NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Using Imagery as a Powerful Tool in Trauma Therapy

In prior articles, I discussed how developing internal and external resources are helpful in processing psychological trauma (see my articles: Developing Internal Resources and Coping SkillsCoping Strategies in Mind-Body PsychotherapyThe Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative PsychotherapyUsing Your Imagination as a Powerful Tool For Change, and Understanding Your Shifting Self States).   One of the many resources that I use when doing trauma therapy is imagery, which is the subject of this article.

Using Imagery as a Powerful Tool in Trauma Therapy

As an integrative psychotherapist, I often combine various treatment modalities when it's beneficial to  the individual client.

The key to being able to combine treatment modalities in an integrative psychotherapy is to have a good foundation in a particular type of psychotherapy and professional training in the other modalities.

As I've mentioned in other articles, my original postgraduate training is in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, and I work in a contemporary, dynamic and interactive way.

After using psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy for several years, I could see that it had certain limitations--just as all therapy modalities do.

Although my personal experience in psychoanalysis was very effective in helping me to resolve traumatic experiences, that was nearly 20 years ago, times have changed and most clients don't want to come to therapy for multiple sessions per week for several years as I did.

Once a week psychoanalysis/psychodynamic psychotherapy, which is now the norm, lacks the same intensity as multiple sessions per week.  As a result, the transference/countertransference issues are not as intense, and generally it takes longer in once a week sessions to resolve trauma.

This is what prompted me to study EMDR Therapy, clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing.

For many clients, who don't want to wait years for relief from their traumatic symptoms, these therapy modalities work faster than psychoanalysis/psychodynamic therapy in helping clients to overcome trauma.

This doesn't mean that I don't use my psychodynamic understanding while working with a client.  I still listen and pay attention for the client's unconscious process and transference/countertransference issues as I integrate other forms of therapy.

Before I go into how I use imagery, I want to clarify that the client doesn't need to be good at visualizing to use imagery.

Many clients, who say they can't visualize, are able to get a "felt sense" of images and this is just as useful in therapy.  Other clients who have difficulty visualizing have other senses that work, including an intuitive sense of the image, which can be very powerful.

Using Imagery as a Powerful Tool in Trauma Therapy
Imagery is a powerful resource in psychotherapy, especially when working with psychological trauma.

Imagery comes alive when the therapist helps the client to amplify and enhance the imagery.

The following fictional vignette demonstrates how imagery helps to process trauma:

Nick started therapy because he was having a difficult time asserting himself in his marriage and in his work-related relationships.

Using Imagery as a Powerful Tool in Trauma Therapy

He told his therapist that ever since he was a child, he lacked confidence in himself and this lack of confidence had a profound effect on his life.

In his personal relationships, before he got married, Nick had a hard time asserting himself when he was attracted to a woman.  Throughout college, he had difficulty feeling confident enough to ask women out on a date.  Most of the time, he would go out with women who asked him out.

In his senior year, he met a woman, Jenna, that he really liked. He lacked the self confidence to ask her out, but he soon discovered that she was interested in him when Jenna asked him to go out for dinner.

Jenna was the one who initiated sex and, 10 years later in their marriage, she was still the one who initiated sex and all their activities, including social activities and vacations.  This was causing problems in their relationship because Jenna complained that she was tired of always being the one to take charge.  She wanted him to take charge sometimes.

Nick understood why Jenna was unhappy with his lack of assertiveness, but he didn't know how to change.

Nick was also having problems advancing in his career.  Other people that he trained and who knew less than Nick, were getting promoted into more senior positions because they knew how to advance their ideas and themselves with their superiors.

When Nick discussed his family history with his therapist, he described a neglectful and critical parents.  He was the younger of two sons, and his parents tended to dote on their older son and to ignore or criticize Nick.

They often compared Nick unfavorably to his older brother, John, and generally discouraged Nick.

Over time, Nick felt that he had nothing of value to offer, and he tended to remain quiet while his older brother got all the praise.

He often felt as a child that he was "a mistake" and that his parents didn't really want to have another child.  This was confirmed by his mother in a tactless admission on her part when Nick turned 21 and left home.

