Somatic Methods to Target Trauma Symptoms

"Trauma and the body poster"

JADE-Project attends a Pat Ogden training about the central role of non-verbal communication in psychotherapy

When some years ago I started to do more intense work with migrant women who had suffered abuse and violence, I realized more sooner than later that almost all the knowledge I had accumulated during the many years I studied cognitive psychology and had practiced as a therapist was to some extent inadequate.

Often we did not share a common language in which we could communicate, so my skills to offer support and promote change felt especially useless when I did not have an interpreter around -which was majority of the time. Cognitive knowledge is transmitted into words and requires a shared vision of the world regarding some basic concepts, and that was exactly what we were missing: words and shared mental categories to start with.

The therapy education I received at university and afterwards was very limited to using words and complex abstract concepts -which would then turn into different types of action, but only afterwards-, as the main means to facilitate healing. Nobody spent much time talking to the students about the meaning of touch, but somehow it was understood that touch was not allowed into the therapy room except for shaking hands or a brief hug at the beginning or the end of a session.

But the new context where I was then working, which was a shelter for battered migrant women, offered very different possibilities compared to what I was used to do in the therapy room. Women were actually living there. For us it was our work place, but for them it was their temporary home, sometimes for many months. This gave us the possibility to share common spaces and become a part of their everyday life in a way I had never experienced before: we were there when they were waking up, cooking breakfast and lunch, breastfeeding their children, tidying their rooms, crying or laughing with their housemates.

After feeling lost for several months, stuck in the belief that there was no way in which I could help my clients with the therapy methods I knew, I noticed that little by little I had started to develop skills I did not even know I had: I spent more time looking to my clients and paying attention to their moves, which communicated an immense amount of information about their inner states; I felt I could myself transmit more information to them through my gaze or my moves; a hand in the shoulder or taking the hand of another person to offer support became natural and spontaneous, always sensitive and respectful to the kind of movement that clients were initiating themselves and searching for.

I also had a chance to develop a more visual understanding of what happens to different bodies and physiognomies after experiencing traumatic events: for many individuals, something gets frozen or stuck. The muscles are stiff, the gaze is either down and defeated or restless and hypervigilant, there is a constant scanning for potential threats in the environment. Different body aches and mental exhaustion start to appear after being in this state for some time.

Since then I started to look for more comprehensive therapeutic methods that could better help my clients that had undergone traumatic experiences. Now in JADE-project many of our clients have survived war, dangerous routes of migration, losses and violence of many kinds. The impact of these experiences have transformed into different types of somatic symptoms that provoke additional suffering. This made us think that our clients could benefit from new professional and creative approaches that would specifically target the somatic aspects of trauma.

In October 2013 JADE-project provided me the time to attend a course organized by the Center for Trauma Therapy of Finland (Traumaterapiakeskus) in which Pat Ogden, the founder and educational director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, came to Helsinki to give us a two-day training about the central importance of nonverbal communication in children, adolescent and adult psychotherapy. She is also the main author of the book “Trauma and the Body”, in which she proposes a detailed and beautifully built integrative model of the impact of trauma in the somatic level and the attachment system, with strong grounds on research and neurobiology, that therapists of many different theoretical backgrounds have found enlightening and deeply useful.

Through practical examples and videos of client work, Ogden illustrated the many ways in which defensive and protective physical responses occur, how they can be detected by a trained observer and how dissociation occurs when the extent of the trauma overpasses the capabilities of the mind at a certain point. She provided methods to help clients gain awareness, in a compassionate and respectful way, about these reactions and subsequently to produce alternative and healing responses. Ogden also gave to the participants plenty of opportunities for discussion, which resulted in a really fruitful training that increased our expertise and the variety of work methods from which our clients will benefit.

Ruth Franco

Psychologist – JADE project worker