NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Trauma Therapy: Why Establishing Safety For the Client Is So Important Before Processing Trauma - Part 1

As a psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients to overcome traumatic experiences, I see many clients in my private practice in New York City who come for trauma therapy, including EMDR therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and clinical hypnosis.  Early on in the therapy process, I provide clients with psychoeducation about why establishing safety for the client is so important before traumatic memories are  processed in trauma, which is the topic of this article (see my article: Why is Experiential Psychotherapy More Effective Than Talk Therapy Alone to Overcome Trauma? and How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain).

Why Establishing Safety For the Client is So Important Before Processing Trauma

How is "Establishing Safety" Defined in Terms of Trauma Therapy?
Let's start by defining what safety means with regard to trauma therapy.

It's the psychotherapist's responsibility to create a therapeutic environment that helps to establish safety in therapy (see my article about the therapeutic "holding environment" and a more detailed explanation below).  There can be many issues that get in the way of establishing a holding environment, including obstacles in the client's current life and traumatic experiences from the past (see more detailed discussion below).

Safety, which is a relative term that recognizes that there are degrees of feeling safe and the client needs to feel safe enough.  This is an important concept in any type of therapy, but it's especially important in trauma therapy because trauma therapy is experiential and without a sense of safety, the client can be retraumatized (see my article: Developing a Sense of Safety and Trust With Your Psychotherapist).

