real life

'I've been an expert in trauma for 13 years. Here's what people misunderstand about it.'

Complex trauma is a beast we struggle to tackle — how to acknowledge it, how to deal with it, let alone treat it.

In the Zeitgeist, conversations about trauma feel like they're at an all-time high. 

Some professionals in the psychology field feel the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction — saying we as a collective might be using the term 'trauma' too flippantly now.

But clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Ahona Guha feels differently. 

Watch: Clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani argues why the term 'trauma' has the potential to be overused. Post continues below.

Video via MedCircle. 

"There are some who are concerned about concept creep. We all to some extent use terms like trauma, abuse and bullying flippantly. But I think as long as we are aware of how we're using our language, then there's no cause for concern," she tells Mamamia.

"This language was only in psych textbooks for so long, and now it's far more accessible. It's a good thing to be able to put into words what we feel and experience, and if that helps a layperson [someone not in the professional psychological community] seek out information about their mental health, that is great."


With more than a decade working in this space, Dr Guha says it's preferred that we have open conversations about mental health epidemics compared to the silence from decades ago.

But there are a few things we're getting wrong when it comes to our understanding of trauma and trauma treatment.

Trauma doesn't look the same for everyone.  

"I suppose from the layperson's perspective, a lot of people still think trauma only 'counts' if you have been sexually assaulted or bashed violently. But it's far more complex than that. Often it's the psychological aspect of a situation that is described as the most traumatic moment," Dr Guha says.

If a person had the trauma happen at quite a late age — against the background of a good early life and they have lots of support — Dr Guha says it's very likely they are going to be able to recover. 

But when it comes to complex trauma — things that happened at quite a young age, and the person had additional difficulties or has experienced disadvantage — it can take more work.

The public mental health system has a lot of work to do.

A large portion of Aussies rely on the public mental health system for support and treatment. 

Not only is the cost still great, but the wait times are long, access is limited and treatment often isn't holistic. For anyone impacted by intersectionality, the challenges of navigating the system are even greater. 


"The public mental health system is such a valuable asset, but it's overworked. As a result, the treatment offered is very piecemeal," Dr Guha says. 

"So someone might maybe come in with several diagnoses and clinical symptoms. But if you have a non-trauma trained therapist, they won't link these things together, and examine how trauma has underpinned the mental health state — nor how to properly address it."

The concept of 'healing' can sometimes be counter-productive.

Dr Guha doesn't like the word healing. And there's a good reason why.

"The phrase 'healing' has been usurped by the wellness industry completely. I don't like it. The wellness industry tells you to align your chakras and slap an amethyst bracelet on and you'll be fine. With this in mind, there are some people who come into my office and expect to be 'fixed' in a session or two. But a process of recovery is going to look very different for each trauma survivor," she notes. 

"From so many high-profile people in this psychology space we hear them say that complex trauma can be cured, but for some that isn't the case. And it's not helpful language. Rather than 'healing', I prefer the word 'managing' or 'recovering'. 

Conversations about trauma shouldn't need to be palatable.

One of the key things that Dr Guha has found in recent years is that we tend to talk more about palatable manifestations of trauma.

Things like high-functioning anxiety, insomnia and perfectionism — while all valid and challenging things — aren't the sorts of trauma responses Dr Guha so often sees. 


"Often it's trauma responses like an eating disorder, suicide, self harm, substance abuse and abusive behaviour that are shunned from conversations and the mainstream media. I'd love to see this change."

We need to stop only acknowledging the 'perfect' victim.

"We're slowly starting to acknowledge the complexity and darkness within complex trauma. But there still remains too many examples of a certain type of victim being given more coverage and compassion," Dr Guha says.

One example that comes to mind for her is the murder of Jill Meagher.

"Often it's the victims who are attractive, young and white who garner the most sympathy from the wider public. The man who murdered Jill Meagher had a number of victims who were sex workers — and it took what happened to Meagher for that perpetrator to be held properly accountable.

"So often in my line of work I see this trope play out on a smaller scale to that example, and it's the person who is not the 'perfect' victim that suffers further."

It's conversations like these that Dr Guha wants us to be having — to ensure our understandings of trauma evolve. 

Her book Reclaimwhich is out now, delves into how we can understand complex trauma and those who abuse. 

"I've really tried to address some of the myths and misconceptions, some of the issues of treatment and diagnosis, the way complex trauma survivors can manage emotion," she says to Mamamia.


Dr Ahona Guha and her nine-year-old rescue greyhound Karla who she credits as her number one coping mechanism. Image: Supplied.

Another aspect of the book is Dr Guha's examination of why people who abuse or perpetrate harm do what they do.

Given her time in the forensic field, Dr Guha has spent years working with stalkers, sex offenders, violent offenders, and those who threaten, bully, and harass. And from it she has the expertise to try to understand the motivations behind their actions and what underpins them — all of which she does in a bid to address and break the cycle of abuse.


As for what she loves most about her work, Dr Guha says it's always a privilege to hear a person's story, which often reflects one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.

"For anyone who is feeling lost in how to deal with their trauma, I'd say that this is a journey," she says. 

"There's no quick fix, but they've taken the first step by identifying the need to start the process. Sometimes it's about building a good support system around you and putting one foot in front of the other."

You can purchase a copy of Reclaim by Dr Ahona Guha here. You can also follow her on Instagram here, or Dr Guha's website here

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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