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 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.
Dr. Kristie Williams is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist working from Alabama. She offers in person therapy as well as tele-counseling.
Would you tell us about A Space for Voice?
A Space for Voice – Healing the Wounds of Domestic Violence, is a series for women who are either survivors of domestic violence or were child witnesses. The purpose of this 6-week series is to provide a safe space and opportunity for individuals to identify any existing behavioral or relational patterns they feel continue to impact their way of being. Utilizing a community model of support to aid individuals in their healing process, specific steps include lessons on the following: 1) Understanding the Dynamics of Domestic Violence; 2) Uprooting the Lies of Domestic Violence; 3) Dismantling the False Foundation of Domestic Violence; 4) Silent No More; 5) Blaming vs. Reclaiming; and; 6) Arise and Grieve No More.
You’ve said that silence doesn’t dissolve anything. Talk to us about what silence allows.
In instances of domestic violence and abuse, silence can deaden or harden the heart of the survivor. The survivor may no longer trust themselves or allow themselves a space for relationship. They may become hyper-vigilant, fearing the possibility of ever having or maintaining safe connections. Similar to what takes place when an infected wound is not allowed to heal properly, silence can deaden what was once full of life, or kill the hope of future possibility. Sharing one’s voice within a safe community can restore hope and life as well as provide a model for healthy relationships.
Talk to us about cultural competency.
Cultural competency is an intentional process of educating oneself regarding knowledge of various cultures. However, to go beyond just developing knowledge means to seek understanding, which is an ongoing relational process. Therefore, being intentional about actively increasing cultural competence means being willing to recognize that a person’s culture is also influenced by various components of who they are (e.g., gender, religion, education, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other personal characteristics). So cultural competence includes engaging own’s own self-awareness and being open to:
- Multiple perspectives
- Relationship building
- Cultural understanding
- Intercultural communication
The power and control wheel is often used to talk about issues of domestic violence. You’ve mentioned also applying this wheel to issues of race and diversity. Can you expand on this?
If you examine the power and control wheel and think about it in terms of inequity and intolerance regarding issues of diversity and inclusion, you can see how the same spokes on the wheel are used for bullying purposes to shut out individuals based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, education, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disabilities or other personal characteristics.
You also do a lot of work around grief and loss. Tell us about this work and the possibility, you believe can be found, even in the midst of grief.
Isolation from others is often a response to our grief and loss. Yet finding a safe space to discuss and grieve loss is a vital part of the process. One’s safe space can be found in the community of a group or with an individual. Either way, healing takes place in the disclosure of story. Story sharing allows the face and voice of another to join in the recognition of loss and honoring that space. Also, the only way out is through. To completely get to the other side of the process individuals must allow themselves to feel, experience and go through all their emotions to heal.
Tell us about your DV work with college students and young people.
As a trained facilitator of the Onelove Foundation, an organization that educates students on dating and domestic violence, I have offered a series of talks to faculty, staff and students on Dating Violence Awareness as a part of a Postdoctoral Fellowship with Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. The educational sessions offered included a brief film and guided discussion about issues and warning signs of dating and domestic violence. The film was made available for faculty and staff to view in preparation for students who also viewed the same film at a later date. The programs’ intent was to assist faculty and staff in identifying early warning signs of abuse and provide campuses resources in the event the movie triggers students to share their reactions in the following weeks.
You will be speaking at a conference soon on dating and DV warning signs. Can you share with us some of the most common warning signs?
The Power and Control Model describes 10 ways a person attempts to maintain power and control of another. These abusive behaviors include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying, blaming, using children, economic abuse, use of male privilege, coercion, threats, or intimidation. Some specific examples may include, but are not limited to the following:
- Physical restraint or abuse by hitting, kicking or choking the person.
- Abusing, injuring, or threatening to injure children, family members, pets, or property.
- Rape or using sex in an exploitative fashion.
- Name calling, criticism, bullying or insults.
- Isolating the victim from friends and family members.
- Screening phone calls or checking emails, changing social media passwords.
- Stalking in person or on social media.
- Threats of suicide by the perpetrator.
Talk to us about bystander intervention when it comes to DV.
Research has shown that the more people who are there to witness a situation where someone needs help, the less likely it is that someone will actually intervene. As a result, a person’s feeling of responsibility is not as strong when that responsibility is shared by others. As a result, when one person intervenes it is more likely that others will step in and assist. Bystander intervention training includes 3 Ds of intervention:
- Direct – You intervene directly; take action yourself
- Distract – You take action to divert attention from the situation
- Delegate – You enlist or appoint someone else to help in intervening
You’ve said you like to challenge people not to live under a rock. Can we hear more about this?
Often times when individuals are hurting or struggling with an issue, they isolate and fall back into an old pattern of thinking that tells us that we need to ‘pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’. Yet the opposite is true, we heal in community. When we are hurting, helping care for another ensures we do not isolate or go to those dark places of depression. Therefore, I often challenge my clients to step out from under the rock.
Dr. Williams is working to create an online version of “A Space for Voice,” where people can connect and process together regardless of location. We look forward to sharing this with you when it launches.
Dr. Williams also offers tele counseling; you can connect with her here