The following is a list of some of the most relevant issues with regard to establishing safety in trauma therapy with a recognition that, due to the fact this is a blog article and not a journal article or a book, this list might not include all issues:
  • The Client Needs to Feel Relatively Comfortable with the Psychotherapist:  In the most basic terms, the client needs to feel a rapport with the therapist and that there is a therapeutic alliance.  The therapeutic alliance between the client and psychotherapist usually develops over time as the client senses that s/he can trust the therapist.  Many clients get a sense of whether they feel safe with a therapist during an initial consultation, even though the therapeutic alliance hasn't developed yet.  The client often intuits whether s/he will get along with the psychotherapist and that the therapist is someone that s/he can work with on whatever the presenting problem might be.  In that case, there is enough of a sense of comfort to at least set up the next appointment.  Assuming that the therapist has an expertise in the area that the client wants to work on and that she feels she can be helpful to the client, they can proceed from there.  If not, it's important for the client and the psychotherapist to recognize that not every client-therapist dyad is a good match.  Every therapist is not for every client, so it's important to recognize that, regardless of the client's motivation and the therapist's skills, sometimes a particular client-therapist dyad doesn't work (see my article: How a Psychotherapist Creates a Holding Environment in PsychotherapyThe Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative to the Client, and What is the Corrective Emotional Experience in Therapy?).
  • The Client is Not Involved in an Ongoing Crisis or Creating New Crises in His or Her Life:  It's not unusual for clients who have a history of unresolved trauma to be involved in an ongoing crisis or creating new crises in his or her life--often without even realizing.  This topic warrants its own article and it will be discussed further in my next article.  At this point, suffice it to say the processing aspect of prior trauma cannot be done when the client is still in crisis and needs help with crisis management .  The need for crisis management must take priority over processing trauma that is based in the past.  Likewise, if the client is creating new crises in his or her life, s/he needs to recognize this dynamic so s/he can change it before any processing of historical trauma can be done.  Once the client is no longer involved with a current crisis and s/he is no longer creating new crises or emotional drama, the psychotherapist can assist the client to prepare for the processing of trauma (see my articles: Do You Have a Pattern of Creating Chaos in Your Life?How to Stop Creating Chaos in Your Life and How a Crisis Can Bring About Positive Change in Your Life).
  • The Client is Not Involved in Excessive Drinking, Drug Abuse, Gambling or Other Compulsive Mood-Altering Behavior:  If a client is engaged in mood altering behavior, whether it involves alcohol, drugs, compulsive gambling, compulsive overspending, sexual addiction or compulsive viewing of pornography, including Internet pornography an eating disorder or other compulsive behavior, s/he isn't ready for processing traumatic memories from the past because s/he hasn't developed the necessary coping skills for trauma therapy.  The psychotherapist would need to assist the client to be stable enough without mood-altering behavior in order to delve into traumatic memories.  If not, the client's mood altering behavior will continue or increase because s/he won't be able to cope with delving into the trauma.  So, the mood-altering behavior must be addressed first, and there would need to be a period of "sobriety" before trauma processing can begin.  Without a period of six months or so of "sobriety," the client is likely to relapse into compulsive behavior.  So, as a first step, this might mean that, if the psychotherapist has a background in helping clients to overcome mood-altering behavior, the therapist will assess the client's true motivation.  Specifically, many clients say they want to stop engaging in mood-altering behavior, but they're not ready.  Since there is always some ambivalence, the therapist can help the client to recognize the ambivalence and, if the client is motivated enough, try to help the client to stop the compulsive behavior or refer the client to a higher level of care, like a detox, rehab or residential treatment.
  • The Trauma Therapist Helps the Client to Prepare For Trauma Processing in Therapy: Unlike regular talk therapy, trauma therapy is experiential, as mentioned above.  Whereas in talk therapy, the client and therapist talk about the trauma, in experiential therapy, they revisit traumatic memories and the experience is more immediate.  In order for the client not to be retraumatized by revisiting traumatic experiences from the past, the therapist needs to help the client to prepare for trauma processing.  The preparation phase, which is also called the resourcing phase, is crucial to trauma therapy and no responsible trauma therapist will proceed without first going through this phase of treatment.  To proceed without the preparation phase would be clinically irresponsible and unethical--no matter how much the client wants to jump right into processing the trauma.  Depending upon the individual client's coping skills, the preparation phase can be as little as a few sessions or, where the client has little in the way of coping skills, the preparation phase can be several months or more.  As a result, the therapist needs to assess the client's coping skills first.  At the very least, the therapist needs to assess if the client is able to maintain dual awareness when discussing the trauma.  In other words, when discussing the trauma, the client remains aware that s/he is in the here-and-now as well as remembering a memory from the past at the same time.  If the client gets so immersed in the memory that s/he forgets where s/he is in the here-and-now, the therapist cannot proceed with trauma processing before helping the client to develop the ability to maintain dual awareness--however long that takes.  An example of a client who cannot maintain dual awareness would be a client who loses all sense of the present moment.  S/he dissociates to such a degree that s/he completely forgets that s/he is in the therapist's office and actually relives the trauma as if it were happening now and not in the past.  This is an example of a retraumatizing experience, as opposed to a healing experience.  Assuming that the client is able to maintain dual awareness, the preparation, at a minimum, would include the client learning ways to de-escalate and cope with uncomfortable emotions during the session and between sessions (see my article: Developing Coping Strategies in Therapy Before Processing TraumaEmpowering Clients in TherapyTrauma Therapy: Using the Container Exercise Between Therapy SessionsTrauma Therapy: Using Grounding Techniques Between Therapy SessionsSafe or Relaxing Place Meditation
  • The Client Keeps Appointments and Comes to Regular Weekly Sessions: Due to the intensity of processing traumatic memories in therapy and the psychotherapist's need to continually assess the client's emotional state during trauma processing, clients must be able to come to weekly sessions.  This is an issue that often comes up during initial consultations when the client raises the issue of coming every other week or monthly or randomly.  Between therapy sessions, traumatic memories continue to be processed on an unconscious level, so the trauma processing continues even when the client is not in session. This often means that new material in the form of new memories or current emotionally triggering experiences can come up between sessions where the client needs the therapist's help.  Even the space of one week can be a long time for certain clients who have problems containing emotions that come up between sessions--even though they have gone through the preparation phase of therapy.  Progress in therapy, especially trauma therapy, isn't linear.  Sometimes, the client feels worse before s/he feels better, so weekly sessions are important for the client to maintain emotional stability.  If money is an issue, the client can inquire as to whether the therapist has a sliding scale or, if not, if the therapist can make a referral to a psychotherapy center where sliding scale therapy is available.
  • The Client is in Control During Trauma Processing:  Even the best psychological assessment cannot always predict when a client might need a break during trauma processing.  This is why it's important for the client to tell the therapist when s/he might need to take a break during the processing of a traumatic memory.  In many cases, a trauma therapist will be able recognize when a client is feeling overwhelmed and help the client to de-escalate before going back into processing the trauma or to debriefing.  But some clients have gotten so good at pretending that they are okay because they feel ashamed of needing help that they override their own internal signals that they need a break from the processing.  They need to learn in therapy how to honor internal signals that they need to de-escalate and feel comfortable enough to tell the therapist.  This doesn't mean that the client will necessarily need to stop when s/he is somewhat uncomfortable if s/he is within his or her window of tolerance.  It also doesn't mean that an inexperienced therapist, who has her own discomfort with seeing clients feeling tolerably uncomfortable, should stop the processing.  If the therapist senses that the client is overriding internal signals to stop, she can ask the client if it's okay to continue processing.  Similarly, clients, who are accustomed to people pleasing, need to learn to overcome their fantasy that they are pleasing the therapist by continuing to process a traumatic memory even though they feel overwhelmed.  Based on the issues that are being presented in this section, it's obvious that the client being in control of trauma processing can be complicated (see my article: How to Talk to Your Psychotherapist About Something That's Bothering You in Therapy).
  • The Client Uses Coping Skills Between Trauma Therapy Sessions:  It's one thing to learn coping skills and it's another to actually use them between trauma therapy sessions.  Since, as mentioned above, clients continue to process traumatic memories on an unconscious level between sessions, it's not unusual for the client to have thoughts or dreams about traumatic memories between sessions.  Or, the client can get triggered by something in his or her current life between therapy sessions.  This is why the preparation phase of trauma therapy is so crucial.  If, for example, a highly traumatized client doesn't follow the therapist's recommendation to practice de-escalation techniques between sessions in order to stay calm, s/he might discover that s/he is unable to contain his or her experiences between sessions.  For clients who practice coping techniques between sessions, they are usually more likely to either avoid having experiences which are intolerable or mitigate such experiences (see my article: The Benefit of Journal Writing Between Therapy Sessions).
As I mentioned above, establishing safety in trauma therapy (or in any therapy) is a big topic, and a blog article cannot address every possible issue (see my article: Trauma Therapy: Why Establishing Safety For the Client is So Important Before Processing Trauma - Part 2).

