Unwanted Sexual Behaviors

Unwanted Sexual Behaviors

People often think unwanted sexual behaviors happen with strangers. But the reality is there are many marriages and committed relationships where unwanted sexual behaviors occur despite the insistence by the other party for them to stop.

Unwanted sexual behaviors can include the following (but not limited to):

  • Criticism of partner’s sexuality
  • Unwanted touching
  • Demanding frequent sex
  • Name-calling (i.e., whore, frigid)
  • Sexual humiliation
  • Promiscuity
  • Forced viewing of pornographic materials
  • Forced sex with others or with an audience
  • Sex after or together with violence
  • Sex with weapons
  • Unwanted sex with sex toys
  • Rape

What’s challenging for the victims in these relationships is they may feel powerless to do anything because of their relationship status. In other words, women may think because they’re married or in a committed relationship, being sexually subservient is permissible. It’s unfortunate how many partners buy into this lie.

How does this happen? Part of it is due to their partner’s over-reliance on sex as a means of love. They may have misinterpreted sexual intimacy as the strongest means to emotional closeness thus are wedded to the notion that sex is an absolute in healthy, functioning relationships. It may start off as a joke or indirect jab at “not feeling loved” and escalate to more forceful groping or requests for sexual behaviors the other party is not comfortable with. But because the victim doesn’t feel comfortable verbalizing their experience and enforcing the boundaries, the abuser thinks their behaviors are acceptable or at the very least tolerable.

It may take years, but once the realization occurs that the victim has been sexually violated, they begin the journey of recovery and empowerment. Some relationships will reconcile when the abusers acknowledge the violations that have occurred but others will end due to the abuser’s denial, minimization, and blaming of the impacted partner.

In the end, unwanted sexual behaviors are sometimes difficult to acknowledge (on either side) but they are essentially a form of power and control that falls under the definition of domestic abuse, as they’re a violation of a person’s sexual boundaries.

 

Sam Louie is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in multicultural issues, sexual compulsivity, trauma, addictions, and domestic violence.

Ryan Chambers on therapy as a place to be seen

Ryan Chambers on therapy as a place to be seen

Ryan Chambers is a NWFL affiliate therapist. His clients often include people struggling with stress, depression, traumatic experiences and anxiety. He speaks to us here about therapy as a place to be seen in order to find options for change.

You’ve said that how we make sense of the world influences how we experience it; that our stories inform our patterns. Can you tell us more?

 

Oh, this is such a great topic. I developed my clinical mind at a graduate school that bridges psychology and theology. I made that choice because I think how we make meaning is hugely important to the patterns we develop and the limitations we face. As a therapist, I’m not in the business of shaping people’s beliefs but I think it’s hugely important to connect with threads of meaning woven through their lives. For example, the process of being seen is important to me. It shaped my previous work. And if I look back across my life I can see how that need that I faced outward speaks about an internal need I was trying to work with.

How does your work as a photographer dovetail with therapy?

 

Great question… I spent about a decade really focused on visual language and the power of bearing witness. The medium of photography relies on this process of taking the time to see: people, space, light, etc. And as I spent more time working with portraiture, the process of bearing witness started taking on an almost spiritual dimension. I think the process of being seen is, itself, healing. I realized therapy could be a way of moving more directly into that space. At the core of our work is a hope that if we sit with our clients, they’ll teach us who they’re becoming. It’s a process of unfolding.

 

You’ve said that you can’t really intervene or change something before someone feels seen. Can you talk about this, in the context of therapy and with children?

 

Ha! This is a great lesson my toddler’s been working with me on! The work of connecting with people is really one of being with them where they are even if it doesn’t make logical or emotional sense. And my son’s been driving home the point in a multitude of creative ways, mostly dealing with food or how I put his clothes on. He’s teaching me to find language for his experience first, wait for the connection, and then look for options. Dan Siegel talks about it with the shorthand of “connect and redirect.” This has been the same process my clients have been teaching me too, I need to see them first. When they feel felt options for change open up.

Talk to us about health as an integration between the mind and body of an individual and of other people.

 

With integration, I’m thinking within the context of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). IPNB offers me a really grounding framework of the mind being a relationship between body, brain and others. And it looks at health as a flexible exchange of energy and information between the parts. The really amazing thing is that who we connect with and how we connect with others is actually part of our mind, not just our mind connecting to another mind. It’s an actual neurological patterning. With this framework depression isn’t just a psychological problem and trauma isn’t necessarily an individual problem. So my work is about looking for areas where the flow of energy or information gets rigid or chaotic, understanding how that process is meeting an important need for the people I work with, and then looking for ways to honor that need better.

You mentioned that the WA state dept of health came out with a study on the mental health impact of Covid and that the risk right now is depression from loneliness and disconnection.

 

Yeah. The Washington Department of Health came out with predictions of the impact of COVID on the general population. And while trauma was my first thought they actually think depression is the most likely result. The level of psychic and bodily isolation that we’re experiencing is pretty amazing. We’re pack animals and connecting to others involves all of our senses along with our big fancy brains. Technology allows me to reach across space to connect with my family and clients. But the creature of me doesn’t feel the same sense of belonging. So it can be helpful to think about what that creature needs: maybe participating in an old hobby, eat food that smells like home, maybe looking at family pictures or listening to music from a time when life was full of expectation.

One of the “stabilization tools” I use in EMDR is peaceful place or safe space imagery. And we go through the senses in the environment the person is creating. While working with a client in my general practice we realized we could use the same technique with remembering people… creating space to go through what it feels like to be with them and connecting to each of the senses. It allowed my client to enhance their feeling of connection with others through drawing on the latent memories of connecting. I imagine there’s some potential there for developing a more secure attachment as well.

You incorporate EMDR into your work. Would you explain briefly what this is, in lay terms if possible please?

 

Yeah, I remember first hearing EMDR and thinking there’s no way I can guess what that means. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Helpful right :D?!? Basically, we learned that when there’s quick eye movement back and forth it seems to initiate a process that’s akin to REM sleep. And that process has the effect of reducing the intensity of feelings, desensitizing. So it’s used a lot with PTSD and severe anxiety. But it can also be used with addiction and problematic arousal. The goal is to reduce the severity of emotions when a certain part of us gets activated and then link that part of us with a better-resourced part of ourselves, reprocessing. My favorite description I’ve heard is that like a zipper we want to zip this more scared part of ourselves with a more capable, integrate part of ourselves. So when the scared part gets activated again we can access these other faculties. It’s kind of magical. But certainly doesn’t replace therapy because often there’s little internal structure in the areas of our lives that were filled with intense fear.

 

How can parenting be a chance to re-parent oneself?

 

Oh man. So when we interact with the brain of another, especially in distress, our brain fires as if it were in the same situation. And then, if we can’t reshape our experience, we recreate it. So through each of my kids’ ages, I’m coming into contact with these young parts of myself. And my default is to recreate the experience I had for my kids. My work as a parent is to slow down this process and make choices at those critical junctions so that I can both shape my child’s experience differently and, because memories change when we recall them, I also change my own.

It sounds pretty tidy when I type it out but it’s actually a pretty painful experience. I lost my dad when I was pretty young so there’s this kind of voidy abyss that I’ve been working with. And parenting my kids is bring me ever closer to the edges of those experiences. Moving towards change and healing can sure involve a lot of pain.

 

Talk to us about stress response systems overdeveloping, as in the case of trauma.

 

There’s a lot of different ways we can speak about trauma. I’ve liked hearing it talked about as an overdevelopment of the stress response system. Some life circumstances required us to be stronger than we should be and these muscles overdeveloped. The effects can be debilitating but it’s actually our body’s best effort to keep us safe. And my goal working with my clients is to help develop the other internal muscles to match the strengths they already have: the ability to acutely monitor their internal state, the ability to shift their mood, the ability to grieve, the ability to reliably connect with others…

How do we calm our distress systems when they are activated?

