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.
Lydia Peckover is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist working with children, teens, parents, individuals and couples. Her specialties include trauma and PTSD, behavioral issues, and life transitions. She often works with art / play therapy, EMDR and DBT skills.
Research shows encouraging results around art / play therapy, especially when compared with talk therapy. Can you talk about this?
Dr. Karyn Purvis states, “Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain -unless it is done with play therapy, in which case it takes between 10 and 20 repetitions!” To put this in perspective talk therapy requires about 400 instances of talking about the new habit before the brain creates a new connection to exhibit a new behavior with more ease. That is more than a year of weekly sessions! Play therapy would take about 10 to 20 sessions before the brain would create a connection to do the new behavior. Why? Because the brain is more active when we use a sand tray, play, art, music, movement, and/or creativity. This research encourages people to be more open to using play therapeutic techniques in therapy, such as a sand tray.
About half of your work is with children. Can you tell us what happens in sand play?
A sand tray is an Expressive Arts and Play therapeutic technique. The goal is to express your thoughts in the sand. The person (of any age) creates a story in the sand using miniature characters, objects, etc. This form of play therapy is a way to see our thoughts (or the story) as objects in the sand, and it helps to organize our thoughts to help us feel better. A sand tray helps all ages and can be used with dry sand (trauma sensitive) or wet sand, using warm water.
You also use expressive arts therapy with adults. How is using art to access different parts of the brain effective?
Expressive Arts is a way of communicating without necessarily using words. Brain scans have shown more activity in the brain when using creativity, art, music, and movement than when a person is using speech alone. I use somatic experiencing therapeutic techniques, expressive arts, and even “sessions while walking” in therapy because I have seen that when people use more areas of the brain in therapy it speeds up the healing process. Our brain naturally wants to help us heal, we might as well allow more areas of the brain to participate in therapy!
You do a lot of work using dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Can you tell us about the skills that DBT teaches?
The four types of DBT skills includeMindfulness (being present to experience what’s happening now as a way to take a break from worrying about the past and future), Distress Tolerance (Dr. Marsha Linehan describes it as “how to survive the crisis without making it worse” and skills to “accept”), Emotional Regulation (understanding emotions and using skills to maintain a balance), and Interpersonal Effectiveness (people skills). Many people I work with tell me they like to learn DBT Skills because each skill is described simply and it’s like having an instruction book on how to live a better life.
Who can benefit from utilizing DBT skills?
Everyone, young or more mature, can benefit from using DBT Skills. This is a behavior therapy that helps us change behaviors to “live a life worth living” and to “reduce pain and suffering.” (quotes by Dr. Marsha Linehan, founder of DBT.) I use DBT Skills with children, teens, adults, parents and mature adults. Parents find helpful skills to parent more gently and effectively. DBT is an evidenced based practice for suicidal ideation, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, and trauma/PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress). DBT is well researched and proven effective with addictive behaviors as well as preventing nightmares, sleep disorders, grief, schizophrenia, and many other mental health disorders. People who are suicidal come in for DBT Skills therapy because of the pain of living. I have seen many begin to use DBT Skills and begin to participate fully in life.
Tell us about your work with EMDR trauma therapy and how it can heal trauma wounds.
EMDR therapy, founded by Dr. Francine Shapiro, uses the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) theory; it is our body’s natural tendency to heal itself. For example, with a bacterial infection, our body automatically works to heal the infection. Using the AIP theory, EMDR therapy’s goal is to activate the brain using bilateral stimulation (left and right sides of the body) with either eye movements, sound or touch (like tapping) so the brain can be fully on board to reprocess stressful/trauma memories.
These memories are stored improperly in the brain and cause a trauma response. After EMDR therapy people have found results such as lack of distressing thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Here is an example of healing traumatic body memories: A survivor of domestic violence has discomfort in a new relationship because they cannot be touched without being triggered by a body memory from past abuse. After using EMDR therapy, this person has reprocessed the body sensations and has no body triggers. This person can be touched and feel the natural feelings of safety and healthy attachment in the new relationship.
