A basic dictionary definition of trauma is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” This is certainly appropriate to an extent. But when we refer to trauma here, and what is being addressed in Lifespan Integration therapy (LI), the definition is more nuanced and more complex.
In the counseling world, trauma is not just the disturbing experience itself, but the lingering after-effects. Trauma, in other words, can affect our ability to function in the present, even though it occurred in the past.
Many, when thinking about trauma, think about war veterans who have been in highly violent environments. These veterans come home somehow carrying their previous experiences with them. These previous experiences often affect their system so profoundly that they often have a hard time reintegrating into everyday civilian life.
So, in essence, when talking about trauma, we are talking not just about what happened in the past, but what happens following a stressful or traumatic event. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) states that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs following exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
But a traumatic response can also happen in more subtle ways, for example, in families where emotional bonding wasn’t fully successful, either by abusive behavior or emotional neglect. Either way, emotional needs are not met, and effects are felt long after the traumatic event is over. These effects can persist long after the trauma takes place, affecting a person’s ability to relate, give or receive love, or manage stress.
Lifespan Integration (LI) is a therapeutic approach to resolving past trauma. By resolving past trauma wounds, present struggles and problems will be made less severe. In other words, by addressing the underlying trauma, present behaviors can be improved, especially involving a person’s ability to relate to others in a healthy way.
The method itself starts with a counselor working with a client to help them construct a list of memory cues. In other words, the client forms a list of memories that occurred throughout the client’s life.
An example of how this is done involves taking a piece of paper, or a word document, starting with the number zero, and adding one year for every year lived so far. The client then attempts to remember at least one event per year. The client doesn’t need to remember an event for every year for the method to be applied or for it to be effective. But the effort to remember one event per year is made anyway.
Sometimes, the client can get too upset trying to come up with a list of traumatic memories, especially if the traumas are particularly severe or intense. In that case, the therapist works with the client in session to construct a list of cues. Once the list is complete, the first protocol can be conducted, which is called the baseline protocol.
The first protocol typically conducted is the Baseline Protocol, which involves the therapist sitting in session with the client, and reading the client’s list of memory cues in order, starting with the earliest memory, and proceeding through the timeline, memory by memory, up to the present day.
Clinical research is still being conducted with regard to the effectiveness of this new therapy. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that this method of walking the client through multiple repetitions of their timeline of memory cues can be very helpful in resolving the present effects of past traumatic wounds.
We don’t fully understand how or why this works, but the theoretical underpinnings are based on interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. It is also important to note that LI is considered to be a “body-based protocol.” The therapist, by reading the memory cues to the client and leading them through their timeline multiple times, is affecting the process of neural rewiring in the brain.
The basics of the theory go like this: when a traumatic event happens, the brain seems to respond by encoding a separate neural network around the traumatic event or memory. This means that traumatic events get encoded in memory separately from everyday memories, like the time I went to the park last week, or the time I went sledding when I was ten years old.
If enough similar circumstances to the original traumatic event are presented, the original trauma can resurface. One example of this would be the war veteran who returns to the states and is attending a Fourth of July picnic. The fireworks begin to go off. The veteran may know in his mind and even say aloud “this is just a fireworks display.”
The mind recognizes that this is only a fireworks display. But the body and nervous system could be firing off in a similar way to the response that occurred when bombs were going off in the war zone. The mind knows “it is just fireworks.” The veteran’s nervous system is telling their body to dive under a picnic table because things are not safe.
In this example, the mind knows that the war is in the past. But the nervous system (and neural network) is activating as if the event is happening now, in the present. Lifespan Integration, through the use of the repetition of a personal timeline of memory cues, can help the body learn that the past traumatic event is truly in the past.
In other words, our conscious mind may know the thing is over, but our body and nervous system may not have learned this yet. LI is a method for teaching the body that the past traumatic event is truly over. And, when the body system learns this, relief is experienced by the client.
The LI Baseline Protocol is performed first because it is helpful in (re)introducing stability to the client’s body-mind system. And, by increasing stability to the body-mind system, resilience and tolerance of stressful events are increased.
Therapists have found great benefit in working with individuals of a married couple who are experiencing a conflict by applying LI protocols to each spouse’s individual story. This is because spouses in a marriage conflict are often activating each other’s prior unresolved trauma without realizing it. Without addressing the trauma directly, a couple keeps going around in circles, activating the same unresolved past trauma.
By addressing the trauma directly, the overall feel of the relationship along with the emotional stress and heightened tension is reduced. And when the tension is brought down, it is much easier to work through conflict and navigate stressful events together.
There is not enough room here to address all of the theoretical and practical nuances of this therapy. But it is important to know that this is a very different way of doing therapy than traditional talk therapy. Traditional talk therapy, unfortunately, has often resulted in re-traumatizing the client as they are put into a position of having to sit in and talk through past traumatic events that they have been trying to psychically avoid.
LI is different. The therapist reads the memory cues to the client, one memory at a time, on average at a rate of about one memory every one to two seconds. This means at least two things. For one, the client is not forced to stay in the memory longer than 1-2 seconds, before moving on to the next one.
This is a much safer way for traumatized clients to resolve their trauma. The therapist does not require a traumatized client to sit in the traumatic memory, possibly re-triggering the traumatic event. Second, it is interesting and important to note that the therapist does not even need to ever hear the story behind the memory cue they are reading to the client.
For example, if I am working with a client and their abusive traumatic memory, I need only say “the time on the stairs” and then move right on to the next memory. I don’t need to ever know what happened on the stairs unless the client chooses to tell me.
But by using the Lifespan Integration protocol with the repetition of the timeline in session, I can very effectively help the client experience relief of the traumatic memory, as that memory is re-encoded through the use of the protocol into being more like any other normal memory. It may still be painful and unpleasant, but I will not be triggering or overpowering for the client. That is the therapeutic goal, here.
Because this protocol is so different than other types of traditional talk therapy, I often tell my clients that it is like trying to describe sugar. I can tell you about it, have you read a book about it, but it is probably best if you just give it a taste.
The taste of sugar is an experience unto itself, that can be pointed out through words, but not fully given. Another way of thinking about it is trying to describe a song, versus having the person sit down and hear the song.
The therapeutic community is still learning not only how traumas happen, but how to effectively help clients resolve past traumatic winds. If you feel you may be suffering the effects of a past traumatic event in your life, Lifespan Integration may be a helpful option for you. Contact our office today to learn more.