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A profound thought from a 14-year-old with complex PTSD

I have a 14-year-old boy in therapy who has had six serious traumatic experiences in his life, including sexual abuse and seeing a friend killed. He struggles with the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and irritability. He is just beginning EMDR therapy because he is tired of living with the symptoms, and tired of trying to cope with drug use and violent behavior--which have landed him in a group home. But now, he's making good progress with a good attitude.

So this kid had a profound thought.

He came into my office, sat down, and said, "You know, I've figured out that trauma is like a drug, like heroin. You don't want to think about what happened, but if you don't, all the anxiety builds up and it's even worse than thinking about the trauma."

By "even worse," he meant that the anxiety leads to coping in negative, life-destroying ways--for him, with drugs and violence. So regardless of the choice to re-live or to cope, the experience of living with trauma is fundamentally a feeling of being trapped that parallels the traumatic experience itself.

Some trauma therapies try to end the cycle by offering alternative coping skills--but don't address the origin of the anxiety. Some trauma therapies have clients relive traumas until they aren't disturbing anymore--but besides being cruel, how much growth comes out of being numb?

EMDR is different in that it targets the way in which trauma causes the brain to fall into an addictive pattern. EMDR unlocks the trapped memories and allows the brain to send them to the past, where they belong, as part of a story of growth and strength, looking toward a bright future.

I hope that my young client sees this sort of success. It's difficult to imagine until you've experienced it. I see success when my clients take personal ownership of their therapy and show up on a weekly basis, and in that regard, I have very high hopes for him. I told him that what he said is the quote of the month.

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