 

What an important question. Polyvagal Theory has been really helpful in shaping how I work with the symptoms of distress system activation and how I conceptualize healing since it really focuses on the body response. In really general terms, our system is telling us it feels unsafe. First, we honor that and look for immediate danger. Assuming there isn’t immediate danger, we want to communicate to our body that it’s safe. The urge is normally to solve problems with our minds. But the issue is that the alarm is too sensitive or going off too intensely. Trying to use thoughts to solve the problem can often enhance the distress. Instead, we want to focus on turning off the signal. There are different routes for that and everyone will have their preferences: getting a hug, exerting physical energy, taking a bath, crying. But ideally the actions we take communicate to the creature of us that we’re safe. There’s a lot more to it but hopefully this offers a frame.

Would you speak to some of the ways that people get prepped for domestic violence?

 

For many of my clients, we often discover that DV relationships echo or link up with other relationships. And we often discover there were ways they were prepped for the DV relationship. I haven’t discovered a tidy way to say exactly how. For some, it seems to be feeling overly responsible for others or finding an external voice to echo an internal negative self-perception, for others it’s the sense that they aren’t allowed to have a mind that’s different from those they love. So working through a DV relationship often involves grieving deeper wounds. Therapy is a place to bring curiosity and care to these parts of our story. And the rewards of the work are greater resiliency, connection with others and belief in yourself. It’s a hugely hopefully process and one I’m often in awe of.

Davia Monet on Processing Feelings

Davia Monet on Processing Feelings

Davia was a NWFL Affiliate who specialized in working with children and adolescents from a psychoanalytic perspective and was based in Bellingham. Davia tended to use a Jungian approach often utilizing art and image-based methods including dream work with her clients, young and old. We chatted with her here about different ways to process feelings.

How do you work with kids when they don’t have language for what they are feeling?

I find in the case of working with kids who have limited language for what they are feeling, taking things to an imaginal realm helps. If you ask a kid to tell or draw you a story, their feelings will be in there, with more space for complexity (the feeling has a specific face, perhaps character, in a specific context that wouldn’t be able to surface if we stuck to the literal). If I do have to ask about things directly, I’ll have more body-based inquiries. “How did your tummy feel when mom said….” etc.

Talk to us about the importance of letting kids feel the breadth of their emotions.

When kids (and adults!) can experience the full breadth of emotions, they are less likely to narrow in on one emotion or thought in repetition. An example would be lumping entire experiences into only sadness or anger, or distraction from feelings that can’t be related to at all which can look like hyperactivity, forgetfulness, compulsion and fear. If one can learn to value that full range of feeling, the default assessments won’t rule the roost!

Talk to us about this idea of trauma ‘hiding’ when the brain isn’t able to compute what is happening.

I think of trauma as another word for an experience we don’t have capacity to fully feel. Often trauma is worked with by a person in ways that aren’t exactly recognized as thoughts or feelings. It falls outside of a thinkable or recognizable realm by definition, but it isn’t lost. It goes somewhere.

Does trauma always look like one huge event? Could you give us an example of a ‘smaller’ trauma?

In this way, smaller traumas happen all the time. Any time your mind has to attempt to put something off in order to continue because it doesn’t know how to experience it, that’s trauma.
So, everyone experiences trauma. Trauma is built into human development. Our mind grows to a point where it doesn’t recognize itself and gets organized using the tools available – largely other people’s example.

Talk about validating emotions like anger, especially in the context of domestic violence.

We learn what certain emotions feel like by seeing them on another’s face, and learn what to do about them through others’ actions too. So, if someone has only seen violent anger, connecting with their genuine feeling and affect could be difficult, but necessary work. It would be really important for such a person to find a safe place to experience strong emotion and get familiar with how it feels to them particularly.

In my work with children especially, though certainly with adults as well, I will meet folks who deny experiencing anger if they’ve seen it predominately violently, or will recognize it as something else (sadness, depression, anxiety). Another might only feel/express anger paired with violence towards themself or others. Or perhaps the anger will be severed and pop up in some psychosomatic way. Because anger is an important part of the emotional spectrum, it’s important to learn to experience it with all of its colors, not only the stunted expression.

Can you talk about your work around images, dreams and sensory experiences?

I work with folk’s dreams and images and sensory experiences because those images and sensory feelings seem to hold units of psychic content, made by the particular mind. It’s like I could talk about anger with a client all day, where they’ve seen it before in their family and all that. But if we’re not getting to the particular mind’s images and specific containers of anger, it’s still gonna be pretty superficial work. In this way, my clinical mind is pretty Jungian. I use other methods and borrow modalities but I can’t un-see the archetypal stuff.

Tell us about how you as a counselor experience someone’s “felt” presence.

A “felt sense” of folks is important here too. How they sit, how they present, what it feels like to be with them gives me a referential point to start that work. The images and feelings that get transferred to me can have enormous psychic content for my client, and we are learning together what it means to tend to them.

Do you have a theory of change?

Change looks like learning to be a companion to oneself. That contains all the buzzword-concepts like containment, self-soothing, self care, mindfulness and all that but I see those things as for the sake of the psychic content having a place to live and be welcomed in order to work itself out. Like, complexes can’t be eradicated…but they can be given some space to breathe, and to open/loosen some of those associations, so a person has some creativity, they aren’t at the mercy of the associated compulsions any longer.

Are there any resources you would like to share with our audience?

Audre Lorde – she’s rooted in identifying cultural containers of psychic content (particularly in regard to racism and sexism) and teasing out those complex-hubs. I’m so grateful for her work. Check out “Sister Outsider.”

I also return to Bell Hooks a lot. I like memoir as a genre because it’s like I’m watching someone working poetically with their experience, using that inner companion. It’s helpful to me clinically. Check out “Teaching to Transgress.”

 

 

 

 

Yvette Stone on Narcissistic Abuse

Yvette Stone on Narcissistic Abuse

Yvette is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in trauma and abuse. Her clients often include women who are recovering from psychological, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse.

 

One of the areas you specialize in is recovery from narcissistic abuse. Can you tell us what that means?

 

Narcissistic abuse is a particular form of psychological abuse committed by someone who has high narcissistic traits. Those who have suffered narcissistic abuse often struggle to feel they own their own mind from the cycles of manipulation, gas-lighting, and interpersonal exploitation that have conditioned them to focus on the needs of their abuser instead of their own. This often makes survivors feel crazy, when in reality, they are far from it. My work with survivors is to provide them a safe space to begin to feel and untangle all that has been manipulated in their relationship with a narcissistic person so they can begin to trust their gut, which has often been denied in the cycle of abuse.

 

How might one’s intuition become injured?

 

This is where gas-lighting comes into play. Gas-lighting is when an abuser intentionally makes you distrust your perception of reality and question your sanity. And there are many subtle ways this happens. Over time, as this continues, victims lose a sense of grounding and dismiss what their gut is telling them. In this, their intuition becomes stifled, or injured. It doesn’t register danger, threat, or violence the same way as those who have not experienced abuse. What is important to point out, is that while our intuition can be injured, it can also be healed. Learning to listen to our gut, trust what it is telling us, and then act on it, are ways we feed and strengthen our intuition.

 

Talk to us about those ruminating thoughts that survivors of abuse often suffer from.

 

There is much to say about the dynamic of rumination. On one level, rumination is a distraction from the terror and grief of facing the reality that the person who is supposed to cherish and love us the most is not. Worse yet, they are actually harming us. When a survivor ruminates, they are trying to make meaning, and usually land in a place of self-blame or self-annihilation. This is a conditioned response to abuse and what keeps a victim stuck in the cycle of abuse. What needs to be said, is that at some point in life (likely childhood), it served as a means of survival. To blame ourselves and work harder is often easier than facing the wrath and terror of calling the abuser out. And in childhood, calling out abuse is often not an option. In my experience, what is usually under rumination is a sense of fear, panic, or dread. And it can be so hard-wired in us that rumination is often well underway before we are even aware it is occurring. But this too, can heal over time. Once we feel safe, we can learn to observe rumination in ourselves, be curious about what it serves, extend compassion, and then begin to imagine new ways to direct that energy.

 

Can you speak to the chemical addiction in the brain that happens with abuse?

