Support for Healing and Recovery for Those Engaged in Personal Development Practices
This brief guide is intended to help those engaged in personal or spiritual development practices get a basic understanding of psychological trauma, its impacts, and how addressing it may require additional support, approaches and resources beyond individual personal and spiritual development practices. Please don’t consider this guide to be exhaustive, definitive or the “right way.” It is none of those! It is also not a substitute for getting appropriate professional help when that is needed.
In this brief guide, I will address psychological trauma and discuss some resources that may be helpful for survivors of trauma. A useful definition of psychological trauma is: a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. To that I would add “or as a result of repeated distressing events.” Trauma occurs in a continuum of severity from relatively mild to relatively severe. The more distressing the experienced event, the deeper the damage to the psyche. And, the more repetitions of the event, the deeper the damage to the psyche. It is also important to point out that in more severe trauma, there can also be physical changes to the nervous system and brain, and these may also need to be addressed in the healing and recovery process.
It can be confusing and distressful for practitioners deeply engaged in spiritual or personal development practices when those practices seem to consistently bump into limiting factors that don’t seem to be just about limiting beliefs or assumptions or unreleased emotions. Sometimes it is our own holding on to old self-protective beliefs, emotions, and behaviors at play. However, in some cases, there may be physical or neurological causes behind our practice not moving deeper over time in spite of our consistent efforts.
The Impacts of Trauma
The distressing experiences that can produce trauma in humans can include sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect, chaotic or tragic natural disasters, war, invasive surgeries, assault, accidents or other overwhelming experiences. When the effects of trauma persist over time, it can be because the trauma overwhelmed the psyche’s ability to process the experience in the normal ways or because the body’s natural processes of healing and self-regulation were inhibited or interrupted in some way.
When stressful experiences overwhelm our normal capacity to comprehend, process and understand events, several things can result. One is that the memory of the event is not processed in the normal manner, and some parts of the brain that provide helpful processing to the memory are bypassed. Studies have shown that, whereas normal memory formation is routed through the hippocampus (a small organ that aids in consolidation of short term memories to long term memories), traumatic memories bypass the hippocampus. It appears that the hippocampus may responsible for “time-stamping” our memories so that we intuitively recognize that they are events from the past. When this time-stamp is missing, the memory can be experienced more like a current event than a past event that is over. For these traumatic memories there also appears to be an interruption of the function of REM (rapid eye movement) stages of sleep that would normally aid in consolidating short term memories into long term memories by generalizing them (removing some of the detail and clarity). Without a time stamp and with all the details left in, it is much easier for current day experiences to trigger a re-living of the traumatic memory as though it is happening now.
When our painful memories are easily triggered, and experienced as though the trauma is occurring now, we can be prone to losing what some researchers and therapists call “self-leadership.” In other words, as we are overwhelmed by painful and powerful emotions, we lose our ability to make sound judgments, we fall into reactive behaviors, and we misinterpret current events as being repeats of past traumas. In effect, the trauma takes us over.
It is very important to understand that no two trauma survivors are alike, and that, therefore, the treatment needed for each survivor is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and there is no one therapy or modality that will work for the unique experience of every survivor. If you are a survivor, this means that the first approach you try might not be addressing the actual impacts from your traumatic experiences, or might not address some of the causes of your on-going distress. You may need to try several approaches. Sometimes, multiple approaches over time are needed to address the various impacts of trauma, and that may mean working with multiple therapists or practitioners with different specialties over time.
In order to heal from our past trauma, we will eventually need to re-visit the traumatic experience(s), but with clear awareness and a calm presence. In order to revisit the trauma without it being re-traumatizing, we need to develop this ability to be calmly present, rather than deeply triggered. The approaches below have been shown to be very helpful in helping trauma survivors do just that.
