NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, December 31, 2010

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma

In my last blog post, Understanding Shock Trauma, I discussed shock trauma, including the types of traumatic events that can cause shock trauma and its symptoms. In this blog post, I will discuss psychotherapy and shock trauma and the treatment modalities that I find most effective in my psychotherapy private practice in New York City.

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma - Initial Phase: Assessment and Developing Resources
When clients come to me to be treated for shock trauma, I assess each client with regard to the nature of the trauma and their internal and external resources. Before any processing of the trauma can begin, clients must have adequate internal and external resources or the trauma processing could be overwhelming for them.

What are Internal and External Resources?
When I refer to internal resources, I'm referring to a person's coping abilities. If the client doesn't have sufficient coping abilities, I assist them to develop them. Internal resources can be any of the following: an ability to meditate or calm oneself by taking calming breaths, visualizations of relaxing places, visualizations of supportive people in their lives, memories or associations of times in their lives when they felt good about themselves (confident, powerful, competent) and so on.

External resources can include friends, family, loved ones, mentors, coaches, or pets. If a client is in recovery for substance abuse or some other form of addiction, it could include 12 Step meetings, peers in 12 Step meetings, and sponsors.

Psychotherapy Treatment Modalities:
When dealing with trauma, I usually use mind-body oriented psychotherapy such as Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis, or EMDR, depending upon the needs of the client. Sometimes, depending upon the needs of the client, I might use a combination of these treatment modalities. The treatment plan is a collaborative effort with the client.

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma - Processing the Trauma:
Once the client has developed adequate resources, I titrate the trauma work so that it is performed in manageable pieces. (Titration means in manageable doses.) When dealing with the trauma, we're dealing with the reptilian brain (see prior blog post about the triune brain). The reptilian brain processes about 7x slower than the neo-cortex, so trauma work is, by necessity, slower than other types of work that is done in psychotherapy. If the therapist goes too quickly, the reptilian part of the client's brain will be overwhelmed and it will be to0 much for the client.

I help the client to move gently back and forth between manageable emotional activation related to the trauma and a calm emotional state so that the trauma work remains in a tolerable range.

The client is the best judge in terms of what he or she experiences in trauma work, so the client is in charge, and I am guided by his or her feedback during sessions.

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma - The Goal of Treatment:
Using one of the mind-body oriented psychotherapy treatment modalities, the goal is for the client to process the trauma and to discharge the trauma-related "stuck" energy which is being held in the body so that the client can return to at least as good a level of his or her former level of overall functioning or better.

The discharge of "stuck" energy can come in many forms, including breathing out stressful energy, perspiring, yawning, experiencing tingling, and other forms of discharge. The client often senses when he or she has discharged the trauma-related energy that has been "stuck" in the body because there is a sense of calm or relief for the particular piece of trauma work that has been worked on.

Psychotherapy for Shock Trauma - Developing Self Compassion:
Many clients who begin trauma work blame themselves for what happened to them. They get caught up in negative cycles of self talk where they berate themselves, telling themselves that they should have known better or they shouldn't have gone to a particular place, etc. This only exacerbates their trauma symptoms.

During treatment, I help clients to realize that they're not to blame for what happened to them or for their trauma symptoms. Helping clients to develop self compassion is also part of the way I work with traumatized clients from the beginning so they don't get caught in negative cycles of self blame.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome traumatic events in their lives, including shock and developmental trauma, so that they can go on to lead productive and meaningful lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Understanding Shock Trauma

What is Shock Trauma?
As opposed to developmental trauma, which develops over time when traumatic events overwhelm a child, shock trauma occurs usually from an overwhelming one-time event. Shock trauma can occur to an adult or a child. It can occur from experiencing the traumatic event or witnessing it. The traumatic event is usually sudden, unexpected and has a distinct beginning and end.

Understanding Shock Trauma

Many people describe their experience of shock trauma as if their whole world has been turned upside down. They describe it as if the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. Often, their perspective of their internal world and the world around them changes and they feel unsafe and that life is very unpredictable.