 

When abuse occurs, there is a heightened sense of arousal, meaning our bodies are very alert. This requires certain neurochemicals to dump in our body. These chemicals are a cocktail of stress chemicals, as well as bonding chemicals, and the rise and fall of these chemicals leave us in a state that needs soothing. They are very powerful and cause intense cravings to reconnect with the abuser. This is why it is often hard for victims to leave. Getting out of an abusive relationship is like giving up a drug. Initially, everything in the survivor’s body and brain will feel compelled to go back to the abuser. That’s why it is important for survivors to understand how their biology is affecting their cycle of abuse. The antidote for this addiction is sustained healthy connection, which is why safe friends, support groups, and therapy are important for survivors to heal. To understand more about the neurochemical process, read this article.

 

Do you find that women in abusive situations are usually very competent?

 

Absolutely. Especially when it comes to narcissistic abuse. By definition, a narcissistic lacks a sense of self, so they prey on competent partners to help fill the void they cannot acknowledge in themselves. Women in abusive relationships are often insightful, empathetic, attuned, intelligent, self-reflective, and hard-working. In the beginning of abusive relationships, abusers will praise their victims for these strengths, but over time, they begin to envy and resent them, and that is when the psychological abuse begins.

 

Tell us about your theory of change.

 

Gregory Bateson said, “Things are what they are because of the way they relate to other things.” This is true not only for nature, but for humans. We are what we are because of the people, places, cultures, and ideologies we have related to. To me, this speaks of Trinitarian theology and a model for relationship. We are meant to be connected, yet individuated, and the field of neuroscience has confirmed this: we are open loop systems designed for attachment. To change, we need a safe and healthy relationship where we can explore all that has contributed to shape us as people. As a trauma and abuse therapist who uses interpersonal and narrative therapy, I believe the stories of our lives are held in the body. If you think about it, the only “thing” that has been with us in every moment of our life is our body. In order to change, we have to listen and engage how stories are held in it. When we do this with safe others, we are given opportunities for reparative experiences that heal and move us along in our healing journeys.

 

Can you talk about how survivors often learn to live in their brain because it’s not safe in their body?

 

When our primary attachment figure who is supposed to love us, harms us instead, it feels too scary to live in the body. This is a coping mechanism. Like rumination, it protects us from feeling the terror of abuse and neglect. Often, it was learned first in childhood. In therapy one of the main goals is to create safety so we can begin to be curious and feel what our bodies hold. This is also how we begin to repair and nourish our intuition.

 

What does internalized trauma look like?

 

To me, internalized trauma is more of a sound than a look. Meaning, there are scripts we say over and over again to ourselves that are accusatory, dismissive, harsh, unloving, dogmatic, etc. They are the sentences that are usually behind the sentences we first hear ourselves say internally. When we listen closely, we realize these scripts serve the narratives of those who benefitted from our abuse. And, in my opinion, that’s the worst part of trauma: we learn to become complicit in abuse against ourselves. It’s what evil wants. As a therapist, that’s what I get to disrupt, and I can’t think of a higher calling.

 

Talk to us about what you call survival mode vs. creation mode when it comes to abuse survivors.

 

It may sound obvious, but survivors know how to survive. It’s what they do. When in an abusive relationship, survivors are living in survival mode. When confronted with choice, it is an easy decision: go with whatever helps you survive and mitigate further harm. But when a survivor has moved out of an abusive relationship and threat is no longer present, choice is no longer based on survival, but on creation. There is freedom to choose and create. And to many survivors, that can be terrifying. It can be hard to trust it is possible to move forward freely, and without abusive relational consequences. Plus, it can expose ways we never got to develop certain abilities or capacities. And that can bring up grief. Survivors need a lot of support and celebration in this phase. It is a time of individuating and deepening in our sense of self. It also feeds and strengthens our intuition. It can be both exhilarating and scary at first, and that is completely normal.

 

Would you give us that quote you love by Dorothy Allison?

 

“Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself – the walls of fear, shame, and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my own mind.”

Yvette recommends Healing From Hidden Abuse, by Shannon Thomas, LCSW as a straightforward and easy read for those dealing with psychological abuse.

Yvette has offices in Seattle and Kirkland. To get in touch with her, please visit www.WhisperingTreeTheapy.com, or call (239) 410-7084.

 

Lesley Joy Ritchie on Parenting and Attachment

Lesley Joy Ritchie on Parenting and Attachment

Lesley Joy Ritchie is an affiliate therapist of Northwest Family Life and works as an attachment informed trauma therapist. Lesley centers her work on the understanding that what is broken in relationship is healed in relationship. Her specialties include working with families who are either in the process of fostering/adopting or who have adopted a child with developmental trauma, as well as trauma-informed individual counseling (children and adults), general family therapy and working with clients healing from domestic violence. We spoke with her about parenting and attachment.

Tell us about the PATCh program.

PATCh stands for Parenting Adopted and Traumatized Children. This program is designed to help build a foundation of attachment and attunement for foster/adoptive families as they navigate the very difficult and chaotic process of rebuilding after significant trauma. Our program provides parents with the necessary framework for understanding the impact of trauma on the developing brain as well as how to parent a child with significant trauma. We walk parents through Trauma 101, parenting strategies for kids who are easily triggered into fight, flight, freeze reactions, self-attunement skills for parents and self-regulation skills for parents, and attunement building between parent and child through play and a variety of connective experiences.

You’ve said that trauma creates a superhighway in the brain. Talk about changing the trauma cycle to one of attachment.

This is where we get to see the magic of connection and when we get to watch the tragic brokenness of past relationships become restored by safe and secure present relationships. Whether a child or adult, the reactive impulse is a cry for help. The healing begins to occur when we can replace the maladaptive self-soothing or reactive parenting response with an attuned and connective response of affirming feelings and meeting needs. The more we respond to self or others with this attunement and care, the easier it will become. This is because the superhighway of fear and rage becomes increasingly calmer and less frantic as the hurt is being nurtured in a bond of trust vs. rejected or threatened in a bond of abuse and neglect.

What is Filial Play?

Filial play is the open and free place space for parent and child to build this connective, healing bond in a therapeutic setting. In a few words, the child gets to be in charge and to feel full agency in a safe play space where the parent does not direct or correct. The goal for the play is to see the world through the child’s eyes and to find ways to mirror delight and synchronicity. The parent does a lot of mirroring with body position, facial affect and verbally. It is a beautiful space for healing.

Talk to us about kids expressing their needs in prickly ways.

We all express our needs in prickly ways when we are in some degree of distress. If the distress has reached the level of severe abuse and neglect, the prickles will look like a child being the tiny dictator that is running the household (lots of need for control, because they have lost all control to unsafe adults in the past). Another prickle I see often is long and drawn out rages that send a child into a state of hyperarousal with a racing heart rate, difficulty breathing, etc. What is being expressed here is a need for an infantile kind of steady soothing and presence that is not shaming or corrective- often the child’s emotional age is much younger than their physical age.

Can you share about creating a high nurture, high structure environment?

I think this differs depending on who the parent is and who the child is. The language I use with parents for structure is setting limits and creating a daily rhythm. So much of this process of attachment is not easy to define. It seems evident that all humans seem to thrive with a healthy mixture of freedom, creativity, routine and rhythm. I encourage parents to get to know the child and to look closely at what times of the day the child is more emotionally resilient and which parts of the day they are more emotionally reactive. The child will need a lot more nurture in those stressful parts of the day and some of the schedule will need to become more flexible, but overall life needs to be predictable and consistent- especially the emotional response of the parent(s).

Talk to us about parenting methods that affect real behavioral change but that are damaging to the child/parent relationship, such as yelling.

Every parent knows that yelling at a child is not the ideal way of correcting misguided behavior. Every parent does it at one time or another and often parents tell me that it is hard not to yell because it is the only thing that “works”. When we as parents say this it is important to look at what we mean by the word “works”. What we usually mean here is that the child submits to us and follows our direction. What we want is real change in the child, not a fear-based appeasement of the parent. Yelling works in the short-term but makes more “work” for the parent in the long term as the nervous system just becomes more dysregulated and the trauma reactions become more ingrained.

How could the parent / child power differential overlap with themes of domestic violence?