Working Directly with the Body
A number of therapies have been developed in the past 15-20 years that work more directly with the body and brain than traditional “talk therapy.” Other body-centered approaches have been around for decades or centuries, but only recently have been integrated into trauma healing programs. A good introduction to many of these approaches is found in the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk (see book list below). These approaches include:
Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming)
Communal Rhythms and Synchrony
Below I briefly describe each approach with resources to allow you to follow up. Each of the following approaches is a complex process that I am covering briefly in a few paragraphs. Please follow up with the books and web links to learn more. My hope is that this guide can point you in a direction to get you started.
Internal Family Systems Therapy
The Internal Family Systems, or IFS, model was created by psychotherapist Richard Schwartz beginning in 1990. Schwartz was trained in systems thinking, which gave him a unique a framework for understanding the human psyche or self in a new way. His model of the mind is one of multiple sub-personalities interacting in a complex internal system. Each sub-personality is held with respect and treated as a valid and important contributor to the psyche as a whole. This therapeutic approach aims to cultivate relationships between these sub-personalities, or parts as they are know in IFS, but especially to cultivate a supportive and healing relationship between a core aspect of the psyche he calls the Self, and these other sub-personalities. The Self is present in all adults, and is characterized by attributes like compassion, calmness, curiosity, creativity, connection, confidence and courage. These attributes are often lacking in the other parts, many of which are created in response to past events that were painful, threatening or overwhelming. These parts exist in order to protect us from the kinds of experiences that created them, and through our limbic system, they can hijack our attention and drive our thoughts, feelings and behaviors according to how they experienced the world. Neurologically speaking, these parts are not well integrated with the rest of the brain, due to the experience being recorded in the brain during intense stress. The process of getting to know the sub-personalities, befriending them, showing them respect and understanding from the perspective of the Self allows them to release the burden of stress they have been carrying and integrate more effectively in the brain and mind. This begins to build a bridge of trust between these parts and the Self, allowing the parts to relax and not feel compelled to take over the mind and body.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR) is one of the most rigorously studied and documented forms of therapy for treating survivors of trauma and those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). EMDR is particularly effective at reducing triggering of traumatic memories by current events and experiences. Recent research indicates that EMDR may emulate memory consolidation processes that typically happen during dreaming in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. Research has shown that REM sleep reprocesses memories to generalize them for long term memory storage, removing physical sensations, emotions and other vivid details. This allows a person to remember that the event happened, but without the vivid details and visceral feeling that it is happening now, as is often the case with traumatic memories that have not been reprocessed. Memories of traumatic experiences are not initially formed the way that normal memories are formed, and as a result, REM sleep does not appear to reprocess them. EMDR therapy provides a form of reprocessing similar to REM sleep that allows the survivor to remember the traumatic events without being emotionally triggered or overwhelmed by them.
The name “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming” comes from the original form of the work, in which the therapist guides the client’s eyes in a rhythmic side-to-side motion while they are remembering images or sensations from traumatic events. There is a strong focus in this work on helping the client attune to sensations in the body while he/she is engaged in the bilateral eye movement. There is also a strong focus on discovering the core meanings originally assigned by the client to the traumatic events and eventually reprocessing these to replace them with the client’s most positive reinterpretation.
As the practice of EMDR has evolved, other forms have emerged that replace the side to side movement of the eyes with physical, audio, video or other cues that rhythmically alternate from side to side. The eye movement form is the most studied and documented form. For me personally, electronic buzzers that alternately vibrate in the right and left hands have been also been effective.
As with other trauma healing modalities, EMDR practitioners vary significantly in their level of training and experience in EMDR. When choosing an EMDR therapist inquire as to their training level and experience, while also factoring in the feeling of trust and safety you feel with them. See “Choosing a Therapist.”