As with any overwhelming event, the trauma is not in the event itself, but in the way the person experiences the event. As a result, two people can experience the same event and one person might become traumatized while the other person does not.

What Type of Events Cause Shock Trauma?
There are many different types of events, which can cause shock trauma, including:
  • accidents
  • natural disasters
  • acts of war
  • assaults
  • falls
  • invasive medical procedures, and so on
Understanding Shock Trauma

What Are the Symptoms of Shock Trauma?
Each person has his or her own individual experience with regard to shock trauma. These symptoms can include:
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • depression
  • a sense of helplessness
  • a sense of hopelessness
  • a need to be vigilant all or most of the time
  • flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • isolation
  • loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable
  • exhaustion
In my next blog post, I will discuss psychotherapy for shock trauma and the treatment modalities that I find most effective in my psychotherapy private practice in NYC.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist in New York City

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

See my article:  Psychotherapy For Shock Trauma

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trauma, the Triune Brain & Somatic Experiencing

What is the Triune Brain?
The triune brain is made up of three parts that developed in humans through evolution over time. Triune means "three in one."

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing

There is the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the cognitive brain. All three parts of the brain inter-relate and communicate with each other. The reptilian brain developed first and it is the oldest part of the brain. The mammalian brain developed next, and the cognitive brain developed last in evolution.

I will discuss the reptilian brain last since this is the part of the brain that carries trauma when a person has been overwhelmed by a traumatic event.

The Cognitive Brain:
The cognitive brain is located in the pre-frontal or neo-cortex part of the brain. As mentioned earlier, this was the last part of the brain to develop through evolution. The cognitive brain is responsible for thoughts, planning, language, logic and awareness.

The Mammalian Brain:
The mammalian brain was the second part of the brain to develop through evolution. It is located in the middle brain. The mammalian brain mediates feelings, relationships, nurturing, images, and unconscious activity, including dreams and play. The mammalian brain fosters attachment between caregivers and infants when there is good enough caregiving. It also fosters empathy between individuals.

The Reptilian Brain:
The reptilian brain developed first during the evolutionary development of the brain, and it can be found in species from reptiles to humans. It is the oldest part of the brain in terms of the development of the triune brain. The reptilian brain sits at the base of the skull. It's responsible for instincts, including the sympathetic nervous system's survival instinct of fight-flight-freeze when there is perceived danger.

When a person perceives him or herself to be in danger, emotions and physiological energy are generated by the reptilian brain so that the person can take action. When this energy is not discharged (through flight or flight), it is stored in the person's muscle tissue. This emotion and energy are imprinted in the nervous system. This is what we mean when we refer to "trauma." Trauma is usually associated with feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

Somatic Experiencing and the Trauma Vortex:
According to Peter Levine, Ph.D., who developed Somatic Experiencing, this trauma-related energy, which has not been discharged, can be conceptualized as being part of a trauma vortex.

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing 

The trauma vortex is a metaphor to describe what happens when trauma-related energy is "stuck" and has not been discharged. The trauma-related energy saps the person of vitality. This energy is trapped and unavailable for other life-affirming and life-enhancing activities.

Somatic Experiencing and the Healing Vortex:
Just as we can conceptualize the trauma vortex as the place where trauma-related energy is stuck, in Somatic Experiencing, we can also conceptualize the metaphor of a healing vortex.

The Somatic Experiencing therapist helps the client to develop this positive, healing energy to counteract the negative experience of the trauma vortex. The healing vortex can be any positive experiences, associations, memories, visualizations, and felt sense experiences that the traumatized person develops in Somatic Experiencing therapy.

The Somatic Experiencing therapist facilitates the healing process by "titrating" the processing of the trauma in therapy. "Titration" in this context means that the trauma is processed in manageable doses so it does not overwhelm the client or retraumatize him or her.

Trauma, the Triune Brain and Somatic Experiencing

Gradually, over time, the client, who is in Somatic Experiencing therapy, develops a greater capacity for self containment. By tracking the client's physiological and emotional experiences in treatment and with the use of titration, the Somatic Experiencing therapist helps the client to expand this capacity over time, so that as treatment unfolds, the client is better able to tolerate processing the trauma with increased coping abilities and a greater capacity for resilience.