Until he began therapy, Nick never associated this critical, neglectful parent with his lack of confidence and assertiveness.  He also never realized that he had been traumatized by these early experiences.

As he discussed this with his therapist, he said this made sense to him, but he asked, "Now that I know this, how can I change it?"

Based on her experience as a trauma therapist, his therapist told Nick that, although his awareness was an important step, it was only the first step.  She recommended that they revisit his memories using imagery as a tool in trauma therapy.

One of Nick's touchstone memories was of his father telling Nick to "Be quiet" when he wanted to tell his family about an award he received at school for a science project.

Not only did his father tell Nick to "Be quiet," he also told him that "No one's interested in hearing about your award." Then his father turned to Nick's older brother, John, and asked him how his day went at school, and both his father and mother listened to John with admiration.

As a result of many similar experiences with his parents, Nick felt "I'm not important" and "I'm powerless."  These feelings remained with him as an adult.

Nick's therapist recommended that they use imagery to go back to that touchstone memory to see how Nick's experience of himself might change if he could imagine himself having a powerful ally in that situation.

At first, Nick couldn't think of anyone to be an ally to rework this memory.  Then, he remembered his science teacher, who recommended Nick for the award and who often complimented him on his work.

His therapist asked Nick to go back into the touchstone memory and to imagine what his science teacher might have said if he had been with Nick when his father told Nick to be quiet.  She asked Nick to describe the scene in the present tense.  She also helped Nick to amplify the imagery so he could experience it more vividly.

Nick closed his eyes and imagined himself back at home with his family.  He also imagined that he invited his science teacher, Mr. Ross, to dinner that night and Mr. Ross was sitting next to Nick when Nick brought up his science award, "Mr. Ross is there sitting next to me.  When he hears my father tell me to be quiet, he interrupts my father and says, 'Now wait a minute--this is a very important award at the school and Nick's science project was by far the best project the school has seen in years.  I can't sit here and allow you to be dismissive of Nick and this wonderful honor.  Nick deserves much better than this.  I don't have children but, boy, if I had a son like Nick, I would never tell him to be quiet.'"

Nick's therapist could see that Nick's demeanor changed as he imagined Mr. Ross standing up for him.  His chin was raised, his posture was more erect and he had a smile on his face.

Then he explains to his therapist, "Both of my parents have always had a lot of respect for teachers, and they liked Mr. Ross so they would listen to him.

Then Nick goes back into his memory, "So, when they hear Mr. Ross say this, both of my parents look embarrassed and they look at me in a different way.  Then, my father says, 'I'm sorry for interrupting you, son.  Tell us more about your award."

Nick's therapist helped Nick to amplify the shift he was experiencing and to anchor that new feeling in his body.

Nick and his psychotherapist did many similar exercises in therapy using imagery for other traumatic touchstone memories.

Using Imagery as a Powerful Tool in Trauma Therapy

Gradually, Nick was able to internalize the feeling that he is a worthwhile and lovable person.  Over time, as he gained more confidence in himself.

To his wife's delight, he took more of an initiative in terms of their sex life and social activities together.

With regard to his career, Nick and his therapist used imagery to rehearse scenes with his manager where Nick would be more assertive in advancing his ideas.  This allowed Nick to present himself and his ideas with increased confidence, which resulted in praise and promotion with a substantial pay increase.

Every client is unique and their needs in therapy are different, which is why it's helpful for therapists to have a number of different modalities to use to help clients to overcome their problems.

Imagery can be a powerful tool in trauma therapy.  It is one of many tools that trauma therapists can use to help clients to transform traumatic experiences.

When clients use imagery in therapy to imagine the help of powerful figures, such as mentors, wise people, nurturing people or whatever type of figure would be helpful, this can help to create new neural networks in the brain that facilitate change.

Using imagery can help clients to see themselves in a different way and allows them to transform their unresolved trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have unresolved traumatic experiences, rather than continuing to suffer on your own, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Once you're free of your trauma, you will have a greater sense of well-being and lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I work in an integrative way depending upon the needs of each client.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome trauma, and I use many creative therapeutic tools, including imagery.

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 Other Articles About Psychological Trauma.