Updated 14 August 2015, version 1.3
What is psychological trauma?
A trauma is a strong, persistent, negative emotional response to a past event, or reminders of it.
- A trauma is not an experience. It is an emotional response to an experience. If the emotional response is positive, the experience is not traumatic, no matter how harrowing its sensory details. (Think of all the people who pay money to have scary, dangerous experiences such as white-water rafting!)
- Traumas are learned via repetition and exaggeration of sensory stimuli. Immediately after a negative experience, a person usually isn’t traumatized yet. That’s why the treatment they receive immediately after the experience can change its outcome.
- Traumas range from very minor to major, and from contextualized to general. For instance, a person may have a phobia of beetles, but not other insects or spiders. Someone with severe PTSD might feel distress most of the time.
- Causes of psychological trauma vary. Obvious problem events that happen to adults cause recognizable trauma responses such as PTSD. Other traumas happen when a person is very young. Often repressed or forgotten, these traumas can cause pervasive problems with no obvious cause. And some people get severely traumatized by a large number of seemingly small and insignificant events that reinforce each other.
The conventional NLP view of trauma is that you resolve it using disassociation. If we think of trauma as compulsive association into the emotions of a past negative experience, that’s true… but oversimplified, as the following discussion demonstrates.
The structure of psychological trauma
Each of the features outlined below can be used as a way to resolve trauma. I’ll discuss specific techniques you can use in the next section.
A. Trauma is an association between a sensory event, and metadata about that event.
Metadata includes the event’s meaning, and the person’s emotional responses. The brain stores sensory memories and meaning separately. That separation allows you to change your interpretation of a past event, give it new meaning, and generate a new emotional response. Removing metadata changes a traumatic memory into a memory of a sensory event, without the trauma.
B. A trauma is a learned sequence, which ends by associating the person into a strong negative emotion.
Usually the sequence is extremely compressed, so that the event plus its associated meaning and emotions replay almost instantaneously. This makes the experience intense, and difficult for the person to unpack. Change the trigger that starts the sequence, or alter the sequence, and the outcome changes.
C. A trauma is a synesthesia.
When a trauma triggers, experiences in multiple sensory modalities replay very fast, producing the intense response. Separating the elements of the synesthesia reduces the intensity of the experience.
D. A trauma is a superstimulus.
Superstimuli are “larger-than-life” representations that the brain uses to create very intense responses and anchors. A trauma is more intense than the original experience, hence the intense response. No real experience is strong enough to fire and desensitize a strong trauma anchor, so it can persist for decades.
E. A trauma changes meaning.
An extreme experience that verifies a person’s existing experience of the world generally isn’t traumatic. An “insignificant” incident that invalidates a large part of a person’s world view may cause major trauma.
Methods for resolving traumas and PTSD
Effective trauma treatments make traumatic experiences into non-problems. What used to be a trauma is now just a past event.
Although I am not an expert in treating other people’s traumas, I used a number of the techniques below to cure myself of trauma flashbacks that troubled me for over 30 years. I also modeled how traumas and trauma treatments work with Jan (pronounced “yon”) Saeger, my research partner at the time. Once you understand how people do a problem such as trauma, you can usually find many ways to change their response to make it more useful:
A. Remove association between the original sensory event (memory) and its metadata (emotions, meanings).
Jan and I discovered that any process that reverses the time sequence of a memory strips away its metadata. This converts a trauma into an ordinary memory of a sensory event. (It also strips the good feelings off a happy memory, so use caution.) There are many ways to reverse time sequences, including:
- Visually, using a movie. The NLP Trauma Process and Fast Phobia Cure reverse the traumatic event’s time sequence by running a movie of the event backward. The Trauma Process also has the client associate into the movie and run it backward, which reverses its sequence kinesthetically.
- Spatially, using a timeline. Processes such as Change Personal History and Reimprinting have the client walk backward along their timeline to before the initial experience. This requires walking through the event in reverse sequence.
- Kinesthetically, by moving a timeline. Have the client step all the way to the future of their timeline, and face away from their past, so their timeline goes through their chest. Now have them grab the timeline and quickly pull it through their body, very fast, all the way to the beginning. This provides the same change in spatial relationship as having the client walk the timeline backward, but often works faster and provides somewhat different kinesthetics.
- Kinesthetically, by turning a timeline inside out. Jan Saeger developed his “Kinesthetic Sleeve Reversal” method for clients who can’t resolve traumas using visual methods such as the Fast Phobia Cure. (Generally these people visualize well, and use kinesthetics as their least-conscious modality.) Have the client make a movie of the problem event, then add a timeline below it, like the “scrub bar” timeline beneath a web video. Get the client to make the line thicker and thicker, and become hollow, so they can reach inside it from one end to the other, from future to past. Have them stick their arm through the timeline and grasp its opposite end. With their other hand, they grasp the end nearest their shoulder, and pull the timeline off their arm — like turning a sock or shirt sleeve inside out. (Show them what you want them to do with gestures before they do it.) Turning the timeline inside out spatially reverses its sequence.