See also: http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
Somatic Experiencing is another form of therapy that has been consistently documented as helpful for survivors of trauma who have often been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This form of therapy/education aims to access the body’s instinctual reactions to trauma through developing a heightened awareness of physical body sensations. These instinctual reactions include shaking to release energy from the body, and instinctual physical movements that “want” to protect the body from harm. The client is “helped to develop an awareness and mastery of his or her physical sensations and feelings” (Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice). This mastery leads to the ability to allow the body to do what it needs to do and the person to feel what they need to feel in response to the traumatic experience. In some cases, simply allowing the trauma survivor to be aware of the self-protective impulses initiated by the body during the traumatic experience can help restore the body/mind back to equilibrium.
These instinctive impulses that naturally arise in response to trauma are part of the human organism’s innate capacity for self-regulation and restoration of equilibrium after trauma. The problem is that sometimes these instincts and processes are prevented, inhibited, overridden, or interrupted during or after the trauma. For example, powerful stress hormones are released into the bloodstream during traumatic experiences to support dramatic protective actions. When those actions are interrupted, the body can get stuck in a hormone-aroused state.
In order to activate the self-regulating system in the body, survivors are helped to face uncomfortable and frightening physical sensations and feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them. Once they can be present to the experience without being overwhelmed, they can study and experience the physical impulses that were previously prevented from being completed.
Somatic Experiencing training at several levels is available to healthcare professionals, including psychotherapists, medical doctors, nurses and bodyworkers. There are many different trainings and levels of training, so if you are seeking a practitioner, be sure to ask how much training and experience they’ve had. A Certified Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP) has had extensive training over multiple years, and has passed professional reviews of their work.
The human brain is designed to adapt to changes in the body and our environment and maintain balanced and effective functioning at all times. However, traumatic experiences can cause the brain to become “dysregulated” or out of balance. A dysregulated brain tends to be over-stimulated when calm is called for and/or under-stimulated when focused attention is needed. Sometimes, the brain can self-correct, but when it doesn’t, this dysregulated, out-of- balance state can become the “new normal”.
In a normally functioning brain, when a task requires focus and thinking, there is a coherence of brain waves which indicates a coordinated effort to filter, focus on, and analyze incoming information. In the brains of traumatized individuals, there is sometimes a lack of coherence in these brain waves, indicating less ability to filter out irrelevant information and focus on the task at hand. These patterns can apply to processing any information, regardless of whether it is related to the past trauma.
Neurofeedback is a technology-aided process of retraining the brain to produce more coherent and coordinated patterns of brain function. The process tracks and measures mental function in real time using electrodes attached to specific places on the client’s head, and represents the brain’s waves and functions on a computer screen, often accompanied by sounds and physical vibrations. Through giving attention to the graphic representations on the screen and to the sounds and vibrations, the client’s brain can learn to better align mental functions in ways that, once learned, are generally permanently retained. For example, this process can be employed to, in effect, turn off brain circuits for fear, anger, shame, or anxiety that may have been stuck in the “on” state for months or years following the trauma.
Neurofeedback relies heavily on technology along with the expertise of the practitioner. There are several different proprietary neurofeedback systems, each offering somewhat different brain training programs. If you are considering neurofeedback for yourself, find out what system the practitioner is using, and what its strengths and weaknesses are, as well as what training the practitioner has and where they got it. Each neurofeedback system typically includes several neurofeedback processes that each focuses on different brain functions and areas of the brain, so you’ll want to learn which processes are available and how they relate to symptoms you are experiencing and the recovery goals you have identified.
This form of therapy involves working in a group of people with a trained leader/therapist, with one client at a time being supported by the therapist and other group members. With guidance from the therapist, the client explores the traumatic experience(s) they want to work on while the therapist tracks the subtle details of the client’s expressions and reflects these back to him/her. The client then begins to choose members of the group to represent people in the past traumatic situation, and to place them physically in the room according to where they feel “right.” This physical placement is key, because it engages the brain center that governs spatial relationships, which resides in the right hemisphere of the brain. The right hemisphere is also where the primary imprints of trauma reside.
