healing from trauma with the body + experiential therapy

In my last post, I wrote about ritual and sacred objects as powerful tools for helping us internalize life experiences at a deeper level. This could mean instilling positive moments more permanently in your memory and neural networks, or fully connecting to the emotions of a painful experience in order to move through it rather than stay stuck in it at the cognitive level. These tools are available to anyone at any time, since they can be as simple as a morning ritual of prayer or journaling, or a rock or crystal that acts as a touchstone for grounding in an anxious situation. Exploring ritual and sacred objects at a deeper, more personalized level is also something I highly recommend, as you can go far beyond the basic examples above and use these tools as a powerful means of connecting to your core, divine humanity.

I want to continue this discussion with how the same principles apply in the clinical context of therapy or treatment. While we psychologically hold a tight grip on day-to-day negative experiences (as I wrote about in the previous post), the brain often goes into overdrive when it comes to traumatic experiences by compartmentalizing them away since they are too much to handle. This is not innately bad; in fact, it's an important survival skill, and many of my clients may not have made it to adulthood if not for this psychological protection. The problem lies in the fact that even if the brain disconnects and is able to suppress the memory or tell the story of the traumatic event like it’s the plot of a Lifetime original movie, the experience is still imprinted in the body. Ultimately, this emotional disconnect makes it very difficult to fully process the experience and release it from the body. 

Peter Levine is one of the world’s foremost experts in trauma and traumatic healing and developer of the Somatic Experiencing treatment model. Levine was one of the first in the field to propose the importance of the body in healing from trauma, rather than just talking about the experience. He writes,

In short, trauma is about loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognize, because it doesn’t happen all at once. It can happen slowly, over time, and we adapt to these subtle changes sometimes without even noticing them… because the overwhelm and the fight-or-flight are things that happen in the body, what I would say is the golden route [for clinicians] is to be able to help people have experiences in the body that contradict those of the overwhelming helplessness.    {Peter Lavine}

In Levine’s prolific research and writings, he asserts that the best way for therapists to empower clients to heal from trauma is to facilitate the client allowing her body to release the frozen energy that it has stored from the original trauma. This does not require them to retell or relive the traumatic event, but rather encourages clients to reconnect with and release that excess “survival energy” and gently guiding them to "develop increasing tolerance for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions."

Sometimes, a new client will acknowledge to me that she simply has not felt able or ready yet to deal with her traumatic experiences, saying, “I’ve just numbed it with ________" (alcohol, drugs, eating disorder, sex, shopping, you name it.) In these instances, we first need to work on building her internal strengths and resources and helping her learn and practice emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills so that she has sufficient affect regulation capability to work more deeply on her trauma issues. Otherwise, it’s like walking into a fire without any protective gear or clothing on. Other times, I’ll meet with a new client who tells me that she has had therapy before and says, “I thought I’d already worked through that stuff. How is it going to help me to keep going back into the past?” When I inquire more about what her experience of trauma work was like, the client often says that she “talked a lot about it.” 

I’m definitely not one to put down talk therapy as a whole. There is tremendous value in a person sharing his/her story and feeling seen, heard, and accepted by a therapist or group, especially if they haven’t yet shared their story or haven’t been accepted for it in the past. Putting experiences and feelings into words is a critical part of the healing process. However, for many people and most victims of serious trauma, talk therapy alone is not enough. As I mentioned before, trauma is stored in the body. Therefore, healing has to also occur in the body. While there are many different methods of trauma treatment, the common denominator of the most successful treatments is that they go beyond talking to help a client reconnect emotionally to the trauma, and since emotions are felt in the body, engaging the body is often the surest and fastest way in.

I am proud to be a therapist at The Ranch, a residential facility known internationally for our trauma treatment, as we employ a wide variety of experiential therapy methods with our clients. We are often the place that people come to after they have been in treatment several times before at other places (often working on just the surface-level behavioral issues like alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorder, etc.), and they’ve continued to relapse because they have not truly gotten to the “core” issues. (Some people are lucky and find their way to us sooner!) While some of our therapists are trained in particular models like EMDR, Brainspotting, Equine Therapy, Psychodrama, Somatic Experiencing, ACT for trauma, etc., what we all have in common is a philosophy and dedication to helping our clients reconnect with their bodies in order to more fully heal.

“Experiential therapy” is the umbrella term for any method that gets a client out of her head and into her body, and in the past few years of training and working with highly skilled clinicians at The Ranch, I have found this to be the single most important factor, regardless of the specific method used. I have numerous "sacred objects" that I use as props in experiential therapy, like my rainbow of scarves pictured above that I can use in a thousand different ways in groups and 1on1 sessions. Adding sacred objects and ritual into clinical work are some of the best ways to transform humdrum therapy into experiential therapy that facilitates lasting change. We do a lot of "ashes work" involving fire (and what rises from the flames? That's right -- the Phoenix), guided visualizations, adventure therapy outdoors, and much more. And cliché or not, the power of the empty chair is irrefutable. 

