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Recalling Emotions During Trauma
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In the last section, we examined the three levels of victimization
regarding shattered assumptions, secondary wounding, and victim thinking. We also presented PTSD resulting from sexual abuse and natural
this section, we will present challenges in helping clients recall their emotions
during their trauma: resistant clients, risks, and unresolved grief
and anger. Also
in this section, we will discuss means of helping the client recall the trauma as an emotional participant, and we will examine PTSD resulting from sexual abuse.
3 Challenges to Recalling Emotions
♦ #1 Resistant Clients
First, we will discuss clients who are resistant to face their emotions. Many
people would stereotypically apply this characteristic of resistance to emotions
to men only, but I have found that women may be just as resistant as men. Usually,
this resistance stems from two fears: a fear of suffering and
a fear of losing control of
The fear of suffering is understandable because
many clients do not wish to relive the feelings of terror, anger, and helplessness
that they experienced during the trauma. Those clients who are impaired
by the fear of loss of control create this fear through a
defense mechanism designed to protect them from ever feeling powerless again. The
overwhelming influence of emotions can recreate the climatic helplessness they
felt during the trauma.
♦ Technique: Counting Method
Matt was a PTSD client of mine who had a fear of losing control if he recalled
the emotions he experienced while he was being sexually abused by his
stated, "Look, I put all that shit into a little box and the
box doesn’t need to be opened. I’m in charge of myself
now, not my emotions. That little box does not need to
I asked Matt if he was scared of the potential loss
of control and he said, "Yeah. Maybe. It sucks, you know? To
know that someone or something else has control of you." To help
introduce Matt slowly into emotional recall, I used the "Counting
Method." I feel that this exercise is an excellent way
to help resistant clients begin to emotionally recall their trauma because
it puts a time limit on the recall.
I explained to Matt that he would
get one hundred seconds, which I would count out loud, to recall a traumatic
memory and emotionally immerse himself into the memory before I bring him
back to reality. That way, any loss of control will last no longer
than 100 seconds.
- I recommend scheduling this exercise at the beginning of the session so
that you have enough time to discuss the emotions and recall during the rest
of the session.
- I then identified which traumatic memory Matt wished to work on. He
decided on one which recalled a Thanksgiving dinner, after which his uncle
- I asked Matt to only recall the memory mentally and not to speak of what
he was remembering.
- I began counting from 1 to 100, keeping my eyes on the clock and counting
off one number each second.
- At 93 or 94, I said, "Back here" to assist Matt’s return
- If the client appears dazed or confused, he or she has been able to recollect
a trauma. Matt looked moved and upset, so I knew that he had successfully
recalled the trauma.
- Next, we reflected on the emotions Matt underwent and tried to end on
a positive note. I stated, "You did well. You remembered
and were able to turn on the emotional memory tape and turn it off."
As you can see, even resistant clients can learn to recall their emotions
with the right technique. I feel that the Counting Method greatly
facilitated Matt’s first emotional recall.
♦ #2 Risks
Second, we will discuss risks involved when clients reflect
on their emotions. Some clients are never truly ready to confront the
emotions associated with the trauma. It is up to you, the therapist,
to decide if the client can truly handle the shock that could result from such
You might want to consider:
(1) The current emotional stability
of the client;
(2) Whether or not painful emotional recall will undo months of
(3) How well the client has handled the mental recall
of the trauma.
I suggest using the
Counting Method that
we described earlier on in this section to "test the emotional waters."
should the client begin to react negatively, there are a few warning signs to be aware of:
c. Total immobilization
for more than two to three hours
of being out of touch with reality
or the urge to harm themselves
or homicidal thoughts or behaviors
g. Being unable
to function at all for more than a day
If you notice any of these reactions in your emotional-recall client, I recommend
ceasing the recall.
♦ #3 Unresolved Grief and Anger
In addition to resistant clients and risks, the third issue to keep in mind
during emotional recall is the unresolved grief or anger the
client is experiencing. I have found that the psychological source
of PTSD is usually these two emotions. Some experts report that one
is more responsible than the other. I believe that it greatly depends
on the client and the nature of the trauma.
In most cases, however,
anger and grief are closely related to each other. On one hand, the
losses endured generate a great deal of anger while on the other the anger
could be directed at the cause or causes of the personal losses. Because
anger induces feelings of power, clients fighting disempowerment generally
exhibit more anger and have yet to address their grief.
those clients experiencing grief have already accepted that
they are powerless in their environment and have given up any thought of
regaining control. Essentially, these clients have victimized themselves. We
will discuss grief and anger more thoroughly in the next section.
In this section, we discussed challenges in helping clients recall their emotions
during their trauma: resistant clients, risks, and unresolved
grief and anger.
In the next section, we will examine the three levels of grieving losses, which include: grieving specific
losses, grieving the realization of powerlessness, and grieving mortality. We will also address PTSD resulting from natural disasters.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Beck, J. G., Reich, C. M., Woodward, M. J., Olsen, S. A., Jones, J. M., & Patton, S. C. (2015). How do negative emotions relate to dysfunctional posttrauma cognitions? An examination of interpersonal trauma survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(1), 3–10.
Lancaster, S. L., Melka, S. E., & Rodriguez, B. F. (2011). Emotional predictors of PTSD symptoms. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(4), 313–317.
Lehrner, A., & Yehuda, R. (2018). Trauma across generations and paths to adaptation and resilience. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 22–29.
Mott, J. M., Galovski, T. E., Walsh, R. M., & Elwood, L. S. (2015). Change in trauma narratives and perceived recall ability over a course of cognitive processing therapy for PTSD. Traumatology, 21(1), 47–54.
Taylor, S., Charura, D., Williams, G., Shaw, M., Allan, J., Cohen, E., Meth, F., & O'Dwyer, L. (2020). Loss, grief, and growth: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of experiences of trauma in asylum seekers and refugees. Traumatology. Advance online publication.
Tsvieli, N., & Diamond, G. M. (2018). Therapist interventions and emotional processing in attachment-based family therapy for unresolved anger. Psychotherapy, 55(3), 289–297.
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