When trauma is being processed, the therapist is dealing with the client's reptilian brain, where the trauma is stored. Compared to the cognitive brain (neo-cortex), the reptilian brain processes information 7x slower. This is why trauma work must be done in manageable pieces because if too much trauma work is done too soon, the reptilian brain becomes easily overwhelmed.

Somatic Experiencing is a mind-body oriented psychotherapy and it is one of the safest and most effective ways to process emotional trauma.

To find out more about Somatic Experiencing, visit the Somatic Experiencing website:

About Me
I am a NYC licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Experiential Psychotherapy and the Mind-Body Connection

In recent years, increasingly, many psychotherapists have come to realize that mind-body oriented psychotherapy offers opportunities for healing that regular talk therapy alone often does not offer. 

There are different types of experiential psychotherapy, including clinical hypnosisEMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Somatic Experiencing, all of which I have used in my psychotherapy private practice in New York City.

Many Experiences of Talk Therapy, But No Change:
Many clients come to see me feeling discouraged. Often, they have made many attempts on their own and attempts in regular talk therapy to make changes in their lives, but these attempts have not resulted in change.

Experiential Psychotherapy and the Mind-Body Connection

Often, clients in regular talk therapy develop intellectual insight into their problems, but there is no emotional insight. They can explain why they have the problems that they have, but no healing has taken place.

Why is this? Usually, it's because regular talk therapy alone often doesn't penetrate beyond our conscious minds. It involves our intellect which, of course, is important for any type of change that we might be contemplating. But for many problems, this isn't enough. The treatment needs to go beyond the surface to a more visceral level.

Why is Experiential Psychotherapy More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy?
Mind-body oriented psychotherapy will often access deeper levels of consciousness because we can feel the treatment occurring on a visceral level. 

It's not just a matter of talking about the problem on an intellectual level. Mind-body oriented psychotherapy helps clients to change from the inside out. Clients are taught how to recognize where they feel their emotions in their body, and this helps them to access deeper levels of consciousness as well as enabling them to change at a deeper level.

I'm not saying that regular talk therapy doesn't ever work. My early training is as a psychoanalyst and I still practice psychodynamic psychotherapy. However, for many problems, this type of therapy is not enough, which is why so many psychoanalysts and psychodynamic psychotherapists have learned various types of mind-body oriented psychotherapy.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist, and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

LGBTQ Relationships: Dealing with Homophobia in Families

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I've worked with many LGBTQ in couples counseling as well as in individual therapy where their families have not accepted that they're gay or that they're in a gay or lesbian relationship. The families' disapproval often causes individuals in gay and lesbian relationships to feel that they have to choose between spending time with their partners and spending time with their families.

LGBTQ Relationships: Dealing with Homophobia in Families

Of course, there are varying degrees of acceptance--everything from outright disapproval to half hearted acceptance to fully embracing the relationship and everything in between. It can be a very heart wrenching decision as to how to handle these situations.

The following scenario is based on a composite of many cases, and it does not represent any particular couple:

Vickie and Susan:
Vickie and Susan had been living together in a committed relationship for over three years when they came to couples counseling. They were both in their early 30s and had successful professions. Susan's family lived in NYC, and Vickie's family lived out of state.

Susan tended to be "out" as a lesbian to her family, at work and in most social situations. Vickie tended to be more reserved and she only told certain people that she was a lesbian. She had never told her family directly that she was a lesbian, but she assumed that they knew and they just never discussed it.

They had many close lesbian and gay friends, both single people and couples, in NYC that they socialized with during the year. But the holiday season often presented a problem. If they were staying in NYC, there was no problem because Susan's family embraced Vickie as their daughter-in-law and made her feel at home. They would also spend time with their friends, both heterosexual and gay.

