For years I’ve been using this analogy to help my clients understand the difference between having unhealed trauma and healed trauma. I will bring this analogy up when I want to respond to a client who states that no amount of healing will eliminate the trauma from their biography. Though true, that perspective doesn’t take some possibilities into account.
First I compare trauma to a geothermal hotspot. In this analogy the pain of the trauma history creates energy in the form heat. This does change the landscape and the environment. But how it changes the environment can be a choice that the client makes.
Unhealed Trauma: A Geyser
If the trauma is unhealed, the geothermal hotspot creates geysers. Water in the environment, a symbol in this analogy for emotions and relationships, lands on the geothermal hotspot and collects on the heat, boils, builds pressure (sometimes rapidly), and then erupts. The force of this eruption makes the area dangerous. In more extreme forms it may burn you or those around you in the form of diagnostic symptoms like “marked arousal and reactivity,” “intrusive symptoms,” and “negative alterations of cognitions”1 that erupt to the surface seemingly without warning. Over time, you may get used to what tends to cause those eruptions and so you begin to avoid those conditions, another diagnostic criteria.
People with traumatic pasts can feel powerless to stop this process. They acknowledge correctly that the trauma, the heat in the analogy, isn’t about to go away. The trick I tell them is turning that geothermal hotspot into a well.
Healed Trauma: The Well
When trauma has been transformed into a well, there is a vent to the surface which allows a release of the pressure that used to build up and cause the eruption of symptoms. In the treatment, I help clients dig this well by helping them tell the stories of their trauma while remaining grounded emotionally and relationally with me in the room. This story telling is a form of systematic desensitization, an empirically validated treatment for fear based disorders.
Once the story has been told we then look for the meaning that the client can make out of the trauma. Maybe a woman who was raped would like to volunteer with a women’s shelter, tell other women about her story, raise boys with higher levels of sexual health, or she can use her experience to cultivate compassion for others or a purpose for life in some less obviously related way. In the analogy, she uses the well to dip down into her story and raises from the well water that is rich in minerals and which has the capacity to provide healing to others. The water may still be hot which may be soothing and warm to others. This history may still be painful but the emotion is something that she can chose to experience or not. She can chose to dip into the water or not. The emotion exists in a well, not in a geyser, so she regulates when the energy of that emotion comes to the surface and how much.
Some of the key diagnostic symptoms of trauma include intrusive experiences, avoidance of stimuli related to the trauma, negative feelings and thoughts about yourself, and reactivity. Therapy for trauma helps the individual regain choice about their experience of trauma and brings the potential to turn that negative history into a source of healing for others. The therapy turns a trauma geyser into a well.
1 These descriptions are criteria for a trauma diagnosis as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (The DSM-5).