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Author: Esther Krohner LMFT & Karin Schalnger LMFT

How to recover from Trauma. A Problem Solving Brief Therapy lens.

How to truly recover from Trauma. A Problem Solving Brief therapy lens. 

I believe complex trauma has become more misunderstood among therapists and counselors who are taught to treat it with set protocols, which are applied to every trauma case that comes into their offices. Yes, trauma casts a long shadow over the lives of those who experience it. Unlike single-event traumas, such as an accident or natural disasters, complex trauma stems from prolonged exposure to various forms of adversity, typically during critical developmental periods. This could include abuse, neglect, socio-economic instability, or exposure to violence within interpersonal relationships. The impact of such trauma can be profound and can infiltrate every aspect of an individual’s life – from their emotional and psychological well-being to their ability to form healthy relationships and navigate the world around them. However, despite the formidable challenges it presents, complex trauma does not have to serve as a permanent sentence of suffering. 

What makes Solution Focused therapy for trauma different from other approaches?

From the beginning we emphasize that each person is unique and we create a respectful stance in which the client is the one who makes change. Our role is to help them see their power, choices and how to act from a preferred resilient place. 

We want to know what support and appropriate interventions we can offer to these individuals to help them move forward. We want to help clients embark on a journey of healing and resilience, reclaiming agency over their lives and forging a unique path towards a recovery that has, as a part of it, the trauma that will forever be a part of who they have become. We want to present an alternative way that we found useful in a couple of recent cases, which we hope will inspire a different, difficult conversation among colleagues. We hope this serves as a reminder that each case that comes to us for help is different, unique and its own best explanation. We will discuss this more in our upcoming training. 

Trauma Doesn’t Have to Mean Forever – Brief Therapy Center | World Leader in Brief Therapy

A Brief Therapy for trauma recovery: case example 

Meet Claudine, a 35-year-old, feisty young woman, whom Karin met with for only one session. Karin came in to supervise the session at the request of her therapist who was attempting to help Claudine in a more effective way. The therapist, Thomas, had seen her about 4 sessions, 2 of which had been spent with Claudine’s daughter, Helen, who is two and a half years old. 

Karin only knew from Thomas that the situation was one in which Helen had been sexually abused by her father’s brother on an overnight at his house about 6 months ago. The reason for Claudine coming to see Thomas at that time was because Helen had regressed notoriously in her development. She no longer talked, stopped walking, and had gone back to needing diapers 24 hours/day. 

How do we look at Trauma in a Solution Focused way? 

The session started with Karin asking what she would like to get out of a session with her and Thomas and she shot back with no hesitation: “I want to decrease my daughter’s suffering.” Because I, Karin, did not know this woman, I started by asking her what exactly she had done when she noticed the abuse. She said she had taken Helen to her physician for an exam and then had contacted the police. The legal system has not been supportive: they insist that Helen needs to continue to see her father every other weekend, as it had been agreed upon. There is an appeal process in place, but it has been at least three months and there is no change in sight for the moment. Claudine is very angry at this situation but recognizes her powerlessness to make any further moves. Therefore, from the problem solving point of view,  we want to find somewhere she could promote change.

So, how can Thomas be helpful? What is her support system? Mom lives close by but is in bad shape: she has been on antidepressants for a very long time and has taken the side of Helen’s father regarding Helen. Claudine adores her own father, but he lives 200 miles away. He shows up if he needs her to, but would never consider living with him. Finally, she has a younger sister who lives close by, whom she is very close to. Claudine helped raise her younger sister and protected her from family dysfunction during that time. She says she has always been told, especially by her mother, that she is too strong and argumentative and must learn to ‘tone herself down’. 

And how can therapy (Thomas) help? A Problem-Solving point of view

Claudine continued, “I have worked diligently to make myself better for years! I myself, was raped while on holidays with my father when I was 10. I never told a soul, and I completely repressed it but then it came tumbling back one day when I was 28 years old. I was a basket case: I was hospitalized, depressed and didn’t quite see a path forward. I became very angry at men in general. I had a defiant attitude towards all men: You want something with me? Come get it and I will eat you alive! Consequently, as you can tell, I have not picked well for my relationships. Helen’s father was nice when we first met, but I got pregnant and soon after, he started mistreating me. I could feel it was wrong, but then remembered what my mom had always told me. I had my mother’s words in my head that I  was too strong and argumentative and I would smooth it over with him. Finally, I had to run for my life because the violence became intolerable when I was pregnant with Helen. He would always tell me it was my fault, that I didn’t listen and his words, as I say, combined with my mother’s voice in my head, have not worked out too well. 

