Why is talk therapy not “fixing” my trauma?

| Gwen Soat, LCMHCA

You’ve talked about it. No matter how hard it was, you talked about it. You may have shared your story, for better or worse. You have described the incident, put words to the pain. Talking about it is hard and you’ve done the hard thing. So, why is it still haunting you?  

Talk therapy, what many people think of when they are thinking of therapy, is a beneficial, well-studied form of mental health treatment. While this may be true for many other mental health concerns, it may fall short for people seeking treatment for trauma. Talk therapy relies on cognition and verbal processing, a function that takes place primarily in the left side of your brain. Trauma targets your nervous system. These memories are more than just thoughts – they were experiences [1]. 

Defining Trauma

Trauma is derived from the Greek word for “wound.” It is an event that threatens someone’s safety, their sense of self, and their control. These events bombard our nervous system, causing our bodies to cope and adapt to the toxic stress. This can elicit feelings of hopelessness [1]. 

Big ‘T’ Trauma → These Traumas are what many people think of when they hear “trauma.” These are often threats to life (e.g., war, car accident, natural disaster, school shooting, death of a parent, abuse, sexual violence, etc.) [2]. 

Little ‘t’ trauma (adversarial experiences) → These traumas cause significant distress, but usually do not involve violence or life-threatening circumstances (e.g., break-ups, friend break-ups, bullying, loss of a job, etc.) [2].

Remember, whether or not something is traumatic is not for you or for your therapist to decide, the experience is dictated by how your nervous system reacts. While stress can be a normal part of our experience, toxic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies due to our body’s natural response to adapt to adversity [1]. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is not talk therapy, it’s a form of therapy for your nervous system, a memory-therapy. EMDR focuses on how the storage of your memories is currently impacting your present day experience [1]. 

When our bodies adapt to cope with toxic stress, it can disrupt our nervous system’s processing and integration. When this happens, memories can become stuck. These traumas, the adversarial experiences, can become stuck in your body; in a sense, your nervous system can become “hijacked” which often appear as triggers [1]. 

EMDR focuses on your central nervous system (where your memories reside) and your autonomic nervous system (where your feelings and sensations are stored). There is not as much talking in EMDR. Instead, the therapy focuses on interacting with the trauma inhabiting your body to help the memory become “unstuck” to lessen your distress [1].

Utilizing a body-focused style of treatment can desensitize your nervous system, reducing your distress. It is not a quick fix, but it is another option. Your body has done what it is meant to do, it has protected you the best way it has known how to, even in the face of trauma or adversarial experiences. Talk therapy can be wonderful to help process this pain. Bringing in memory-focused therapies, such as EMDR, can help your body process it too. We can meet your body in this space and work on alleviating some of this distress by trying to help unweave what has gotten stuck. 


Kase, R. (2021). EMDR basic training: Part 1 manual. Rebecca Kase & Co, LLC. https://kaseandco.com/ 

Newport Institute (2022). Big T vs. little t trauma in young adults: Is there a difference? The Newport Institute. https://www.newportinstitute.com/resources/mental-health/big-t-little-t-trauma/

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