When humans are distressed we seek to self-soothe. When children are constantly powerless in an abusive/neglectful dynamic with adults, they learn to either submit to the scary adult or fight for power and control in a variety of maladaptive ways. The deep seated belief becomes, “I’ll just disappear until the scary person goes away,” or “I will never let anyone push me around again. I am in control from now on,” etc. Thus, the trauma reaction is the same as in adults and we can find ourselves in an abusive relationship where we are the one in need of all power and control or we may be the one who disappears to make it stop.

Often the trauma that is locked inside a foster kid’s body can get transferred to the foster parent. Talk to us about the importance of foster parents caring for their own mind and body, and how they might do that.

You can call this vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. It is a real phenomenon and it often looks like depression in how it manifests in the body. We are interconnected as humans, and especially as family members living in the same home. If a child is screaming for over an hour, everyone in the house is on edge. If this happens regularly for weeks and months, then everyone is exhausted, irritated and often burnt out. This is most often the reason for disruption of foster placements. If a family can get the support and care they need early on when a terrified child is placed with them, then the home environment can be preserved for all members living together. If foster parents are healthy (self-attuned) and not reactive and if they know the child’s triggers, many of these huge stress reactions can be largely decreased in frequency and duration and in many cases, eventually eliminated completely.

Talk about how one’s relationship with self can be a healing thing.

What is broken in relationship is healed in relationship… this includes our relationship to ourselves. When we are abused by another person we often blame ourselves, especially as children. When shame and self-loathing take over, the cycle of abuse continues. The focus on soul care and self attunement is THE MOST IMPORTANT ACT for those who have endured severe trauma. Moving from self-hatred to self-acceptance and refusing to abandon and retraumatize the most fragile parts of our soul/spirit/body/mind is the only hope for healing.

What is a 30 second burst of attention and when might parents use it?

Imagine yourself in the kitchen at home, dinner is cooking and you are tired after a long day. Imagine your 7 year old running into the kitchen screaming that her brother keeps locking her out of his room and won’t play with her. She is getting increasingly upset and dysregulated, demanding that you get her into the bedroom. You have the choice to:

A. Tell your daughter that you are cooking and that she needs to find something else to do until dinner is ready and ignore her screaming and kicking you while cooking.

B. You turn down the stove burner, move toward your daughter and down to her level and listen to her story about how mean brother is, show her that her feelings are important to you and focus on meeting a need in the moment (ex. can I pour you a glass of juice and can you help me finish dinner and we will solve this later, I promise). Then end the burst of attention with a silly face competition or a short staring contest.

It takes intention to meet needs and the burst of attention is an intentional but quick way to de-escalate a child’s stress reaction and to help them regulate through connection and attunement.

What are some books you would recommend to parents? How about children’s storybooks?

I love to say that the best book for a parent to read is a book that they want to read. If you don’t like to read books then listen to music, get fresh air, watch a favorite comedian, listen to a podcast that connects to your passion etc. Books are great but there is so much more than books that will get the wind back in your sales. I do love to learn, so here are a few of my favorite books, youtube videos and podcasts that have helped me and those I know on the journey of healing:

Kids books (beneficial for both kids and adults, and everyone between): Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, I love you Through and Through by Caroline Jayne Church

Adult books: The Connected Child by Karen Purvis, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Changes that Heal by Henry Cloud, Conscious Living by Gay Hendricks, The Healing Path by Dan Allender

Favorite podcasts:
The Post Institute- Bryan Post’s Daily Dose on Facebook: or on Youtube:

Tapestry Podcasts

Flourishing Foster Parenting Podcasts

A podcast I was interviewed for on trauma-informed parenting- Trauma-Informed Parenting: A FFP Coaching Call with Lesley Joy Richie

Favorite educational videos with therapist Kati Morton

You can connect with Lesley here or check out the Northwest Trauma Counseling website for more info on the PATCh Program.

Barbara Tantrum on Foster Care and Adoption

Barbara Tantrum on Foster Care and Adoption

Barbara Trantrum is the NWFL Director of Foster Care and Adoption. She is one of the founders of Northwest Trauma Counseling and has been a NWFL affiliate therapist for the last  6 years. She works with both children and adults, often around issues of foster care, adoption and attachment.

 

You have 7 kids, tell us about the makeup of your family.

 

Our kids range in age from 9 to 23 and include 2 bio kids and 5 non-traditional kids. Of our non-traditional kids, we have one sibling group of three and two non-related kids. We have children from DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. We received one child through a private agreement with her family whom we are friends with. We foster international refugee children through a UN program. Most of our kids have been with us for either 10 or 12 years, but we have one newer one of less than a year. We are about to adopt our 18-year-old.

How can identifying emotions be difficult for kids with trauma?

 

Emotional identification is something that often has to be taught, even for typical kids, but for kids with trauma it is much more difficult. Kids with trauma are more easily triggered – making access to those emotions more difficult. For children with trauma, emotional expression can often feel unsafe – for many kids the only thing they can express is anger. Other emotions feel too vulnerable, so any strong emotion that they feel ends up coming out as anger.

 

How/why do you incorporate art and music into therapy?

 

Music and art access emotions and feelings in ways that talk alone cannot do. I try to use music and art in fun ways in therapy like playing musical chairs, drumming, playing emotions pictionary, and painting together. I have created books with clients with their art, and done countless art and craft projects.

 

Tell us about how attachment is formed through mirroring.

 

We try to help attachment form in many of the ways that attachment forms organically with an infant and child. The attachment cycle of an infant expressing a need and the need being met and that cycle happening a million times over is the basis for healthy attachment.

Mirroring is a normal part of attachment with a baby and a parent during the early stages of development – a mom sticks out her tongue and the baby follows suit. This is the activation of the mirror neurons in the baby’s brain and the beginning of empathy. For children that come from abuse and neglect where there has been an interruption in attachment, it can often really help to activate these mirror neurons. This works best for younger kids, but we encourage parents to do mirroring activities with kids of all ages – things like having kids and parents repeat a pattern on a drum that one person makes, singing songs together, playing games that involve mirroring, etc.

 

Tell us about working with kids and parents as a unit.

 

For kids with attachment challenges, they often get into a pattern of what we call “parent shopping,” which is when they aren’t sure of the security of their placement and are always scouting out the next place to go. A sympathetic therapist can make a very tempting target, and that can cause a lot of very tricky dynamics. I want the child to attach to the parent, not to me.

Also, kids often come into therapy thinking that they’re the problem, and the kids are never just the problem – any solution involves the whole family. So I work almost exclusively with kids and parents together. The model of dropping a child off to talk with a therapist for an hour with little contact with the parents just doesn’t work to solve attachment problems for those in foster care and adoption and reinforces that the kid is the problem.

 

You’ve said that when you parent a kid with trauma, it really brings up your own trauma. Can you expand on why and how to navigate this?

 

A soldier with childhood trauma is far more likely to get PTSD on the battlefield, and the same is true for a parent. If you have childhood trauma, when your child dysregulates and has a PTSD reaction that could very well set off your own PTSD reaction. Often I work with parents who mostly know what they need to do in parenting, but being able to keep control of their own reactions is tough. For parents with childhood trauma, I recommend that they be in therapy to help them. In my own life when I have sought therapy when my secondary trauma reactions were more than I could handle, and it was enormously helpful. In the interest of the whole family, I also talk a lot about self-care and emotional regulation for everyone in the family.

 

Talk to us about interracial and international adoption.

 

International adoption is on a decline currently, as overseas orphan care is shifting to building up foster care and adoption programs in the countries of origin. There still is international adoption happening, especially for special needs children, and for situations like refugees and such.

Interracial adoption is becoming the new norm. In 1996 the federal government legally mandated that race cannot be a factor in adoptive placements, and currently about 40% of adoptions are transracial. Although we often think of transracial adoption as being white parents adopting children of color, I work with parents and children of all combinations.

The most important thing with transracial foster care and adoption is respect and conversation – you never want to adopt from a people group that you don’t respect and enjoy. When you adopt from another ethnic group your family becomes multiethnic, and how your family functions needs to reflect that reality.

The other key is to talk about racial issues, don’t just pretend the child is the same race as the parents and go with that. Studies show that children raised in transracial adoptions do basically the same as same-race adoptions if the parents talk to them about racial issues.

 

Can you talk about the places where domestic violence and foster care intersect?

