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.
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.
Bethany is a NWFL affiliate therapist who often works around areas of relational anxieties, grief work and coming of age exploration. Her clients include adults desiring to understand more of their internal fabric and encounter their narratives in a larger way. She speaks to us here about hope for change.
Do you have a theory of change?
Change is quiet and slow. We have been taught and shown how to survive in the world and how to receive what we need. When we notice we want to change something about ourselves, it may mean we are at odds or have dis-ease with part(s) of ourselves. Often this can lead to shame or guilt, and the idea of change can immediately relieve the shame experience. I believe that shame is very helpful in offering a place to notice where we both want more and where were not given enough. This starting place begins the process of small shifts as we begin to explore the stories where shame was experienced.
Talk to us about trauma somatic work.
The body holds and stores our experiences of trauma. Our bodies are deeply wise and intuitive, and cannot hide the truth of our traumas. For my clients, somatic work includes noticing, listening and creating space for our bodies to be heard and felt. It means paying attention to when the stomach hurts, when the headache shows up, where the body freezes or wants to run, etc. Specifically, it means noticing where trauma hijacked the client’s ability to process the event/experience and so the body absorbs the traumatic moment(s). By exploring both the somatic and narrative experiences of trauma, there can be integration and deep care for the mind/body/soul.
How might someone get to change a story they’ve been told about themselves?
The process of unpacking someone’s story requires witness. We can retell the same story over and over, but we need an advocate to pause the story and offer space to explore more. Through kindness and the allowance for grit, fight and grief, stories can be untangled and our truths can be known.
Can you speak to the beauty in exploration and coming of age moments?
Discovering parts of oneself on the brink of newness is stunning work. When we are on the edge of changes or shifts, many emotions and past experiences can flood to the surface making it difficult to trust our needs, wants and hopes for ourselves. By having space to create and wonder and grieve, one can experience their story and desired stories differently.
Talk to us about wanting truth for ourselves and our stories.
I believe in finding our truth. Many of us have childhoods and adulthoods where our experiences were not validated and accepted. Or, we had to abandon ourselves to receive what we needed. This leaves us unable to recognize reality and claim our truth. When we can grieve our relational disruptions and severing, we get closer to seeing our truth and honoring the impact we feel today. When we find our inner integrity, we get choice in our stories and we can begin to craft our ever shifting ground into something sturdy to stand on.
Talk about how once you become sensitive to issues of domestic violence you can see it in places where it isn’t overt.
DV and abuse can be very quiet and/or loud. The quietness of harm is a piece of the work I do with clients through exploring and offering a place to name the violence they encountered that had been normalized.
You’ve mentioned that after a season of intense secondary trauma, you looked to boredom/stillness as a form of healing and self care. Can you tell us more about this and how you practice self care now?
In my experience, trauma speeds things up. It creates chaos and at times a manic response to match the traumatic experience(s). After a long season of encountering both a trauma and secondary traumas, my body craved stillness and my mind needed boredom. To honor these needs, I created a lifestyle that reflected this. I worked a monotonous, predictable job, lived by a body of water, and tended towards much solo time. After about 8 months, it felt like my mind was ready to create and risk again, and my body was calibrating. Currently, my self-care comes through careful sensory input and intentional rhythms. Grounding and predictability are important to me, so currently I have a Palo Santo I burn each morning, coffee to grind and some Nils Fram to listen to. These shift across seasons, but my intentionality around my senses and rhythms are deeply important to me for healing and care.
In this time of pandemic, where are you finding comfort and hope?
Hope, for me, has always been an escape of the present pain and discomfort. A fantasy, if you will, that has protected the fullness of the present grief. This has changed its flavor. I am encountering hope in the daily experience of being human. I find hope in the wrestling of grief and anger, rather then what I need or want the future to offer. In our current climate, I feel hope in the growing spaces for voices to be heard and pain to be known. I am currently reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. This is a stunning text that offers poetic language around the making sense of pain and grief.
You can connect with Bethany here