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