 

It is rare to have a child adopted from foster care at an older age that hasn’t experienced domestic violence. Domestic violence is one of the main reasons that kids are in foster care and need new families. Many of the dynamics of domestic violence continue in the dynamics of sibling relationships when parents adopt sibling groups, and we have to talk a lot about power dynamics and control issues. For a child, witnessing domestic violence is just as traumatic as experiencing it done to them.

 

WA State is experiencing a massive shortage of foster parents, with 1,000 less foster homes available now than 10 years ago, and more kids than ever in the system. What are some ways people might help?

 

Treehouse is a great place to donate or help, it’s a local organization that helps foster kids in King County. You can also become a CASA voulunteer, or help at the many churches that support foster care ministry. If you are considering foster care and are not quite ready to take the full plunge, you can do something called respite care, which is having foster kids short term to give their regular foster parents a break.

If you are ready to take the plunge, I recommend working with a private foster care agency rather than just with the state, and there are several great ones. Some organizations in the Seattle area that I recommend are Amara, Bethany Christian Services, Olive Crest, and Antioch. If you are interested in fostering refugee foster children, check out Lutheran Community Services. Before committing to an agency, make sure you talk to some people who have used that agency before and ask them about their experiences.

 

What are some recommendations or resources you have for people who are interested in become foster parents?

 

Talk to some current foster parents and look into what is involved. But don’t get too intimidated, you don’t have to be a superhero to be a foster parent – just be open to learning and growing.

Find a support group – either through your agency or through your church or community. The time to do this is when you are getting licensed – you will need support when kids hit your house.

The Refresh Conference is a fantastic conference put on every year by Overlake Christian Church, and it is a wealth of information. You can go even if you’re just checking it out! There are also a lot of different agencies there so it can be a great way to get a feel for different agencies all at once.

The movie Instant Family is also a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to become a foster parent.

Barbara has a book called: The Adoptive Parents’ Handbook: A Guide to
Healing Trauma and Thriving with Your Foster or Adopted Child,
coming out in September 2020.  You can connect with her via
email.

Bethany Hendrickson on the Intersection Between Survivors and Perpetrators of Violence

Bethany Hendrickson on the Intersection Between Survivors and Perpetrators of Violence

Bethany Hendrickson is a mental health therapist practicing in Seattle, WA. Among her clients are people who have survived abuse and trauma. She is a counseling affiliate of Northwest Family Life, and also leads State Certified groups for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Could you talk with us about the intersection between survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence?

The cycle of domestic violence continues until it is broken, and for many people it begins in childhood – witnessing violence between their parents, being targeted for abuse within the family, or even just experiencing an environment of control and disrespect. We learn how to treat others, and how to treat ourselves, first from our parents and families. We see our parents experience emotions and then we see them choose to act, either violently in anger, or respectfully in love. People who grow up seeing and experiencing violence are far more likely to either choose a partner who abuses them, or to abuse their own loved ones.

What are unbearable emotions?

In our domestic violence groups at NWFL we talk a lot about unbearable emotions. What we mean by “unbearable” is simply an emotion that you *hate* to feel. We all have a top few unbearable emotions; emotions that hit us right in the gut and cut through our defenses. It might be loneliness, helplessness, feeling unheard, dismissed, or disregarded – whatever negative emotion just sends you over the edge – that is one of your unbearable emotions.

How can a person deal with unbearable emotions without letting them escalate to explosion?

The key is to take a break from any situation in which you notice tension building (red face, raised voice, heart palpitating, ruminating thoughts, etc.) In our groups people learn to tune in to their body and emotional selves to notice early on when they are feeling upset. This gives them time to calmly take a break, and come back to the situation/conversation/interaction after they have had the chance to calm their mind and body.

What are some de-escalation tools?

Anything that helps calm you down! Non-aggressive physical activity like walking, biking, or yoga, music, art, reading, praying, talking to a friend (probably about something other than what you are upset about). It’s not time to go over and over the event and figure out how to convince the other person that you are right, it is a time to disconnect from anger and reconnect with your inner desires, and your most raw feelings and needs.

How can a person shift their unconscious responses and interrupt the cycle of abuse?

The most important factor is a desire to change. Anyone can learn how to take a break, calm down, speak more respectfully, but it’s hard work to shift abusive responses. It’s hard work to feel our true feelings (the feelings underneath all of that anger and rage). It’s takes courage to face ourselves, and bravery to be vulnerable and to admit wrongdoing. In order to change you have to be willing to release old patterns that you’ve been relying on, and make space for new patterns that will feel odd and uncomfortable at first.

How might someone use their body as a guiding and important signpost?

Our bodies are where our emotions live. When we feel anxious our heart pounds, when we feel sad we have a pit in our stomach. Our bodies experience tension and it shows up in our drumming fingers, bouncing knees, red face, throbbing veins, rising voice. Tension in your body is a sign to tune in to your emotions and take care of yourself by calming down.

What does a “Time Out Contract” look like?

Think through your own triggers/red flags, unbearable emotions that come up, and what you need in order to calm down when you experience these things. It should be a detailed plan that you share with trusted loved ones, so that you can all be on the same page and agree to give each other time to calm down when needed. Taking a “time out” isn’t an excuse to storm away and abandon your partner – it’s a premeditated, structured break.

Could you talk about developing a personalized crisis plan?

A crisis plan is a great document to have, both for people who are experiencing /or have experienced abuse, and for people who are attempting to become safe and change their abusive patterns. A crisis plan should have an “A” plan and a “B” plan (for when plan A doesn’t work out). Think through likely crisis situations that might come up: where are your exits? What will you need? Who will need to come with you? Who will you call? Where will you go? How much money will you need and will you have access to that money? Ask the question: what will keep me, and the people around me, safe in this situation?

You say that survivors struggle to ‘be’ in the world as they want to ‘be.’ How can people become more self-actualized?

The real answer to this question is that it’s a journey. When the world has been an unsafe place it can be difficult to establish safe habits, safe relationships, and the expectation that you will be treated with respect. Survivors can often benefit from similar de-escalation skills as perpetrators – the difference being that the goal for the survivor is to exit the unsafe situation, whereas the goal for a perpetrator is to take responsibility for one’s own actions and create safe space for others. Anyone can get caught in a fight/flight/freeze amygdala response. Creating a self-care/time-out plan to notice early on that your needs aren’t being met can help point the way toward healing and helpful interventions.

How do victims of abuse get stuck in absorbing blame, and how might they shift that?

Like I said, the goal for perpetrators is to take full responsibility for their own emotions and actions. One thing that perpetrators do really well is blame others. People who have experienced abuse are often very familiar with what it feels like to be blamed, and sometimes they even believe that they are to blame for the other person’s actions. Healing for survivors is often a process of sorting through events and taking responsibility only for their own actions, their own emotions – and refusing to take responsibility for what the other person did or said. If each person is in charge of the sidewalk on their side of the street, we need to only be sweeping our own sidewalk. We cannot sweep the other person’s sidewalk – that is their job.

Who has a say as to what can change in a person’s life?

We are all only in control of ourselves! We can only change what we do. We have no control over what anyone else says or does or thinks.

How can people care for their own emotions?

Think holistically: body, mind, spirit. Our bodies need good sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Our minds need a balance of stimulation and rest. Our spirits need connection, community, and a sense of purpose. Once you can tune in to what your body is telling you about your own emotions, you can begin the process of thinking through what that means for you.

Bethany has a book in the works, with positive, accessible info specifically written for perpetrators of domestic violence. We look forward to sharing it with you when it’s released. You can connect with her here.

Tyler Ziebarth on Trauma and Our Innate Desire for Growth

Tyler Ziebarth on Trauma and Our Innate Desire for Growth

Tyler Ziebarth is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who often works around issues of trauma, addiction, anxiety, and toxic beliefs.

Talk to us about humanity’s innate drive to grow.

 

This is a deep belief that I hold about people: that we all have an innate drive towards growth and development. Our natural movement is towards wholeness and “largeness”, that is, occupying a larger sense of who we are and our worth as individuals. Carl Jung once said, “We all walk around in shoes far too small for us”. By that I think he meant that the roles we play and the scripts we have been given by family and society are not large enough to contain the beauty and potential each of possess at our core.