- Using a temporary second timeline. For batch-processing traumatic memories, I typically have the client lay out their timeline, then create a second blank timeline beside it. All their traumatic memories get moved to the second timeline. Any useful learnings on the second timeline are removed and stored in the client’s Learnings Library. I then use any method of having the client experience the time sequence of the second timeline backward: run it like a movie in reverse, quickly walk the timeline backward, imagine themselves pulled backward along the timeline, pull the timeline through themselves. Run the reverse-time process enough times that the client reports significant changes in the submodalities of the trauma representations on the second timeline. Have the client dispose of the second timeline and its contents. On their main timeline, have them fill in the open place where traumas and bad experiences used to be with something positive, such as a resourceful color or good feeling.
- The doyletic Speed Trace reverses time using auditory cues. A kinesthetic or visual-kinesthetic version of the Speed Trace works equally well.
- Hypnotic regression reverses time using an emotional kinesthetic (visceral K) as a guide. Make sure the client ends up before the problem experience so that they reverse sequence through the problem event.
B. Alter the trauma sequence.
Once you alter the sequence, the trauma can no longer run the same way. Methods:
- Add time before and after the triggering event. NLP expert Andrew T. Austin says that someone recalling a traumatic event typically starts and stops the memory at specific points. The kinesthetic intensity begins at zero, and rises to an emotional peak. The peak signals the person to replay the memory, building even more intensity. To change this, start by having the client expand what they remember to include 15 minutes that happened after the memory’s usual stop point. (If the don’t remember what actually happened, have them invent something.) This moves them past the replay trigger. Now have them start the memory 3 or 4 minutes earlier than usual, and continue 15 minutes longer. Remembering the old content with new start and stop times, and without the automatic loop, changes the client’s emotional response.
- Remove compulsive association from the trauma recall sequence. The NLP Fast Phobia Cure and Trauma Process both use double disassociation to help clients recall the traumatic event without associating into the memory. Once the person knows how to disassociate from the traumatic event, they are likely to choose disassociated recall from then on.
- Deactivate the trauma’s trigger. If a person has hundreds or thousands of traumas, as I did, they usually have a standard sequence for triggering them. Elicit that sequence. You will probably have to use time distortion to slow it enough that you can unpack the details. Find the element in the sequence that stays the same regardless of which trauma triggers. Disrupt it, for instance by anchoring the feeling it evokes and running a doyletic Speed Trace.
C. Deconstruct synesthesias into their components.
Once separated into its elements, a synesthesia no longer operates as a single, overwhelming experience. You can use a process that deconstructs the sensory memory of the experience, or a process that deconstructs its emotional component.
Alter the sensory memory of the trauma:
- Unpack the trauma’s sensory components into the appropriate eye accessing cue locations. In the Failure Into Feedback Strategy by Robert Dilts, you first elicit the client’s eye access cues. Now have the client imagine the problem situation or representation at a specific location, generally directly in front of them. Use your fingers to guide them as they slowly move remembered pictures to their visual remembered eye cue location, “with the other pictures you remember, where they belong.” Then have them move images they imagined to their visual constructed eye cue location. Continue unpacking the synesthesia’s elements into the other eye access cues. Relocate smells with other smells, below their nose… and tastes with other tastes, below and in front of their chin. NLP expert Michael Harris has had great success using this technique to resolve traumas. He reports that moving smell and taste are often critical to resolving PTSD.
- Have the client access the eye access cues and memory simultaneously. Eye Movement Integration (EMI) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) both have the client recall the traumatic memory while visually following the practitioner’s finger through a series of eye positions that include eye accessing cues. When I learned EMI, we were told it works by using eye access positions to bring in resources from other representation systems. (Typically, someone responding unresourcefully deletes content from one or more sensory system.) I now suspect that these techniques work at least partly because they change the sequence in which the person accesses the traumatic memory. By adding eye access cues from various modalities, EMI and EMDR guide the client to re-experience the sensory elements of the traumatic experience in a variety of sequences.
Alter the emotional component of the synesthesia:
- Change the spin submodality of the emotion, using Richard Bandler’s “spinning feelings” process. Nick Kemp gives directions in this article.
- Change the client’s focus from emotional K to background K using Tom Stone’s PTSD resolution process.
- Deconstruct the emotional component of the synesthesia. I use variants of Tom Vizzini’s 3D Mind process. Tom’s process is based on the idea that the emotion that makes a trauma so powerful is itself a synesthesia, built from several emotions, and this is what makes it so overwhelming. (In my experience, sometimes beliefs get incorporated in the synesthesia also.) Tom’s basic process, which I’ll describe in another article, involves (a) physically moving the traumatic emotion outside the body, (b) having the client reach inside the traumatic emotion and remove one of the component emotions inside it, (c) adding resources until the component emotion is no longer a problem, and (d) replacing the modified resource after adding some additional enhancements.
D. Normalize superstimuli.
The brain uses several tricks to make superstimuli more compelling than sensory experiences:
- Repetition and duplication: many examples, or many duplicates of one example.