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing women make this leap from knowing something cognitively to knowing it in their bodies, in their bones. A woman can say, flatly, over and over again, “I know it wasn’t really my fault,” but when I see her stand up and scream, “It’s NOT my fault, and I’m TAKING my body back!” — and mean it from the depth of her being — something magical happens. A reclaiming of body, soul, and life. 

If you or a loved one have struggled with trauma and felt like it has kept you from living your fullest life — please, please know that this does not have to be your “normal.” The right kind of trained professional can empower you to heal. And trauma does not have to mean “big T Trauma” like physical or sexual abuse or a major event. Many times, trauma is more a series of small events that occurred repeatedly ("cluster wounds"), and we may not notice the impact of them until much later. Psychiatrist and Mark Epstein wrote a whole book on this topic in 2013, The Trauma of Everyday Life, and an Op-Ed for the New York Timeson the same topic.

Whether you feel you have experienced trauma or not, the same rules of biochemistry, energy, and psychology apply to all of us humans:

Listen to your body. It is your ally, and it holds much more wisdom than you might think. Pay close attention to the messages it sends you {build your muscles of intuition}, and respond with care. 

3 Comments

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.

how ritual and sacred objects help us travel from head to heart

Image from Ally at Aquarian Soul

Some of the most significant or meaningful moments in life are the ones that occur when we are purely in the experience, receiving it directly rather than through the filters of ego and thoughts. These moments are rare, but we’ve all experienced them: the pure awe of a perfect sunset or rushing waterfall, the bliss of witnessing or engaging with a joyful animal or baby. I believe one of the core purposes of being alive is to treasure these moments for the precious jewels that they are.

Most often, however, we experience life through several layers: of how something fits into the context of my day, my self-esteem, my safety, my reputation, my pleasure. Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson writes that the human mind is like velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. One major reason for this is evolutionary survival — our brain needed to be much more attuned to the possibility of a nearby tiger than a beautiful sunset! Have you ever had one of those days where maybe one or two “negative” or stressful things happened in an otherwise neutral day (probably with some positive moments in there, too) and caught yourself saying “I’m having a crappy day”? I know I have, though I’m much more aware now of that filter of the negativity bias than I was earlier in my life.

So we experience life through a filter of “me, me, me,"latch onto even the smallest negative experiences, don’t hold on well to the positive ones, and often bury the traumatic ones, making it difficult to fully heal.**  Oh, brain, what are we gonna do with you? 

The good news is that we can help our brains do better. While I could probably write a whole book on this topic,  I’ll focus specifically on one underlying theme for right now:

By taking conscious action to help our experiences make the journey from head to heart, we can better cherish the joy in life, and more quickly and fully heal from the inevitable pain.

This core truth is why ritual and sacred objects are such powerful tools for healing and feeling fully alive.

Ritual

The word “ritual” can be defined and interpreted in many ways, but here I will define it as “a ceremony or series of actions typically performed in a set sequence.” Rituals are a significant part of most religious traditions, and of course they also exist outside the world of religion, too. Whether you find comfort in religious rituals or not, developing your own unique rituals and adding ritual and ceremony to your life is one way of intentionally honoring both joy and pain.

Just look at one of the most common rituals, the funeral or wake. This act of celebrating and mourning the deceased can be a powerful and memorable event if it’s crafted with care— and consider how different it would be if we just took care of the logistics of the person’s death and went back to work! Why only reserve ritual for the biggest events like death? There is much to be honored and acknowledged during life, and adding ritual can definitely help us make that head-to-heart leap. A major distinction is that often, we only think or talk about things, which often only accesses the cognitive level of the experience. When we add ritual to the equation, there is more feeling to it — more of a sense of actually being with the experience in the body and emotionally connected with whatever is happening.

Your rituals could be small or big, daily or annual. They could done in private, shared with your family, or a room full of strangers at a yoga retreat. Maybe you develop a ritual with your partner of embracing in a 30-second hug before leaving for work in the morning. (It’s 30 seconds of your day, but can you imagine how different it would feel from a regular rushed goodbye?)  It should also be noted that if rituals become a chore or you lack flexibility with them (i.e. if your whole day is thrown off if your blender broke and you can’t have your green smoothie!), you need to recalibrate. Rigidity is not your friend.

One mini-ritual that Rick Hanson recommends for helping our brains actually start to notice and hold onto more positive experiences is what he calls “Taking In the Good.” Hanson defines this as "the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory,” using the 4 steps, HEAL:

(1) Have a positive experience. This is simply activating a positive experience — creating one, or consciously noticing that you’re having a positive experience.

(2) Enrich it. Intentionally stay with the experience for 10-20 seconds. It might not sound like much, but we rarely do for that long! Take a few moments to really savor it.

