Working Effectively with Trauma- Guidelines for Clinicians

As stated in the previous blog, a purely talk-based approach is not sufficient for most complex trauma patients, and indeed may further traumatize them(Van Der Kolk, 2015).

So if we cant do “treatment as usual”, what options do we have? To begin, we need to widen our skill base to include other types of therapy(Blue Knot Foundation 2019).

Remember, there is no magic treatment approach that will help everyone. For example there is growing evidence for EMDR for complex trauma and C-PTSD, but Bessel Van Der Kolk suggests this may be best used with people who have single incident trauma- not complex trauma. I have found it useful to include practices such as trauma sensitive yoga, especially where there is significant dissociation, however where clients are body- phobic this may be inadvertently re-traumatising . Nonetheless it is useful for clinicians to have a wide skill set to complement existing skills, for example Sensorimotor psychotherapy or somatic experiencing training, art therapy training, equine therapy training, EMDR, the Conversational Model, Trauma Sensitive yoga training, child and adolescent trauma therapy, family therapy, neuroscience etc. I would suggest adding to your skills gradually so you aren’t putting too much pressure on yourself to be the ” perfect” therapist.

How we “show up” in therapy is also important. The Blue Knot guidelines (2012) suggest following 5 threads from Shapiro, which I compare with similar ideas and practices from Gestalt Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment therapy(ACT) Mindfulness practices.

  1. Presence (defined as `getting into the here-and-now experience of body, affect, and thought’) In Gestalt this is described as the phenomenological attitude, for others this is known as a state of Mindfulness.
  2. Dual awareness (`holding the trauma in mind, while maintaining focus in the current time and place’) In Gestalt this is known as “bracketing”. In ACT this is known as “holding lightly” “being present” and “observing self”
  3. Affect (emotion) while in relationship (`It’s not that the affect is discharged, though it might be. It’s that it’s felt and not avoided [ie within the `window of tolerance’] then witnessed and survived, then transformed into a memory, and no longer a developmental catastrophe’) In Gestalt this is known as “entering the experiential world of the client”, done with patience, reverence and respect. In Mindfulness, this is called “rolling out the welcome mat” for emotions.
  4. Relationship with self and other Patients gain tolerance and acceptance of their own affect and history and the capacity for relating to others through having a relational experience of tolerance and acceptance in the room. In  ACT, this is about acceptance of what is, and commitment to taking action to build a life enriched by values. However, where the patient has disorganised attachment, it is important to seek supervision regarding how to proceed, as attachment also creates terror or anger and may sabotage therapy. Handling disorganized attachment is much more complex, and the Janina Fisher website has many resources on this subject. Also, the principles of Richard Schwartz on Inner Family Systems are useful to bring into relational work with people suffering complex trauma.
  5. Making meaning of the traumatic events (`often accompanied by anger, then grief, then great relief’)227       In Gestalt we make meaning together. We believe that grief and shame need to be witnessed for healing to occur. In ACT Mindfulness we try to profoundly accept that suffering is part of the process of living. Rather than avoid, we make contact with suffering, grief or shame, with support from the therapist We are not trying to get rid of suffering, but rather to change our relationship with it.

Locating these 5 `threads’ helps to orient to what is now a rich, expanding but also contrasting landscape of therapy modalities for working with complex trauma. Again, the strengths, resources and preferences of the patient need to be included, including their age and cultural requirements. Children who have limited words for what they are experiencing can be supported via the generosity of the free resources on the Australian Childhood Foundation website. I have found some of their resources useful when working with adults.

