I will go out on professional limb here and offer a brave statement that we as therapists cannot profess to fully understand the mind, let alone effectively treat it.
In Western society we have solidly put our faith in the gods of the medical model and look to our clinicians to diagnose and troubleshoot our ailments in the same way one might take a broken car to the garage.
As a trained psychotherapist I work with clients to help them untangle a lifetime of Matryoshka dolls in order to uncover the core psychological injuries, thoroughly clean out the wounds and allow them to engage with the healing process.
From a theoretical perspective I am indoctrinated to believe that we all have the capacity to find our own solutions and trust that therapy can offer us a space to discover the answers and facilitate transformational change.
What happens when you get stuck
On a personal note I have received many years of therapy ranging from cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive analytic therapy, psychodynamic, person-centred and a host of others, only in recent years coming to recognise that I have complex posttraumatic stress disorder (if we are to go by diagnostic labels).
For over two decades I have been one of those poor unfortunates branded as ‘treatment-resistant’ and wondering why on earth I couldn’t shift the lingering anxiety or depression which I seemed more than capable of helping my patients with.
Bessel Van der Kolk, a world-renowned clinician, educator, writer and pioneering researcher has spent his career studying trauma and largely concludes that trauma has nothing to do with cognition. As science advances and we better come to understand how traumatic events get encoded into memory, we can start to see how talk therapies may actually be somewhat limited in their offer.
When faced with a life or death situation our survival instincts kick in and we go into a state of fight, flight or freeze. We simply haven’t got time to process all the incoming data and as a result we may not have a whole intact memory to process. This is why trauma victims can often only recall memory fragments – a certain sense of smell, a sound, a feeling. And because we have no clear beginning, middle or end to close the loop we can remain stuck and highly triggered in the present. Our bodies tell us that danger is happening, even if our thoughts tell us it is not. The body is just doing its job.
Van der Kolk supports the use of psychomotor therapy, yoga, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), emotional freedom technique (EFT) and other body-based methods to reprogram our bodies into understanding that the world is actually a safe place, essentially moving away from logical processing and into the physical energetic responses of the body.
Why there are still advocates of cognitive and behavioural methods
This week I tried a session of Reiki which according to the gods of empirical-evidence is a complete bunch of woo-woo. It claims to work with the energy fields in the body and may be helpful for reducing stress.
Usually bombarded by a million thoughts a day, I became acutely aware of how my mind was in fact totally calm and empty, similar to when I enter a deep meditative state or the final moments before sleep.
Sometime into the session (and rather enjoying my sensation of floating in a void) I began to experience spontaneously arising visions in which I was transported back in time to a series of firsts – the first time I recall being self-conscious, the first time I experienced sexual shame, and so on.
For a long time I had been struggling with feelings of unresolved anger relating to my mother’s death from alcoholism which I simply couldn’t shift through in therapy.
All of a sudden I was being shown a mental image of my own mother’s birth and saw how she had been the next child born after my grandmother’s first baby had died. I then recollected a memory of being told about ‘the angel baby’ when I was a little girl of no more than four years old and heard Nana explain that, ‘she was too beautiful to live.’
It struck me that my mother’s lifelong rage and insecurities had been set up from the start – not beautiful enough to die, and a felt sense of being the replacement daughter. This epiphany made me break down in tears with a profound sense of compassion and empathy which had I been in therapy for a thousand years I am fairly confident I would never have made such a curious link. The vision offered me a deep level of understanding something which I heard more at a heart-level rather than as any thought, much like the symbolism attached to dreams which make little sense on waking.
The memories which bubbled into my awareness during the experience offered me incredible clarity, insight and healing and whether the naysayers will view this from the perspective of a placebo effect is not for me to debate.
Isn’t this exactly what we hope for in our therapy sessions? While I am certainly not advocating that we abandon traditional forms of therapy and seek only alternative methods surely we must look towards creating a package of support for our patients to bring about the reflective inner work?
Just like any other profession therapy may at times seem caught up in its own power struggles (‘My way is better… No mine is!’), but I think we owe it to ourselves and our clients to remain curious and open-minded to treat traumas. A journey through the psyche is unique uncharted territory and while theory can provide us with illuminating tools we cannot profess to have all the answers. All roads lead to Rome.
Stephanie Jones offers warm and professional counselling within Stockport, Cheshire and Manchester.