(3) Absorb it. Imagine being like a sponge and soaking the experience in — really internalizing it. Picture it like a jewel entering the treasure chest of your heart.

(4)Link positive and negative material. This step is optional, but can deepen the healing impact of the positive experience by linking it to relevant pain from your past. Are you experiencing a moment of feeling particularly loved and included? Think of a time earlier in your life when you felt alone or excluded, and imagine delivering this current feeling to your past self in that painful moment.

Hanson recommends using this process or ritual 2-3 times a day to start to really make a difference in the wiring of your brain. To me, this is a simple way of installing these everyday positive experiences (and the more important ones that you really want to keep with you) in the heart or spirit, not just in the mind. You can read more in-depth about the science behind this practice in Hanson’s newest book, Hardwiring Happiness, and download a free 10-minute guided practice that takes you through the HEAL steps.

Adding more elements of ritual to daily life is an excellent way to live with greater intention.

>>Do you have any favorite soul-nourishing rituals? What other ways could you build more ceremony into your life?

Sacred Objects

I’ve just recently begun exploring the realm of sacred objects, which I define as any material object that enhances the emotional or spiritual journey in some way. This can certainly be a controversial topic, since some would argue that the most spiritual among us — monks, nuns, and others who devote their lives to spirituality — don’t need “things” to be spiritual, and in fact, prefer to own few things at all. To all the minimalists out there: more power to you. I see a lot of value in that lifestyle, but personally, I am a bit of a nester. I am getting more particular about the kinds of “things” I keep around, because a junky environment full of unnecessary mass-manufactured crap makes me feel junky inside, too. (Note to Husband: I’m planning to do a Throw Out 100 Things Challenge soon, so hide your good stuff in the basement.) ;)

Lately, the only “stuff” I’ve really wanted to acquire falls into this “sacred objects” category. The most significant, which are almost strange to think of as material objects, are books. Specifically, books that help me learn more about myself at a deeper level and develop a better understanding of humanity, the world, and my place in in it as a woman, healer, and teacher. (And I have to say, I stressed a little over those words because it might sound like I think I have this all figured out. But really, I am just a fellow traveler who happens to be called to walk with others and help guide their travels using the shared experiences of many others that I now carry with me.)  I won’t rattle off the whole list of recent and soon-to-be-acquired books here, but I’ve been digging into Caroline Myss’s books, just ordered Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith, and I’m loving the Spirited e-book by Rachel MacDonald and Tara Bliss, two of my biggest role models.

I’ve also been learning about crystals (Hibiscus Moon is a kick-ass crystal expert) and how they can be used to enhance energy and healing. I have a small collection so far, and am enjoying learning which crystals are best to enhance certain qualities or feelings. I hold a crystal during meditation, carry one in my purse (rotating crystals based on which one feels right at the time), and have been adding rose quartz to my water occasionally. I love that crystals align so well with chakra balancing, since each chakra’s corresponding color can be matched with numerous crystals of that color.  I’m excited to continue my education about crystals so I can begin integrating them into my work with clients.

During all this recent exploration, I’ve been experimenting with several new rituals in my morning routine (now that I actually have time in the mornings) that incorporate sacred objects, and one of my favorites is lighting a candle and taking a few drops of my Lotus Wei Inspired Action flower elixir before I start my reading or writing for the day. These simple acts (that take less than a minute) help put me in a more connected, ready-to-go mindset than just sitting down, opening up my laptop, and typing away. Integrating meaningful objects like these into my day helps me feel more emotionally and spiritually connected, and less swept-up in the momentum of the daily grind.

Your sacred objects might include candles, a journal, mala beadsoracle cardsessential oils, crystals, jewelry, plants, incense, a vision board, or they might be something totally different and you. When I’m struggling to be accepting or loving toward myself or someone else (or maybe before a challenging group at work), I’ll spritz my face with Infinite Love energy mist. If you want to get scientific about it, can I know for sure that the particular blend of flowers in the spray is actually helping me be more loving, or is it more of a placebo effect? While I personally believe in the power of natural aromatherapy, if there is a placebo effect, I honestly don’t care, because it’s working better for me than not using anything! What I have found so far is that incorporating sacred objects into various places in my life is a powerful, tangible touchstone to reconnect me with what matters the most: tending daily to my mind + body + spirit integration, in alignment with my core values, and always striving to be more present and loving to the people around me. I don’t need objects in order to do that, but as I'm living in this physical world and culture that has the power to splinter my attention in 100 different directions, I’ll take all the help I can get to stay grounded in the real truth.

>>What are the sacred objects in your life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Even writing this has helped me better solidify the importance of ritual and sacred objects, and I’m excited and energized to continue my exploration of these topics. Until next time… Namaste, y’all.

**In a follow-up post next week, I’ll discuss why experiential therapy is key for healing from trauma by helping us make the leap from head to heart. 

1 Comment

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.