Trauma & Choice Theory

Because Dr. Glasser taught that focusing on the past is futile, some people might think that discussing trauma as a Choice Theory practitioner is discouraged. I disagree.

When we experience a traumatic event, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This releases our stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—during the fight or flight response. Typically, our first response is to flee, unless our retreat has been blocked or we are protecting someone else. When we can’t run away, we will fight our way out. This option can be effective when you have an advantage over your attacker, as in being stronger or better equipped, or when you take responsibility to fix the problem, as in putting out a fire or participating in military combat. But there is a special kind of trauma that occurs when neither option is available to you. When you experience trauma you can’t run from or fight your way out of, you are literally trapped in an inescapable nightmare.

This is often the case with childhood trauma, rape and domestic violence. Children who live with their assailants, people they are supposed to be able to trust, are typically unable to fight back. The same occurs with women who are attacked by men; the difference in strength makes it difficult to escape or win a physical fight.

When you can’t flee or fight, what’s left is the freeze response. When taken to extremes, it can appear as dissociation and even fainting. People become inundated with so much cortisol and adrenalin to enable faster running or stronger fighting. When you can’t do either, the chemicals have nowhere to go, and the brain responds by shutting down. This can mean the memory of the event is obscured or completely wiped out. This is the brain’s way of protecting itself from the horror of the event.

Unfortunately, a survivor can instantly recall this fragmented memory when presented with a sensory experience similar to what happened during the trauma. This is a brief, involuntary behavior, as Glasser accounted for on his “How the Brain Works” chart. When we perceive something in the real world that doesn’t match the things we want our Quality World, we have an involuntary behavior that is often felt as a visceral response to not having what we want. This involuntary behavior is not something we can control. When there is a sensory experience that triggers the memory of the traumatic experience, there will be a trauma response. The person experiencing this will believe they are right back in their trauma from the past happening in real time, otherwise known as a flashback.

This is what takes the trauma from the past and puts is solidly in the present. It’s happening now, affecting present actions, thoughts, feelings and physiology. As a counselor, I don’t need to discuss a client’s original trauma; I can simply talk about what’s happening in front of me. Where do you think you are? Who do you think I am? What do you think is happening right now? The counselor can use the five senses to ground the person in the present and help them understand that, in this moment, they are completely safe.

From that place, the counselor can educate their client—or as Glasser would say, provide information—to help them understand what happens during a traumatic experience and any subsequent trauma responses. Clients can understand Polyvagal Theory, which offers insight into the mind-body connection and helps normalize their experience so they can know they are not crazy. Their body is simply hijacked during those experiences, understandably so after a traumatic event.

Counselors can then teach clients relaxation techniques so they can stay vigilant in a relaxed body, circumventing the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) automatic response to threats. It’s impossible to have a trauma response in a relaxed body. However, it is challenging for trauma survivors to let go of their vigilance. It’s doesn’t feel safe. But when it’s explained that they lose choice and rational thinking during SNS activation, they will be motivated to learn how to stay vigilant while self-regulating their body into relaxation.

This is completely in line with Choice Theory’s edict of staying in the present and helping clients develop skills to get from where they are to where they want to be. The treatment focuses on how clients can use their actions and thoughts to regulate their bodies and mitigate their trauma responses.

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