Over more than 30 years of building Evergreen Psychotherapy Center to be an internationally recognized practice with expertise in the treatment of attachment and trauma issues, we have worked with thousands of children and adults. We have also collaborated with many mental health service providers, educators and allied professionals worldwide to advance research and treatment within the field.
Through our experience, we have learned that healing from trauma is possible and that people are capable of achieving wholeness. We have also seen the transformative impact of certain experiential therapy strategies on our clients.
In this article – the third in our series on Experiential Change and Healing – we share some specific experiential interventions that we use at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center with traumatized children and adults.
First Year Attachment Cycle
The four stages of creating attachment between babies and caregivers include:
Clients who experienced abuse and/or neglect in early childhood or as infants (i.e., early developmental trauma), are asked to visualize their inner child and to be aware of the consequences of compromised attachment (anger, fear, loss, lack of trust, shame, self-blame, anxiety regarding closeness, negative self-identity).
This sets the stage for cognitive and affective revision – empathy and understanding of the self, and the working through of emotional trauma.
Inner Child Metaphor
The client visualizes him or herself at an earlier time in life, when trauma occurred, and uses a teddy bear to symbolize their inner child. The client is asked to be aware of the perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and somatic reactions of that wounded child, and give that child a voice. This is usually very emotional and provides a vehicle for self-awareness, self-compassion and increased self-esteem, development of coping skills, and a sense of empowerment and mastery over trauma (i.e., from victim to overcomer).
Treatment team members role play scenarios from the client’s life to revisit and work through prior trauma. This experiential exercise enhances genuine participation in the therapeutic process, identifies thoughts, emotions and defenses associated with trauma, and promotes empowerment and healing by achieving alternative perspectives, emotional resolution, and healthy behavioral responses. For example, an adult client who was abused as a child talks with his or her abuser in the role play.
The client goes from a victim (fearful, emotionally shut down, experiencing self-blame and shame) to an overcomer (assertive, emotionally genuine, externalizing responsibility for abuse) with the support and encouragement of the therapists. This leads to establishing new neuronal networks in the brain, self-enhancing narratives, and reduced fear.
Magic Wand (Forgiveness)
Forgiveness is associated with emotional, relational, physical and spiritual health. Forgiveness helps to reduce anger, hurt and fear, while increasing empathy, understanding and compassion.
Forgiveness does not mean that prior maltreatment and betrayal were acceptable, but rather the person chooses to let go of negative emotions, create a new sense of self, and begin to thrive. The therapist says, “pretend that with this magic wand the person who hurt you is healthy for 10 minutes, will listen and understand you, and take responsibility for their part in the trauma. What do you want to express?”
During this dialogue, the idea is reinforced that the client is not responsible for early maltreatment (i.e., letting go of self-blame and shame), and the client may gain compassion toward the hurtful person. This experience often leads to forgiveness and mastery over the trauma.
Through the use of these strategies, the traumatized adult or child can experience new ways of understanding themselves, what they went through, and the people who hurt them. It paves the way for building healing relationships by helping them to experience trust, safety, empathy, support and healthy boundaries.