  1. I would add 8 further dimensions to those above when working with people with complex trauma, starting with awareness of the role of culture, gender and other forms of diversity, presence or absence of external supports, and inclusion or exclusion of family in the work, including acknowledgement of intergenerational trauma.
  2.  The work should be phased- with stability and safety as phase one, as per the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) guidelines. However, if sessions are limited in number by funding or other issues, focus on safety and stabilization, and liaise with other experts eg community psych support services. Don’t try and do too much or do the work on your own.
  3. Management of risk should be done carefully, sensitively and thoroughly, and decisions about how to reduce risk be made with the patient where possible. I will write more on this later this year, as it is a painful truth that many patients presenting to health services with risk have reported they are shamed or treated badly by those services (Benjamin 2019).  As much as possible, patients need to be empowered to make choices that best support them when they feel unsafe or have high risk behaviours.
  4. It is important that the power base of the work is not “one-up one-down”. Clinician should never consider that they are “expert”, instead a collaborative, respective and co-equal approach is best (Benjamin, 2019). Therapists should be committed to lifelong learning including from consumer forums online as the field is rapidly and significantly changing in multiple fields eg the neuroscience of attachment.
  5.  Unlike other types of psychotherapy, clinicians in this field should be careful not to foster attachment to them too soon by the patient (Fisher 2017). Work is enhanced by adopting a curious, respectful and collaborative stance with the patient about their parts, and by teaching the patient to distinguish between triggers which reprise past trauma or trauma happening now. This is best done gradually and by working with all parts of the fragmented self of the patient with equal care and consideration. Psychoeducation and Mindfulness training should be foundational, and teaching the patient how to manage strong or uncomfortable emotions is essential.
  6. Clinician should learn to be grounded, centred, and calm, no matter what is happening with the patient in the room (Schore, 2012). Our state helps to model, anchor, settle and soothe patients, to give them a beginning experience of secure attachment (if or as much as they can tolerate.) Eventually the work will lead patients to secure attachment with themselves, built on a foundation of awareness, compassion and trust. This in turn will change the way they relate to others and the world.
  7. This implies that all therapists who work with traumatized patients have undertaken their own psychotherapy previously, so that they can be the solid ground from which to do the work. Personal therapy offers many advantages to the clinician including awareness of their own character strategies and defences, and how this affects their way of working, e.g. what things are avoided in the room.
  8. Clinicians should be reliable and consistent, and with good written terms and conditions including boundaries, and explaining the limitations of therapy. Annual leave and the like should be advised beforehand, and time allocated to process the effects of the clinician’s absence on all parts of the patient’s inner family system.
  9. Clinicians who work with complex trauma must have regular supervision, by someone with recent experience and additional training in this field. This is to help prevent burnout or vicarious traumatization, and also to ensure that practices are up to date.

I am hoping these guidelines are helpful and welcome your feedback and comments on this series of blogs offering guidelines for clinicians working with complex trauma.

 

 

 

Clinician guidelines for working with complex trauma

Clinician Guidelines for Working with Complex Trauma

Part 1 

To work effectively with complex trauma, we must challenge habitual ways of doing therapy, unlearning old habits and making room for new ones. In this three part blog I explore why treatments and approaches have changed, some system problems that prevent effective treatment, suggest some ways in which working with trauma is different from traditional therapy and invite the clinician to cultivate the attitudes and qualities which are most helpful, and reflect current best practice in the field. I mention a number of world leaders in the field for those who wish to know more. 

What is Complex Trauma? 

The term complex trauma or C-PTSD has come to mean the type of trauma which is not a one-off event, and is relational. Complex trauma can include mental, physical or emotional cruelty or abuse, witnessing abuse done to others, or neglect. It can also include adverse experiences such as the loss of a significant caregiver eg through divorce or death.

The aftermath of this type of trauma shows up in relationships, where it is more difficult to trust others or ourselves. Survivors may feel too little or too much, be fragmented or compartmentalized, have difficulties with resilience, or have a cruel inner critic. They may carry intense shame or a sense of being unlovable for which there appears no antidote. This and a host of other problems of loving and living, shadow the lives of people who have experienced complex trauma. However, we also know that healing is possible.

Why has Trauma Treatment Changed?

