences can be shared, understood and “held” by others, and integrated into one’s experience. Unable to find a relational home as a child, I was unable to process the pain associated with the traumatic experiences I endured until adulthood. My experience of trauma was enduringly traumatic until I found a Psychologist – also a fellow trauma survivor – who was able to offer me a relational home 

Healing experiences can be found in many places: a gentle neighbour who listens without judgement; in a community support group who share your pain with empathy; or in a government initiative such as COPMI (Children of Parents with a Mental Illness), which provide a safe and respectful place to assert, challenge and voice concerns with fellow citizens, often with a shared history. In my role as a Lived Experience Representative for COPMI, I found another safe relational home that contributed to my recovery journey. 

Individuals recovering from trauma may also be brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunties or uncles, whose recovery journey will impact those around them.  As a parent, my recovery journey from trauma impacted my children. At first this impact was negative, but over time my own recovery had a profoundly positive impact on my children’s lives. This was in part due to the help of a relationally-focussed psychologist and family therapist who acknowledged and considered our family’s psychological needs in addition to the impact and influence my trauma recovery had on my family and wider social systems. 

Trauma recovery is perhaps best perceived by practitioners as an individual experience that occurs within a relational context. By drawing upon bioecological, intersubjective and family systems approaches, in addition to individually-focused  practice approaches (e.g., cognitive behaviour therapy), practitioners can help to provide the relational home in which individuals can process their psychological and physiological trauma reactions. In this way, they can help provide their clients, and those surrounding them, with a holistic trauma recovery experience.

Further reading

References

Howe, D. (2005). Child Abuse And Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Ringel, S., & Brandell, J. R. (2012). Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice and Research, Sage Publications, California.

Stolorow, R. (2007). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Reflections, The Analytic Press, Taylor & Francis Group, New York.

 

The feature image is by tunnelarmr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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