As therapists we cannot influence the machinery of the legal system, beyond letters of support.  To help Thomas and Claudine I came back to the question of how we could be of help because, I said, in my opinion you need to keep yourself strong for yourself and for your daughter. I gave her permission to consider wat she wants.

How to help a client be “here and now” in a client centered approach to trauma?

Claudine expressed “I feel defeated and very sad a lot of the time. I am tired of women in our family suffering abuse. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, myself and, with all that knowledge I was unable to keep my daughter safe. I blame myself for not being there and I also feel guilty for my daughters’ suffering.” To this I said that while those are legitimate feelings, the context of her relationship did not allow for her to be with her daughter one hundred percent of the time. I added that, although some previous therapist had helped her see this pattern I did not think it was a useful one. It perpetuated a cycle instead of allowing her to move out of it and forward. She lit up when I said this, her posture softened and her face was curious, so I continued: “In my view, you have broken the pattern of abuse in at least one way: there is no secret. Your daughter felt comfortable enough talking about what had happened which made you look. You took her to the physician, he wrote a letter, you filed papers with the police. None of your predecessors had the freedom or the guts to go that far, so history will not repeat itself in the exact same way. Beyond that, your daughter has begun to talk again and the lines of communication between both of you are wide open and one thing you can work on – forever because raising kids is complicated! —will be to keep those lines of communication open to the best of your ability. Do you see that too?”

A reframe rooted in a different look at reality: the Brief Therapy Center in action

Karin continued, “There is another piece that I think would be useful for the two of you – Thomas and Claudine—to work on. I was struck by your words when you said that you are aware in your gut when things are not right, but you allow the voices in your head to override that feeling and you back down. I am sure this situation happens in your daily life more often than what you are aware of: at work, in line to get your coffee when someone who seems to be in more of a hurry than you, cuts in front of you, when you are about to take the subway.” After a minute Claudine’s face broke into a smile and she said: “how did you know?” So I smiled back and said “I’d like the both of you to look at this more closely because if Claudine learns how to manage those micro-aggressions better, she could learn to manage the bigger ones in time”. Karin continued “ who knows you might even decide to give men a chance again and find a keeper who treats you like you deserve. In time! Not tomorrow but it is worth doing the ‘ant work’ of keeping track. So please until you meet with Thomas again, keep noticing some of these negative interactions – listen to your gut—and make sure you don’t turn them into ‘it must be me’.” Claudine thought this was a great suggestion and pulled out her phone to show me how she’d be taking notes.

Takeaways:  look to the future with solution focused therapy

We’d like to briefly underline a few differences in our thinking from the Problem-Solving Brief Therapy point of view. We firmly believe that Trauma is rooted in a person’s body, mind, and soul. Many approaches emphasize this fact and focus on the inside of the person for TOO LONG.  How long each person is going to need in this stage, will vary from situation to situation, but we advocate that at some point it is more useful for everyone involved to evolve from an ‘inside only’ approach to an ‘inside approach that also relates to the outside’. Human beings are social beings and keeping the focus on the inside at some point becomes a disservice towards being able to move forward. Embracing resilience, finding the right support and engaging slowly in activities that promote healing and renewal can all contribute to the transformative journey of overcoming trauma. By acknowledging the past, but not letting it define our present or dictate the future, we empower ourselves ahead with acceptance, strength, purpose and hope. We advocate for moving into those frames and  stages of communication/behavior. Come learn how to do this in our upcoming workshop.

Trauma Doesn’t Have to Mean Forever – Brief Therapy Center | World Leader in Brief Therapy

Karin Schlanger

Karin Schlanger was the Director of the Brief Therapy Center in MRI since 2008 until the sale of the building in 2019. She continues to be the director of the BTC currently. She has worked as a psychologist, supervisor in the Brief Therapy Model and professor at several universities international...

Esther Krohner

Master en Psic.
I have 14 years of experience working in mental health settings. I am and LMFT and RYT. I have been training and practicing  family therapy with Karin Schlanger for 5 years at the Mental Research Institute. I help couples, families, kids and teens  to make the changes they want to. When faced wit...

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