But there were certain years where Vickie missed her family and they wanted her to spend the holidays with them. In most ways, Vickie was close to her family and she loved them. She liked spending time with her parents, and her older sister. Her family had many holidays rituals that Vickie enjoyed from the time she was a young child. The problem was that, even though they knew that she lived with Susan, she had never told them explicitly that they were life partners.

Both Vickie and Susan wanted Vickie's family to recognize and honor their relationship, but Vickie was too afraid of losing her family if she actually "came out" to them and told them that Susan was her wife. For Vickie, it was one thing for it to be understood that Vickie was a lesbian without having to discuss it, and it was quite another for her to be direct about it.

At certain times, Susan and Vickie would argue about this during other times of the year. Susan wanted Vickie to be more direct and "come out" as a lesbian and introduce Susan as her wife. But their disagreements about this were never as bad as they were during the holiday season.

When Vickie and Susan started couples counseling, Vickie's family was urging her to come to see them for the holidays because they had not seen her the prior two holiday seasons. Vickie felt torn about what to do. On the one hand, she missed her family and she wanted very much to see them. On the other hand, she didn't want to hurt Susan's feelings by going without her or inviting her to come without defining their relationship to her family.

Aside from dealing with homophobia among friends and families, internalized homophobia can be just as challenging, if not more challenging for someone who is a gay man or a lesbian. And both Susan and Vickie had to be willing to look at their own internalized homophobia in couples counseling, especially Vickie, with regard to this situation.

In working through this problem in couples counseling, Susan and Vickie both made a commitment to put their relationship first. Vickie had to confront and overcome her fears about her family's reaction if she told them directly that she was a lesbian and she was in a lesbian relationship. Her worst fear was that her family would cut her off. She also had to look at how she was withholding an important part of herself from her family and the effect this was having for her own internal world, as well as the effect on Susan and their relationship.

As we worked through this issue, we came up with a plan that began by Vickie telling the person in her family who would be most receptive, her older sister. As Vickie expected, her older sister told her that she already knew that Vickie was a lesbian and she suspected that Susan was more than just a "roommate." She told Vickie that she would love to meet Susan. But she agreed with Vickie that their parents probably wouldn't be as receptive to Vickie being openly gay and bringing her partner for the holidays. She told Vickie that she was in her and Susan's corner, no matter how their parents reacted and she would be supportive.

Vickie was relieved that her sister was supportive, but she knew that talking to her parents would be more challenging. They tended to be conservative and not open to people and situations that didn't fit into their values.

Vickie decided to talk to her mother first because she felt that, even though both parents were conservative, her mother was a little more open than her father. When the day came for Vickie to have the conversation with her mother, as we discussed, she "bookended" her call by talking to her best friend first and planning to talk to her after she spoke to her mother. This helped her to feel supported.

Vickie had a plan for how she was going to broach the topic of being a lesbian in a lesbian relationship with her mother, but her mother threw her off by interrupting her and telling her about all she was doing to prepare for the holidays. Vickie listened for a while and she felt herself becoming increasingly anxious. At one point, she considered not telling her mother at all. But she didn't want to go back on her commitment to Susan and the commitment that she made in our couples counseling sessions.

After listening for more than 20 minutes to her mother go on about the holiday preparations, Vickie knew that she had to say something at that point or she might lose her nerve. So, when her mother took a breath, Vickie began by telling her mother that she was the most happy that she had ever been in her life. She was afraid that if she didn't tell her mother this from the outset, her mother might not hear it after she "came out" and talked to her about her lesbian relationship.

Vickie's mother reacted positively and told her that she was pleased that she was happy. Then, Vickie took a deep breath and told her mother, for the first time, that she was a lesbian and Susan is her wife. There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few long seconds. When she spoke, Vickie's mother's tone of voice had completely changed. Whereas she had been upbeat and chipper before, she spoke in a whisper and told Vickie that she must never tell her father this because he would be devastated. She also told Vickie that she never wanted to talk about this again. Then, she began to change the subject.

At that point, as planned, Vickie told her mother that she knew that it might be hard for her to understand, but it was important to her that the family accept that she is a lesbian and that she is in a committed relationship with Susan. 