How to Start Trauma Therapy
An exploration as to whether you want to begin trauma therapy (or any therapy) and work with a particular therapist begins with an initial consultation in person.  

As mentioned earlier, it's important to your emotional well-being to get a sense as to whether or not you feel comfortable with a particular therapist.  

When clients come to see me for an initial consultation, I tell them that the consultation is for them to provide me with an overview of the problem, ask questions about the process, my skills and experience, to see whether they feel comfortable enough to come back for another session and for me to assess if they appear to be ready to start therapy and if I have the particular expertise that they need.

Obviously, this is a very tall order for one session, and their comfort level and my assessment will continue, and it will be ongoing if they come back for therapy sessions.  As mentioned before, just like any relationship, it takes time for most clients and their therapists to develop a therapeutic alliance--assuming the therapist-client dyad works well enough for the client to want to return beyond the initial consultation.

It's also important to realize that although psychotherapists might approach the initial consultation in different ways, most therapists recognize that being in therapy involves participating in therapy while clients learn how to be clients in therapy at the same time.  In other words, you don't have to know all the answers before you start.  You learn as you go along with the therapist's help.

Choosing a psychotherapist that you feel comfortable with is important, and you might want to see more than one therapist before you make a decision (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved trauma usually impacts issues in your current life, no matter how long ago the trauma occurred.  Whether the impact is in your personal life, where core issues are most likely to come up, or in your work life or both, unresolved trauma often creates current problems (see my article: Reacting to Your Current Life Based on Your Traumatic Past).

Rather than struggling on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experienced trauma therapist.

If you're already in therapy and your therapist isn't trained in trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, Somatic Experiencing or clinical hypnosis, you can explore the possibility of adjunctive trauma therapy with a therapist who is trained in trauma therapy.  

Adjunctive therapy means that you continue to see your existing psychotherapist and see a trauma therapist for adjunctive therapy.  It's important to discuss this with your primary therapist first before you begin adjunctive therapy with a trauma therapist.  Also, in most cases, the primary therapist and the adjunctive therapist will ask for your written consent to be able to confer with each other (see my article: What is Adjunctive EMDR Therapy?).

Taking the first step, which is contacting a trauma therapist by phone or email, is often the hardest step.  

Once you have worked through your unresolved trauma, you have an opportunity to let go of your traumatic history so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who provides integrative psychotherapy (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy)

As a trauma therapist, I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome their traumatic experiences.

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.