EMDR therapy is an evidence-based practice for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). It has been shown to effectively relieve anxiety, depression, chronic pain, migraines, addictive behavior, grief, insomnia, and more. Some therapists listen for negative beliefs in therapy as an indicator of who can be helped by EMDR therapy, because they believe the anxiety, depression, pain, etc. were likely caused by the negative beliefs about themselves.
Negative beliefs such as, “It’s all my fault,” “I have no control,” or “I’m not safe” are formed at the same time as a stressful situation or traumatic event. The goal in EMDR therapy is to create positive beliefs. Holding positive beliefs about one’s self can reduce trauma responses such as depression, anxiety, unexplainable pain or sickness, overreacting or feeling numb, feeling triggered, memory absences, avoidance, nightmares, etc.
Many people have said EMDR therapy has fast results, especially in children and teens. EMDR therapy can be used with other therapeutic techniques such as Attachment Focused therapies, Expressive Arts, Somatic Experiencing (body work) and Play therapy. There is a need for assessment and preparing people for EMDR therapy. DBT Skills help prepare people to stabilize behaviors so they are ready for trauma therapy such as EMDR therapy.
Talk to us about “Installing a future template.”
EMDR therapy provides many therapeutic techniques that help therapists become more effective and efficient. EMDR therapy works on the past, present, and future. Installing Future Templates is an EMDR therapeutic technique that helps therapists see how the person would handle stress in the future. Installing a Future Template also identifies any developmental gaps. For example, if a person experienced a medical trauma, child abuse or substance abuse (such as drug use) in their teen years, this traumatic event could stop or delay development. The adult may need skills to be able to understand their own identity or have difficulty solving problems on their own because they were unable to learn these vital developmental skills as a teen. So we would work on those skills in therapy. Installing Future Templates is a quick check-in and helps a person assess ability just by asking a few questions.
You also work with couples. Tell us about using Gottman skills and DBT skills in this work.
Many times couples ask for the Gottman therapeutic techniques in therapy because of it’s great results. I have found many couples need steps before jumping into using Gottman’s techniques. DBT Skills can be used as steps to help couples understand how to communicate better in a relationship. For example, DBT skills such as the GIVE skill (be gentle with yourself and others, act interested, validate the valid, use an easy manner) can be used to build healthy relationships or the FAST skill to keep your self-respect in relationships. These Interpersonal Effectiveness DBT Skills may be used with Gottman’s “Four Horses of the Apocalypse,” the predictors for divorce (Defensive, Criticism, Contempt, Stonewalling). Also, sometimes therapies can cause a trauma response in those who are trauma sensitive. This is why treatment plans in therapy are unique and tailored to the individual and/or couple’s needs. Some find DBT Skills as a more trauma sensitive approach for couples, yet there is such an effective framework provided by the Gottman Institute. For couples, I like to use both Gottman techniques and DBT Skills.
In your work with families, you’ve said that a big part of it is teaching parents how to calm down. If the parent can self regulate, what can follow?
When the child’s environment is calm the child can work on issues causing distress and engage in trauma work. As the child or teen does their therapy, I continue to work with parents toward healthy attachment with their child and what is developmentally appropriate.
How can trauma affect developmental stages?
Trauma responses include fight, flight or freeze modes. Reliving the traumatic event can mean living in one of these states, in other words, a pretty intense survival mode. These high levels of distress cause our brain to focus on surviving the danger and development is put on hold. An example is a child who experienced early childhood trauma and has speech delays. Later on, the child needs support to develop speech.
Another example is if a person experienced a medical trauma or substance abuse (such as drug use) in their teen years. This traumatic event could have caused their development to stop during the time of danger and could cause a gap in their development. As an adult, they may need support to be able to understand their own identity or have difficulty solving problems on their own because they were unable to learn these vital developmental skills as a teen. So we would work on those developmental skills in therapy.
You can connect with Lydia via her website, https://arisewellcounselingservices.com
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 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.