We know a lot more now. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) in the US is a longitudinal study of around 17,000 people, started in the eighties to help understand why some members of Kaiser Permanente health fund were obese. Researchers randomly picked ten criteria for the study. Unexpectedly, this study has since shown that the greater the number of adverse childhood experiences, the greater the risks of adverse sequelae- including physical, mental and emotional issues. Also, the signs and symptoms of adverse experiences may not show up for many years.

For more information, go to https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

The ACES study tells us that people who have experienced complex trauma are more likely to have difficulty maintaining stable employment or stable relationships and are over represented among those who are admitted to hospital, attempt suicide or suffer from addictions.

Also, many branches of science have advanced massively in the last two decades. Fields including endocrinology and neuroscience are providing astonishing new facts about the brain and body which includes the discovery of neuroplasticity and a growing awareness of how stress harms the body.

Neuroplasticity is how we learn, and it is also the way the brain adapts to different environments to enable survival. Thanks to people like Schore and Siegal, we now know that how the brain works is shaped by the environment -especially our earliest experiences with people. Experience changes the brain, body, and emotions, and vice versa.

People with complex trauma show brain structure changes visible on scans, for example their amygdalas may be enlarged. Their nervous system is wired to be more sensitive to threat, harder to calm down or relax, or sometimes harder to get going. Stress hormones such as adrenaline are oversupplied, causing difficulties with sleep, gut and many other issues.

Steven Porge’s work tells us that when activated/anxious (in Sympathetic Nervous System arousal) we cannot listen properly, make good decisions, or digest the past. Therefore it is essential to help create a calm and settled state in the patient before we start any therapy. 

Also, many survivors of childhood trauma carry implicit or procedural patterns, tendencies and memories in the body. These are not accessible via the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain), eg wordless terror, shame or disgust that is pre-verbal- so doing talk therapy alone is of limited usefulness. 

There is higher risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, addictions, psychosis, paranoia or OCD, difficulty regulating emotions, and more risk of physical health issues such as obesity or other food issues, sleep disturbances, poor self-care, chronic pain issues, sexually transmitted diseases, heart attacks and immune system disorders among other consequences.

Clinicians who are untrained in complex trauma may try their best to treat the presenting symptoms while missing the underlying cause. In a recent report in the Neuropsychotherapist, they report on a study showing childhood trauma is often missed or not enquired about at all by treating clinicians.

Luckily, there is growing momentum in the world, from people like Lou Cozolino, Allan Schore, Bessel Van Der Kolk, David Wallin, Steven Porges, Pat Ogden, Janina Fisher, Martin Tiescher, Peter Rossouw and Dan Siegal. These are among the many new thought leaders that are inspiring change and illuminating the path for effective treatment for complex trauma. Interestingly, there is a limited role for medication in the new paradigm, as the biological approach is not effective on its own.

For example, Porge’s polyvagal theory has been widely adopted as part of the new understanding of how the nervous system is impacted by complex trauma, and what to do about this. His theory is, in my experience, extremely useful, as it explains and normalizes many common difficulties, and leads to many non- drug ways of treating distressed states.

Pioneers like Janina Fisher have adapted the work of Richard Schwarz (Inner Family Systems) to help work with the complexity of the individual who is fragmented in both subtle and obvious ways.

Based on research by the Blue Knot Foundation (formerly ASCA – see ASCA Guidelines for Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive Service Delivery, 2012), it is recommended that clinicians who work with complex trauma are trained in at least three different modalities, at least one of which is body oriented.

We who work in the field should also be aware of the broader societal issues that impact care and treatment for this already disadvantaged group, and be able to advocate for education and change where this is appropriate.

In summary, over the last two decades there has been a revolution in the treatment of complex trauma, moving away from traditional labels or approaches to encourage a more holistic framework which includes the body and relies less on talking or simply taking medication.

 

In the next blog I will write more about the system issues that impact effective treatment, and in the third and final blog for clinicians to start the year off I write about how to shape practices to be more consistent with world best practice in treating complex trauma.