After choosing the representative members from the group and placing them in the physical locations that feel right to the client, the therapist guides the client to sense how this “map” feels. After this exploration, the client is invited to move the “pieces” and to again study what they experience inside. The client can also “rewrite the scene” by instructing the role-players to do and say things the client would have liked the character in the memory to do or say, again studying what happens inside.
This therapeutic approach seems to allow the client to explore traumatic memories without being overwhelmed by them by invoking the spatial processing of the brain and by providing a unique constellation of support from the therapist’s “micro-tracking” reflections to the involvement of the other group members in service to the client’s healing. Like EMDR, this group process helps to re-write the memory, integrating the positive revisions explored with the representative members of the group.
This work is formally known as the Pesso Boyden Psychomotor Therapy System, named after creator Al Pesso and his wife, Diane Boyden Pesso. As with other forms of trauma healing therapy, practitioners can take varying levels of training in the work, and can go through a formal 3-year certification process. As always, ask a potential therapist aboaut their level of training, and how long they have been employing psychomotor therapy in their work.
In many instances of trauma, the survivor can become estranged from their body, either numbing out their physical experience or retreating into their mind as a safe refuge. This is especially true of survivors of sexual and physical abuse, in which the triggers to the pain and suffering of the abuse are intimately associated with specific parts of the body. As a mind-body practice, yoga can help survivors of trauma reconnect and re-inhabit their bodies.
Yoga can help survivors both restore balance to their autonomic nervous system and learn to be comfortable in their bodies again. The autonomic nervous system regulates arousal states, raising arousal levels when immediate action is needed, and calming the body when action is not necessary. Trauma can lead to an imbalance in this balance between calming and arousing. Yoga can help repair that imbalance, especially when the yoga practice includes breathing practices, postures (asanas) and meditation. For survivors of trauma, it is often best to start out small and easy, since focusing may be difficult, especially focusing on the body. It is also helpful to work with a yoga instructor who is experienced in working with students with a history of trauma.
There are many gentle and healing forms of body work, and new ones continue to emerge. Due to the role of the body in storing the pain and emotions of trauma, therapies that involve loving, healing touch can be very beneficial for trauma survivors. These forms of healing touch can help reconnect a survivor with his/her body if they are disconnected from it, and can be a source of safe and positive touch for individuals who have avoided physical contact because it triggers overwhelming and painful feelings. In a safe relationship with a trusted body worker, these feelings can sometimes be faced, accepted and released. Due to the physically intimate nature of such work, finding a therapist that feels safe and trustworthy is of the utmost importance. It is also important to ask whether a body worker has training or experience working with survivors of trauma before working with them.
Group Movement, Rhythm and Music
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the healing benefits for trauma survivors of participating in creative group activities like theater, dance and music. He describes several theater programs in which trauma survivors are given the opportunity to act in roles that initially feel impossible in real life. He also describes the healing power of singing and dancing in unison with a group of people. These activities can be helpful for trauma survivors, if the group is safe and supportive and if the survivor is able to be present with the other group members and really engage in the activity. Moving and making rhythms and music together with other people binds the participants together, and gives them courage to do and say things they would not have the courage to do or say acting alone. These activities are likely not effective as a primary treatment for trauma in many cases, but work well as an adjunct to other approaches described above.
Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis, Courage to Heal, A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (20th Anniversary Edition), William Morrow Paperbacks, 2008.
Levine, Peter, In an Unspoken Voice, How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Lew, Mike, Victims No Longer, Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse,
Maltz, Wendy, The Sexual Healing Journey, A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, Harper Collins, 2012.
Schwartz, Richard, You are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Center for Self-Leadership, 2008.
Shapiro, Francine, Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy, Rodale Books, 2013.
Van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score, Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Books, 2014
Trauma Resources : http://www.traumacenter.org/
Somatic Experiencing: https://traumahealing.org/
Psychomotor Therapy: https://pbsp.com/