- Exaggeration: bigger, brighter, faster, louder, harder, longer than real life.
- Deletion. Real experiences contain vast amounts of sensory data that isn’t relevant to the meaning of the experience. For instance, if I am on a “nice date,” the color of the cars in the parking lot outside the restaurant doesn’t affect the niceness of my experience. Deleting irrelevant sensory data creates a representation that is more intensely “about” its meaning than a real experience.
All these tricks make a traumatic memory more intense and “pure” than any real experience. You’ll remember from your NLP training that if you set an anchor that gets fired a lot in day-to-day life, such as touching a doorknob, it will soon lose effectiveness. I suspect traumas persist partly because they differ enough from real experiences that real life doesn’t dilute their anchors.
Any intervention that makes a traumatic memory more like a memory of sensory experience will de-intensify it:
- Changing internal voice tempo normalizes hyped internal dialog that triggers exaggerated negative emotions. I keep hearing from NLP colleagues how well this technique neutralizes negative emotions and traumas. Instructions by Nick Kemp.
- Normalize submodalities. Remove duplicate examples. Categorize multiple examples into types, and discard all but one or two from each category. (Steve Andreas’s book Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want to Be describes an elegant way to do these steps using databases.) Adjust submodalities to those of an ordinary memory, perhaps by mapping across from a non-traumatic experience. Add deleted content back into the memory.
- Unpack double descriptions. Double descriptions compare two (or more) representations of the same thing to generate a third representation that seems “realer” or more compelling than either. For instance, a trauma representation might contain both an associated visual representation of the problem incident, and a disassociated representation of the same incident, which play simultaneously. Emotional traumas might involve judgment from an external authority figure, combined with self-judgment. Separate the examples in space, time, and viewpoint, then add resources to each example until the client’s experience normalizes.
E. Change the meaning of the experience
- Recategorize the experience by adding resources. These might come from the current self, other people, or other contexts. Many NLP and hypnotic processes use this method, including Reimprinting, Change Personal History, and hypnotic regression.
- “Expand the frame” of recall to include other events and points of view. Viewed from within a larger context, the meaning of the event will change. Examples:
- Have the client experience the event from all perceptual positions. A number of NLP techniques, including Reimprinting, use this method.
- Have the client experience the event from various physical locations. Examples: the Comprehensive Memory Cleanup process from Thought Pattern Management; the Defining Moments pattern developed by Jan Saeger.
- Expand the scope of time. Jan Saeger’s Comprehensive Memory Cleanup has the client experience events from various times in the future. Likewise, life regression might not change the trauma itself, but can make it seem irrelevant in the context of many lifetimes.
- Have the client pay attention to the trauma and the present moment simultaneously. The new information from the present tends to interrupt and update the trauma’s past-only focus. In the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), the client taps their body in present time while recalling the trauma, adding a new physical sensation. Having the client state the problem in the format “Even though I feel scared of Dorothy, I deeply and profoundly accept myself” while they tap also creates an implicit meta-position. Rather than focus on the past-based feeling of the trauma, they focus on accepting the trauma now.
- Change the traumatic experience enough that it seems unfamiliar. Brains learn and recall events based on similarity. The kind of memory that links trigger X with trauma Z is specific. Changing a memory using any of the many methods listed above makes it less familiar. Once the memory changes, the brain has to re-evaluate it. Maybe trigger X doesn’t equal trauma Z! Instead of knowing “that loud bang is a shot,” the brain must recategorize the loud bang using its current resources and understanding. Now the bang gets reclassified from “shot” to “loud noise.” Most of the interventions above do something to make the traumatic memory unfamiliar.
Utilizing trauma treatments
Some clients respond to one trauma intervention but not another. Techniques are most likely to fail when they use the client’s most-conscious sensory modality and their usual information processing strategies. (What the client already does automatically hasn’t fixed the problem.)
For this reason, it is often a good idea to test interventions before using them on a trauma experience. I have the client pick a mildly unpleasant memory to work with first. “On a scale of 1 to 10, pick something that is only a 1 or a 2.” (Use a mildly negative memory, not a neutral one. The negative emotion will let you and the client tell whether the technique worked, and how well.) I explain that we are going to use this memory to practice and test a technique to reduce their trauma, and make sure we pick a method that works well for them. Then I guide them through the technique, and check the results. Once we find an intervention that works effectively, I might have them use it on several progressively more intense memories before tackling the trauma. This lets them rehearse the process so they are comfortable with it and can do it fast, and also creates a convincer that the process works and will help them.
If the first trauma-resolution technique you try doesn’t work, switch to a method that operates via another modality or a less-familiar strategy. Nick Kemp reports that the “spinning feelings” and voice tempo change interventions described in his article work particularly well together.
While some traumas resolve after a single intervention, others require multiple interventions (often of different types) to get full resolution. You may also need to do additional work to resolve trauma-related issues involving the person’s identity, self-esteem, etc.
Good luck. Please share your favorite trauma-resolution techniques in the Comments, and post your results!