So many problems arise when that movement towards our largeness is stifled in some way. This can occur either from things that happen to us (trauma, abuse, etc), or things that should have happened but didn’t (empathy, validation and attunement from caregivers). But no matter what happened (or didn’t happen) to us in our lives, it does not negate or destroy that inherent summons to grow and expand.

In fact, sometimes the “stuckness” we feel in our lives is our soul’s way of alerting us to places where growth and largeness are being stifled. If we have ears to hear and a sense of curiosity toward our symptoms, they may actually have much to teach us about what we need in our lives to become more fully who we were intended to be.

 

How might someone’s relationship to food or sex reflect how they relate to the world?

 

Sex and food have much in common. Both have a lot to do with longing and desire, the hunger for connection with self and others, and an appreciation of the body and its capacity for sensual pleasures. Sex and food are both ways we bring our bodies pleasure, a sense of comfort, nurturance, and care. How we relate to sex and food reveals much about how we are in relationships with others as well.

If you think about it, food was also one of the first ways we learned to soothe intolerable internal sensations. We felt the pang of hunger as an infant, and our mothers responded by feeding us. It was also in these moments of feeding that we were simultaneously being relationally satiated, having the experience of our caregiver attuned to our hunger for both food and relationship. No wonder sex (longing for relationship) and food become emotionally charged issues later in our lives.

It makes sense that if we have not developed internal resources for coping with stress, or the unpredictability of life, that we return to these early forms of self-regulation, often with extreme and unhealthy consequences. So though food and sex can offer us ways to bring our bodies pleasure and a sense of comfort, they can also become areas that bring contempt, condemnation and pain when we do not have other means of soothing our hearts.

 

Why might one want to develop the ability to tolerate anxiety?

 

For better or worse, anxiety always goes hand and hand with growth. The ability to tolerate anxiety is a prerequisite to growth. The hard truth is that the extent that we avoid and escape feeling anxiety is the extent that we also sacrifice our growth and development. Anxiety is uncomfortable, especially for those who have experienced any sort of trauma in their lives. But, as is the case with most of our anxiety-avoidance strategies , they hinder us moving forward in our lives. As the old adage goes, “what we resist persists,” and I would add, grows bigger and scarier.

Healing requires tremendous courage to face the monsters of our past and grow in our capacity to tolerate these states of anxiety. We learn how to attend, befriend and regulate our anxiety, rather than letting it rule our lives by constantly avoiding it or becoming overwhelmed by it. This is where working with a therapist can be helpful in offering the support, attunement and containment, often required to step into these places.

 

Talk to us about dysregulation.

 

Dysregulation is a form of losing your emotional balance. This is what happens when we get over the top stressed and our nervous system goes into overdrive. At this point our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and we lose access to the thinking part of our brain. For some this emotional hijacking can feel like you are drowning in your emotions. Or, for some it feels like going into “shut down mode” and they experience an absence of feeling, or numbness.

Either response hinders our ability to think straight and respond to the situation with the necessary flexibility and wisdom required to navigate the complexities of life and relationships. When our nervous system is going haywire, we naturally turn to anything that will help calm us down and rebalance us. This is where potential problems arise. If we have not developed the internal resources necessary to bring our systems back to a state of goodness and calm, we will inevitably outsource this job to a number of external things and/or behaviors (food, sex, tv, over-work) with potential negative consequences.

 

How might extreme trauma require a witness to stand beside someone as they work through overwhelming states?

 

The overwhelming states that trauma survivors talk about are sometimes called “body memories”. It is well documented that traumatic memories are often held in the body and experienced by survivors as overwhelming physical sensations. When the memory remains unprocessed, the body acts as if the trauma is “happening now” rather than something that “happened then”.

In other words, even though the thinking part of our brain knows the trauma happened a long time ago in the past, when a reminder of the past triggers us in the present, our thinking brain shuts down and our bodies act as if the trauma is happening all over again. At this point the person’s body is completely hijacked by terrifying physical sensations similar to what they experienced in the past. It is as if that young part of them who experienced those terrifying experiences back then is still very much alive in the present. The body, and subsequently those younger parts of us, get tagged as the source of terrifying sensations and are avoided at all costs.

Part of the work for trauma survivors is to reconnect with those young traumatized parts of the self and offer the care, attunement and containment they originally needed back then. Those younger parts need someone older, stronger and wiser to see how bad things were back then, and offer the appropriate care and protection that was missing. I often tell my clients that those panicked, triggered parts of us need to know that “someone gets it”, in order for those parts to move forward and heal. The therapist may be the initial witness to the client’s story, but over time the client becomes empowered to become that witness for their younger selves.

 

Tell us a little bit about different parts of the self, especially the younger parts and how they grow.

 

The writer Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I am still every age that I have been”. I love that because I think it speaks to the reality that we are not a single “self”, but all are made up of many parts of self. I think we all intuitively feel this, and it is especially evident when you hear people say things like, “part of me wants to do this, but another part wants that…”. The Pixar movie “Inside Out” is another great example of this theory of multiple selves. How many of us can recall feeling younger than we are at certain times of frustration or disappointment, or when we visit our childhood homes during the holidays? The path of growth and maturity requires that we learn to attend to and work with these younger parts of ourselves when they get activated.

This is especially necessary for those who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. When a traumatic event happens (or repeatedly happens) to a child, the experience is “too much” to process, but the child has no choice but to try and carry on with their lives as best they can. This requires the ability to “forget” what happened. This is accomplished by storing the memories and sensations of the event in a different part of our brain so that we can carry on with the task of daily life. It is as if we offload those memories to one part of the self and then exile them to “the basement”, in order for us to move on. This is a brilliant strategy and we must be grateful that our brains come equipped with this feature because otherwise we would be paralyzed and unable to move forward after a traumatic event. This compartmentalization strategy, however, does have consequences. Those exiled and neglected parts still bear the burdens of the past, and may become easily triggered by present day events.

These confusing symptoms are often what bring trauma survivors into therapy in the first place, and it becomes helpful to start viewing the symptoms as communications from younger parts of us that are not doing well and therefore flooding us with their emotions. The task of therapy is to begin learning how to attend to these young parts of the self and offer them the care and nurturance they need in order to heal.

 

Could you talk a little about post traumatic growth?

 

This is a somewhat newer area of research that is coming about, and it is quite interesting. My understanding at least is that this is the idea that some people claim positive psychological changes due to facing adversity and challenges in their lives. It is the idea that while traumatic events and adversity are never desired or welcomed, these challenging experiences nonetheless hold the opportunity for people to experience new growth, inner strength/resiliency, and aspects of the self previously undiscovered.  Many people report a radical shift in perspective about their lives and the nature of life itself after working through their traumatic past. Rather than seeing themselves as victims in a tragic life story, they begin to see themselves as survivors capable of overcoming the worst that life has thrown at them.

I find this a helpful paradigm shift. In our day and age it is sometimes easy to forget that we humans are incredibly resilient creatures capable of overcoming tremendous hardship. This is especially important to remember for those trauma survivors who hold toxic beliefs about themselves as “weak”, “defective” or “ruined”. My only worry about this idea is that people will use it to cover over or dismiss the reality of their abuse, and may avoid the necessary journey into grief that must accompany trauma treatment.

 

Do you often encounter people holding toxic believes about themselves?

 

This is probably the most common issue that I encounter as a therapist, but especially for those clients who have experienced any sort of trauma. These toxic beliefs about our self as “disgusting”, “defective”, “unlovable”, etc. are the voice of shame. I would describe the experience of shame as like being in a trance. When you are in this trance, your mind, body and soul come under attack and become weighed down by accusations that you are inadequate, broken and beyond repair. It is a terribly painful state to inhabit, and equally difficult to shake yourself out of.

Shame also sets us up for self-contempt, which is like an internal civil war between parts of our self.  This war often goes unnoticed because of how subtle it can be. Freedom requires tuning into the ways we attack our more vulnerable parts, and instead work to offer those parts care rather than contempt.

 

Talk about choosing curiosity over contempt.