Again, there was a long pause at the other end, and finally her mother told Vickie in a whisper, "We know you're a lesbian. We figured it out a long time ago. But we don't have to talk about it and you don't need to throw it in our faces. We love you very much, but you can't expect us to talk about this as if it were nothing. And you can't expect us to accept that you're in a gay relationship. If you want to invite Susan to come for the holidays, she can come, but you can't flaunt your relationship and you can't stay in the same room."

Vickie was deeply disappointed, but she was not surprised. As agreed, she told her mother that she couldn't and wouldn't come under these circumstances, and she hoped that they could talk about this in the future and try to work it out. But, for now, she was spending the holiday with Susan and her family. At that point, Vickie's mother hung up the phone, and Vickie didn't speak to her parents for over a year.

Vickie and Susan remained in couples counseling to work through the repercussions of this turn of events. It placed a strain on their relationship, but they were both committed to staying together and working things out. They also strengthened the bonds of their relationships in the lesbian and gay community so they felt supported among other gay people who had similar experiences.

Vickie's older sister was also supportive and she came to NYC to meet Susan and to spend time with them at their apartment. It meant a lot to Vickie to have her sister show support for her and her relationship, even if she wasn't talking to her parents.

Vickie's sister told her that their mother broke down and told their father, even though she had told Vickie not to say anything to him, and he was even more upset about it than their mother. When they weren't discussing it openly, prior to Vickie's call, they put the whole idea of Vickie being gay in the back of their minds. But when Vickie talked about it openly with her mother, it was too confronting for the mother. It also removed any shadow of a doubt that Vickie was a lesbian and that she was in a lesbian relationship.

The following year, Vickie's sister announced that she would host the holidays in her house and she was inviting Vickie and Susan. 

When her parents heard about this, they told her that they wouldn't come if Vickie was coming to "flaunt" her relationship with Susan--to which Vickie's sister responded, "That's up to you. But if you come, I expect you and dad to be pleasant and respectful of Vickie and Susan." She gave them a book to read that was written for parents of gay children. She also gave them information about PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

After much chaos and commotion, the parents decided to come. Vickie and Susan were anxious, and it was obvious that when Vickie's parents came, they were also very anxious too. There were anxious and awkward moments when Vickie introduced them to Susan. But, eventually, things settled down, at least on the surface, and everyone was polite. But there was an under current of emotional strain in the air.

This was the first of many holidays where Vickie and Susan went home to see Vickie's family. Over time, Vickie's parents got to know and like Susan and Susan began to feel more comfortable with them. Vickie's parents even began to attend PFLAG meetings and talk to other parents of gay children. 

After a while, they were able to talk to Vickie more about her life with Susan. They told her that they didn't understand, but she was still their daughter, they loved her, and they wanted her to be happy. And if being happy meant that she was a lesbian and in a relationship with Susan, they accepted this.

Having gone through this ordeal together strengthened Susan's and Vickie's relationship. They both wished that Vickie's parents would more than just "accept" their relationship, but they came to terms with it, and it no longer interfered with their relationship.

For Vickie, as an individual, "coming out" as an open lesbian and telling them that her relationship with Susan came first was a huge step. It strengthened her self confidence and it was a great relief not to have this secret any more.

The above composite scenario is one of countless ways that lesbian and gay couples and individuals cope with homophobia in their families. 

LGBTQ Relationships: Dealing with Homophobia in Families

There is no one right way to deal with these situations. Each individual and each situation is unique.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're a lesbian or gay man who is struggling with similar "coming out" issues, you could benefit from getting help from a psychotherapist who specializes in gay and lesbian issues. You could also benefit from seeking support from LGBT support groups.

In NYC, you can contact the LGBT Community Center:
They offer a host of services for the LGBT community, including support groups, 12 Step programs, and other special programs specifically for the LGBT community.

If you're outside of NYC, you can contact the Gay and Lesbian National Hotline for support:

If you're a parent of a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered child, you can educate yourself and get support through Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. :

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many gay and lesbian individuals and couples with their own "coming out" process, relationship issues, and other issues specifically related to the lesbian and gay community.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.