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  • Writer's pictureAlexander James

How Can Internal Family Systems Therapy Help To Heal Trauma?

Trauma is defined as a severe and lasting emotional response that is triggered by an extremely distressing event; usually one beyond our control or very difficult to manage. This could be a single event such as an accident or natural disaster; a criminal act such as robbery or assault; a sudden loss; or ongoing acts such as abuse or harassment. 


The trauma may be caused by either being a direct victim of the distressing or stressful event, or through being a witness to it. Some people are able to process the trauma and move on within a few weeks or months, but others may struggle to cope; living in shock, endurance, or denial. This can cause long-term damage to their emotional wellbeing.


The word trauma is derived from the Greek word for wound, and this is a useful way of thinking about it. A wound causes pain and damage, and as it heals, it may cause scars, numbness, or dysfunction, particularly if it does not receive appropriate medical care and ongoing attention. 


Trauma causes psychological wounds that may not heal properly without assistance. This is why people who have experienced trauma may be referred to or seek therapeutic services


One of the most comprehensive and effective therapies for healing trauma is internal family systems (IFS). Here’s a closer look at how it can help.


Understanding the IFS model and trauma


The IFS model identifies three primary sub-personalities or ‘Parts’ of the mind: Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles. Managers are the parts that try to keep the person safe by maintaining control over their environment or behaviours. 


Exiles are the parts that hold the pain and trauma, and they are so-called because they are exiled to protect a person from overwhelming emotions. Firefighters act to numb or distract from the pain, and this can often be through addictive or harmful behaviours. 


Accessing the Self


According to the IFS model, the Self is our true inner being, and it is an innate state of calm, compassion, and clarity. The Self is the leader of our true psyche, and is capable of healing and harmonising all of our Parts. 


The word ‘heal’ is derived from a translation of the Proto-Germanic word ‘to make whole’, and when we are able to access our true Self we might be described as being made whole again. IFS therapy can help a person to reach out to their wounded Parts and work towards a process of healing and recovery. 


The therapist will work with the individual to help them understand the burdens that have been placed on the various parts of their psyche through a traumatic event or ongoing experience. 


It is important that the therapist understands the nature of the trauma and creates a safe and non-judgemental space that allows for an atmosphere of openness and compassion.


As the individual learns to identify and reconcile the Parts, they may feel kinder towards themselves and others, and more empowered and in control of their own thoughts and behaviours. This can pave the way for improved relationships and greater resilience when meeting life’s challenges.

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