 

This may be somewhat of an overstatement, but sometimes I think this is a majority of what I help clients with: choosing curiosity over contempt. So many of us come into therapy looking to “get rid of”, “eliminate” or “control” problematic symptoms. This makes sense, of course. After all, who wants to continue living with depression, panic attacks, or compulsive behaviors of any kind?

However, I believe we have to first become curious about what our symptoms may be trying to tell us. Symptoms are like signposts pointing us to the wound, and subsequently, towards healing. If we listen to our symptoms rather than trying to frantically get rid of them, they will have much to tell us about what those parts of us need in order to heal. Often though, repeated unsuccessful attempts to manage or control un-welcomed symptoms leads to increasing hatred of those parts of us. This contempt further separates and internally divides us.

Rather, the way forward is to learn to increasingly bring curiosity and the intention to nurture those young, exiled parts in us that are crying out for help. This is the only way I’ve found that actually brings a sense of wholeness and healing.

You can connect with Tyler here

Ashley Zimmerman on Bodies & Trauma Informed Yoga

Ashley Zimmerman on Bodies & Trauma Informed Yoga

Ashley Zimmerman is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who offers counseling as well as trauma informed yoga classes.

 

Why are you an affiliate of NWFL?

I am an affiliate of NWFL because I respect the vision that Nancy Murphy has to create spaces of safety for survivors. When I was at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology I found that her class was so practical while simultaneously being an offering of hope to the hurting. I find that having a community of other professionals who are passionate about similar things allows for me to feel like I’m apart of something vaster than myself. Being a therapist and holding complex stories can sometimes feel isolating, that’s why it’s really valuable for me to have a community of healers that I can glean from too through supervision and consult.

 

Tell us about your love of bodies.

 

Bodies are complex, yet courageous healers; bearing the stories which are yet to be revealed. Bodies wear scars like badges of honor, marking resilience and mastery. I find bodies to be where the deepest most vibrant work can thrive if we are simply willing to reconnect with our body’s most ancient wisdom. The truth of what you’ve endured is woven in the fabric of your being. Connecting with every thread and color can take a lifetime of learning; it is never boring or dull.

 

Tell us about your observations of teens today being hungry to connect with their bodies.

 

I feel that “people” are hungry to connect with their bodies, but something I appreciate about teens is that they’re slightly more raw and real about their felt experience in the world. They might still have influences of societal pressures, but their neuroplasticity is so readily apparent and available. There is a visceral quality to their communication style. Developmentally and physically they are going through puberty, so naturally are in this unique state of change where all their drives are coming online. Something about my work with teens keeps me honest and attentive with my own inner teenager that needs to be seen and heard and tended to without judgment. We all have one; we need be more connected to those younger, more boisterous parts of ourselves.

 

When someone is trapped in a trauma response, how is it helpful to get connected with the body?

 

I believe if you can reconnect your awareness back to your hands and feet it can be a reminder of a sense of agency, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Some call the hands and feet “islands of safety.”

Deep, full breaths are also vital… When trapped in a trauma response you might notice tightness of chest, quick shallow breaths or even forgetting to breathe entirely. This is when it’s really important to access more mindfulness in the way you are utilizing breath. It’s essential for sustaining life and overall wellness.

Reorienting to space and time, being present. Hyper-vigilance is something that I see often when working with people who live in traumatized bodies. Scanning the room, darting eyes, it’s a fear response or survival instinct that’s meant to be preventative in nature but it ends up exhausting the nervous system and draining the adrenals. We’re human animals, we like to orient. So instead of telling someone to “stop that!” Rather, I invite them to re-orient looking at all the corners of the room, knowing where the exits or entrances are can be simple yet somewhat stabilizing. Even inviting people to walk around if they need to redistribute their energy or blood flow. No one is trapped in my therapy office and no one has to stay sitting down the entire session unless they want to. But sometimes when someone is locked in a hyper-vigilant response they might need a reminder that they have the agency to do what they need to feel safe in their body again. Often times after trauma the body feels a distrust and betrayal, “I couldn’t keep myself safe.”

TIPP is a DBT acronym that can easily be used when a person is trying to get grounded:

T: “Tip the temperature,” this will cue your mammalian driving reflex if you splash some cold water on your face or take a cold pack to rest near your eyes or cheeks to soothe or cool your body down. This reflex causes your body chemistry to shift, your heart rate decreases and it activates your parasympathetic nervous system to prompt your relaxation response. (water should stay above 50 degrees Fahrenheit) *I keep a cold pack in my office refrigerator if needed.

I: Intense exercise helps your body release negative energy that can sometimes get stored bodily when dealing with complex emotions or memories. You can redistribute this by: running, walking, hot yoga etc. Exercise naturally releases endorphins which can help manage anxiety or even reduce feelings of depression.

P: Paced breathing helps cue your parasympathetic nervous system to

remind your body that it’s safe. Boxed breathing is also a type of breath work that people like to try. I prefer slow expansive breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth taking a couple counts each inhale and exhale.

P: Paired muscle relaxation is a beautiful way to do a body scan, check

with yourself and being more attuned to introspection (what’s happening in your body). It helps you self-regulate. *Some yin yoga teachers offer this practice during their yoga classes and it’s a really valuable offering for survivors of trauma, or anyone really.

 

Tell us about your trauma informed yoga work.

 

Trauma informed simply means that “all bodies are welcome” and there is room for your process to look different from someone else’s. Consent is everything so the yoga facilitator offers postures as options to try on, remembering that you have the freedom to take or leave anything that doesn’t fit for you. Permission to make the practice something that works for where your body is, means if you need to linger in a shape longer because you’re feeling benefits or modify that posture so it is more comfortable for what you’re dealing with bodily (maybe injuries, different abilities, or trauma memories associated with curtain positions). The body holds a lot of memory and often times shame and distrust is correlated with reconnecting with the body, because one might remember more of what their body has endured.

Yoga in many ways is like a moving meditation, where you’re integrating the use of mind-body connection. There’s a sweet interplay and dance that happens as you reconnect and explore to your bodies edges through unique sensory-based forms of expression.

 

What are some of the different ways you see domestic violence present itself?

 

I’ve seen DV show up across the board, it does not discriminate against race, age, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. It’s when (emotional and physical) violence is an active component of the communication dynamic in close familial/relational bonds. It is when elements of power and control are used to disempower and manipulate another person’s sense of self or well-being. Arousal and degradation are often always fused. Safety becomes compromised and accessing one’s voice feels very frightening or risky. Over time this dynamic can move beyond traumatizing into a toxic abuse structure or cycle that becomes demoralizing. It’s difficult to get out of that loop or cycle of abuse because oftentimes when a sophisticated abuser had gained access to their victim, the victim takes on more ownership for the abuse than is healthy. In essence they bear the brunt of the brawl, in some twisted way buying into a lie that they “deserved this cruel and unpredictable mistreatment.

 

How can movement integration help work through PTSD or anxiety? Talk to us about preverbal states, or places where people stop having access to words.

 

Movement integration is valuable because it works with the body rather than against it. I like to think of my body as an ally and friend rather than fighting against its natural instincts or inclinations. That being said I’m aware that “the body has no narrative” so it has difficulty sometimes with reality testing, distinguishing between real and perceived threat(s). For example, if I were to see a cord that looked similar to a snake my “fear response” might kick-in and activate all the same hormones and chemical reactions in the body needed for the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to be engaged and ready to work to keep me safe. With PTSD it’s difficult to turn this off, because the body often lives in a hyper or hypo aroused state. What served you once might not always be serving you now. The ability to access language or cognitive functioning is almost impossible when you’re in lizard brain mentality and the hippocampus goes offline.

One simple thing I do if someone is in a dissociative or activated state is to pause because it’s not helpful to keep engaging story or narrative when someone is feeling trapped in one of the many “states of being” that trauma can activate. Instead, I work towards inviting them to engage their body differently. I have “thinking putty” if someone has busy hands and needs to mold something instead of moving towards self-harm or contempt. I sometimes invite them towards breath-work or even walking around mindfully being aware of their entire personhood from the feet all the way to the top of their head. It really depends on the moment or what the situation seems to be asking for. I’m simply there to hold space, be a witness and help co-regulate a person to get them back to the present moment at a pace that feels gentle yet still anchoring.

