Joe Barnwell is a trauma therapist and counsellor providing therapy and counselling services in North Vancouver, BC

cell: 604·649·1126

email: joe@thewellnessfactor.ca




Shiatsu Therapy

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About Trauma and Trauma Therapy


What is Trauma?

Trauma involves an event or events that you perceive as significantly threatening to your sense of personal safety or ability to function. Sometimes the effects are recognized as being traumatic at the time the event(s) occurred and sometimes the depth of the impact is not recognized until you feel the aftershock, which can be days, weeks or years after the event(s). Sometimes you might notice the disruption in your life and inability to function normally without realizing the part trauma has to play in that.


How Trauma Becomes Locked in the Nervous System

When you perceive a threat, your body kicks into its natural fight, fight or freeze defense responses. This happens during single event trauma such as a car accident or repeated exposure to threats like abuse in childhood or harassment in your home or workplace. These defense responses are instinctual and designed to increase your odds of survival or ability to function.

A traumatic experience triggers your sympathetic nervous system into a cascade of physiological responses such as increased blood flow to your muscles, increase in oxygen to your lungs and heightened physical senses, to mention a few. The fight, flight, freeze defense response is engaged and quickly the best option for safety is chosen. All of this happens without having to "think" about it. The lower, reptilian brain takes over because your normal reasoning is not fast enough, even though there might be bits of reason that come in to help modify the response at various points.

In many cases, a traumatic event does not become traumatizing or become a major issue. If, however, your defense response is obstructed and you are not able to protect yourself, "traumatization" can be an issue. For example, if you were attacked physically by another person and were able to escape or fight back effectively you are more likely to experience this as a success because you were able to keep yourself safe.

On the other hand, if you were not able to get away or protect yourself from the attack you might experience longer lasting effects. What has happened here, is that your nervous system remains on high alert keeping an eye out for danger. This is even though the specific event(s) have passed. Symptoms of depression and anxiety can be common. You can experience an overall feeling of vulnerability. You may startle easily or feel nervous. You may have trouble sleeping or concentrating. You may experience a general lack of confidence. You may have difficulty in relationships and have problems trusting others. These are some of the ways that trauma can become locked in your nervous system. 

Two things have happened when trauma has become stuck in your nervous system. First, the natural charge to defend yourself is still loaded in your nervous system because it did not have an opportunity to discharge at the time of the trauma. Second, your brain has been flooded with information that it has not been able to assimilate and still needs an opportunity to do so.

The important thing to remember is that regardless of how you rationalize or try to talk yourself out of the symptoms of trauma, they usually do not resolve themselves without some help.


Trauma Repair Through Therapy and Counselling

Some specialized trauma repair (counselling or therapy) is often needed when your nervous system is still functioning on high alert and your brain is unable to process the information from the original event(s). As stated above, the state of high alert and the sense of having an overload of information are most likely to happen when attempts to defend yourself have been thwarted. Examples of this would be an inability to escape from sexual assault as a child or to prevent a serious fall while hiking. Your natural mechanisms for defending yourself from harm have been triggered, but there has not been an opportunity for a full discharge of the energy behind that so it remains loaded in your nervous system. This shows up in the form of many common symptoms of depression and anxiety such as, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, lack of confidence, nervousness, and feelings of vulnerability.

Simply talking about the trauma in counselling is often not enough to unlock the body and nervous system from the obstructed attempts to defend yourself and resolve the problems you are having in your life.

The type of therapy you need is one that provides the opportunity to address this trauma at a physical and physiological level. So what needs to be blended into the talk therapy, is work with emotions and thinking.  A focus on body sensation and movement can help unlock the trauma in the nervous system.

Trauma therapy focused on body sensations provides an opportunity for your body to release the energy stored in your muscles and nervous system that did not release during the original traumatic event(s). This allows your nervous system to reset and break the cycle of high alert, alleviating the symptoms of trauma. Basically, your body "knows" what it needs to do to release this energy, it just needs a helpful therapeutic structure to support that release.

Once the release of the trauma happens, your thinking becomes more positive, your emotions start to stabilize, and your symptoms of fear, depression and anxiety start to resolve. Your nervous system, with the help of therapy, naturally returns to a state of balance and calm.


There are two basic types of trauma—Developmental Trauma and Shock Trauma

Developmental Trauma arises from experiences during childhood such as:

It is called "developmental trauma" because the trauma occurs at a time of life when our character and basic approaches to life are developing, and it has an influence on how these are formed. Often as children, and even into adulthood, experiences such as those above are not recognized as being traumatic. In fact, if you have experienced any of the above, as a child you likely developed coping strategies to manage the effects of these experiences unconsciously and did what you needed to, in order to survive.

However, problems often arise as an adult when the coping strategies and beliefs developed as a child are no longer helpful or do not work. For example if you learned that you cannot count on anyone around you and have become very independent as a result, you may find yourself unable to trust others. This could leave you feeling very isolated.

Shock trauma is an experience that is perceived as potentially life threatening. The following are some examples:

Shock trauma in a child's life may influence the development of the child. This would then be called developmental trauma. If there is already developmental trauma present, an adult may be more vulnerable to other traumatic events occurring in his or her adult life.

If you are experiencing the effects of a traumatic event, please contact me for asn appointment. I can be reached at:

604·649·1126 or joe@thewellnessfactor.ca