 

How people might ascribe to a core belief about themselves because of trauma?

 

It’s in those moments of suffering trauma that it’s easy to make inner vows subconsciously without even realizing it. That’s why the healing work of therapy is so important to engage well and consistently to better uncover these core beliefs that are in place. One example might be buying into the lie about one’s worth, value or capabilities. Maybe latching onto an idea like “I’m stupid.” I’ve worked with many people who know on a cognitive level that they’re capable and successful in x, y, z but on a core level might have a belief structure in place that’s primarily rooted in trauma narratives that may need to be addressed and more thoroughly engaged to find rest and comfort in a new realization. Until you start untangling some of these core belief systems that get embedded in the psyche, they often will creep in or play out in relationship because we manifest what we most deeply believe.

 

Talk to us about being an ally to one’s body, especially in places where one might feel shame or self-sooth in harmful ways. You work with many addictions that correlate to harm. Talk to us about empowering people to try something different.

 

I’m glad you asked, self-soothing in harmful ways might look like turning to an eating disorder, self-harm through cutting, patterns of addictions to codependent relationships or even substance abuse. All of these things function and serve a role but don’t always get at the core wound in a loving, nurturing way, many times it accentuates the problem instead of alleviating the issue (even if at times there is a felt sense of relief experienced, although short-lived).

You are your best advocate for knowing what you need, but you have to work with your body instead of against it. Meaning, numbing-out might seem preferential or appealing at times, when it actuality it disconnects you from what you really need or want in those vulnerable moments. Instead I invite you to pause, come into contact with a felt awareness what being curious with what is surfacing for you. Maybe feelings of sadness or grief might be bubbling up and are harder feelings to stay with. Find ways to love yourself with where you’re at instead of ignoring, shutting down or tuning out. Your body is your friend and ally, learn to trust it’s gentle nudges as a guide towards healing and soulful living. Make sure to do this work with someone who cares, finding a good fit with a therapist or healing community is essential. You don’t have to figure it out on your own, we’re wired for connection.

 

You can connect with Ashley here

Conner Cress on Naming Harm & Renaming our Stories

Conner Cress on Naming Harm & Renaming our Stories

Conner Cress is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist. 

 

You speak of being drawn to attachment based theory and work. Tell us about your theory of change.

 

I believe healing and change most powerfully occurs within the relational realm. Attachment therapists believe that what’s broken in relationship is healed in relationship, meaning, the wounds we acquire in our formative relationships can be healed through redemptive relational experiences. Sometimes we carry relational wounds from our past without even knowing and the therapeutic relationship can be a helpful and insightful vessel to explore the way these wounds and ways of relating are no longer helpful for the client. This looks like paying attention to the “here and now,” which essentially means noticing the relational dances that are co-created between a therapist and client in the present moment. These dynamics are often rich material to begin exploring how past wounding and trauma have informed the ways clients live and connect with others.

 

You’ve mentioned that sometimes people forget about the relationship they have with themselves. What do you mean by this?

 

It’s easy to think of “relationship” as the connection between “another person and I,” or maybe “God and I.” But we often forget our relationship to self. Often this is due to lies spoken over us in the past by caregivers and loved ones such as “we’re not enough, too much, too broken, etc.” These names and beliefs we internalize in abuse, trauma, and broken relationships can alter the way we see ourselves and what we believe to be true about who we are. Often, what brings us to a place of wanting to discover more of our own story and start the therapeutic journey is a yearning for change or a feeling of stuckness in our current way of being. To have a different kind of relationship with self, to be able to offer kindness and more empathy towards ourselves, calls us to courageously step into the stories and experiences that have harmed us and named us what we are not.  Healing and redemption only comes from re-naming what we’ve known to be true of ourselves. Only then can we begin reimagining a new story for ourselves.

 

Talk to us about ways people might forge new connections with themselves and thus others.

 

Therapy is a great place to start because talking about our present almost always leads us to a story of the past. Being able to name harm that has been done to us often seems like a paradox, but even from a neurophysiological level, it allows us to safely process it in healthier and new ways. Therapy can be a place to gain more freedom to discover yourself and live into who you are, strength to set boundaries, deeper enjoyment of intimate relationships, and greater courage to take risks and be creative.

 

When people see themselves or the world in a black and white fashion, it can put them in a bind. Talk about exploring the grey with your clients, working with both/and.

 

Binds are incredibly frustrating, and it is often easier to think in terms of black and white: “This is good, that is bad.” But in these binds, if we allow ourselves, we can discover a complexity that leads to greater empathy towards self and others. I often wonder with clients about the nuances of a story that holds pain—and while every person has their own unique story of trauma and abuse and their way of relating to these stories, I believe by appreciating the bind we can begin to open the window to working with the grief, anger, and sadness and move towards offering ourselves kindness, care, and compassion.

 

What are some of the reasons that people seek therapy?

 

Maybe you’re tired of “how things are” in your current life situation or relationships. There are definitely entry points into therapy that seem “obvious,” like dealing with a death of a loved one, or remembering and wanting to work through one’s past abuse and trauma. People may talk themselves out of seeking therapy because “they’re not as messed up as others,” or something similar. However, seeking therapy for any reason, like the desire for better intimate relationships with others, improved communication, and healthier ways of being are good enough reasons to pursue growth, healing, and freedom.

 

What kind of people do you see in your practice, and around what types of issues?

 

I am drawn to working with individuals around physical and emotional intimacy issues with both self and partners, unwanted sexual behaviors, and identity issues. As these can be such dynamic and interconnected struggles, there are other touch-points of anxiety, depression, shame, and family of origin issues that I work with. I am particularly passionate about working with young men around pornography addictions and struggles as well as the ways in which toxic masculinity has been used against them, deeply wounding them and telling them who they can and should be.

 

Why were you drawn to work with Northwest Family Life as a therapist?

 

I was really drawn to the message of hope, healing, and redemption that Northwest Family Life believes is possible, particularly around issues of domestic violence and addictions. NWFL’s ethos and mission really resonated with my passion and calling to walk alongside others in their own journey of healing and I’m thrilled to be a part of such a community.

 

Talk about what kind of needs people might try to meet through addictions.

 

We often look to something outside of ourselves to regulate our thoughts and emotions. On a neurological level, these attempts at regulation by going to substances or processes create connections in our brain that often release neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in great quantities. These feel great, but overtime and through repetition, end up creating a very real connection of “I need this or I’m not going to be okay.” In healthy attachments we are offered attunement and have our emotions and struggles mirrored in empathic ways that allow us to regulate and soothe ourselves. This can lead to re-wiring in the brain to no longer need substances or process addictions for this regulation. While there are many addiction programs and schools of thought that are very valid (and extremely helpful), I often start from the point of “You were trying to meet a need and you did it the only way you knew how… Now, what was that need?”

 

What kind of barriers might people have to getting therapy?

 

Typical barriers may be cost, scheduling, finding the right therapist—one that’s available at that—or just not knowing where to start. The biggest barriers, though, are believing that it’s not worth the effort and the ambivalence of starting the journey. People might really want change in their lives, but may also be thinking that they’ve “survived” this far so what’s the point? The point is about moving towards thriving and new, healthier ways of relating to self and others.

 

As well as being a gifted therapist, you are also a bit of an entrepreneur. You even started a nonprofit in high school that was focused on bringing people clean water toThird World Countries. Tell us about your new venture, Open Therapy.

 

Open Therapy (OT) is a web platform which combines the best of database technology, dynamic search filtering, professional networking, client-therapist discovery, and online listings for your practice.In essence, it’s a website that is directing clients to the best therapist for them. For therapists, it’s an efficient tool to better manage their practice and the clients they want to work with. It’s a therapist directory that pulls from all the therapists in our database and makes them visible to potential clients through our highly filtered algorithms of availability, issues, insurance, and referrals. For clients, most directories are a needle in a haystack and clients can often be discouraged in their process of finding the “right therapist.” With Open Therapy, all they need is a name of someone they’ve heard of or trust. Regardless of whether they’re available, they will find a therapist that will work best with their financial, emotional, and geographical needs.

 

You can connect with Conner here. Open Therapy is currently in the beta phase of development; we look forward to sharing it with you when it launches soon.