Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
As a psychologist, one of my practice tenets is that healing trauma is possible. I'm a big believer in our natural resilience, and my goal is to support that resilience—especially because trauma healing is best done with support. November is Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, which has the third highest rate of self-reported spousal violence among Canadian provinces, and it’s also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is why in this post I wanted to offer 7 tools to heal the trauma of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).
1. Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a gentle, body-based therapy for healing trauma, an approach created by Dr. Peter Levine. The SE worldview is based on the idea that, since trauma is stored in the body, the way to heal it is also through the body, slowly releasing it by working through body sensations.
Professionals with training in SE can use the approach to work with clients whether they are hoping to heal from an acute traumatic incident (such as a sexual assault) or a chronic stressor (such as intimate partner violence). During an SE session, clients are invited to begin with the part of the experience that is least activating for them, known as titration. Then, they slow down and notice what is happening in their body, in order to give it space to process the event, and together with their therapist they name and explore these sensations without judgment. With time and the container of the room, people usually notice that the sensations change and the activation that has been held inside begins to release. All of this happens at the pace of the client and after some grounding practices to help them feel safe have been established.
In my role as a Registered Psychologist trained in SE, I aim to be a guide and a constant reminder that our survival responses are all incredibly adaptive. I recognize that people can be blamed for their experiences and their survival responses, so I help clients work through any leftover shame they may be experiencing for the ways in which their bodies helped them survive. This is also a feminist counselling approach.
2. S.A.F.E. EMDR
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based trauma therapy that allows clients to access and process traumatic experiences. We attend to emotionally disturbing material while doing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements, though I tend to use tapping or hand buzzers) in order to help move through the event. The goal is for distress to reduce, while new insights around the event can come forward.
In particular, the Somatic And Attachment Focused approach, or S.A.F.E. EMDR, relies on a compassionate relationship and body-based resources to help clients understand and appreciate the adaptations their systems have already made before rather than simply trying to fix them.
3. Reclaiming Pleasure by Holly Richmond
Dr. Holly Richmond is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as one of North America’s leading sex therapists, with a PhD in Somatic Psychology. Grounded in cutting-edge research, Reclaiming Pleasure. A Sex Positive Guide for Moving Past Sexual Trauma and Living a Passionate Life examines the lasting impacts of sexual trauma, and the somatic and psychological factors at play in recovery. It also offers tools to help you move beyond feelings of shame and cultivate the sense of safety, security and trust needed to rediscover and reclaim pleasure and desire.
4. Sounds Like a Cult - The Cult of Toxic Relationships
Sounds Like a Cult is a comedy podcast about the modern-day “cults” we all follow, with hosts Isa Medina and Amanda Montell. In their episode The Cult of Toxic Relationships, with relationship advice columnist Dan Savage as a guest, they discuss questions like: How are toxic lovers (and friends and bosses) similar to cult leaders? What cult-like tactics do these “charismatic” abusers use to lure people in and make them stay?
5. Changing Contexts Approach
Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence in partnership with the Engaging Men Learning Collaborative designed the approach Changing Contexts: A Framework for Engaging Male-Oriented Settings in Gender Equality and Violence Prevention – Practitioners’ Guide. Of course, men are victims of domestic violence, too, often silent due to social stigma, and all genders have a role to play in ending gender-based violence and inequality. However, as the authors of this project argue, the gender justice movement cannot be achieved by women or gender-diverse persons alone, and men are critical to shifting environmental cues in male-oriented settings.
This guide outlines ways in which human service professionals can collaborate with people in those specific settings to shift their contextual dynamics towards more prosocial, gender-equitable behaviours. The Changing Contexts approach complements current ‘changing minds’ approaches (e.g., psychoeducational) to engage men in gender equality and violence prevention by highlighting ways that contextual changes can be used to influence behaviour, including changes to social norms, organizational design, sociocultural and physical design.
6. PEACE Resource Protocol
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is a therapeutic modality for trauma and attachment issues founded by Dr. Pat Ogden. In this holistic approach (that includes somatic, emotional, and cognitive processing and integration), the body is an integral source of information, which can guide resourcing and the accessing and processing of challenging, traumatic, and developmental experience.
One of the free resources offered by the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute that I found particularly helpful is their PEACE Resource Protocol: 5 Steps to Activate Modulation & Build Resilience, which is offered in their free webinar Building Resilience in Times of War, Violence, and Other Traumatic Events. I’m sharing it below with their permission, and you can also download a PDF for easy printing here.
7. Healing Trauma Toolkit
This is one of my own free resources, so if you’re a regular reader, you might already have it! I've learned a number of tools over the years that I believe are essential in healing trauma, and I share them with my clients often. I draw mostly on the work of Peter Levine and Diane Poole Heller, though they are not the only therapists that have influenced the content of this toolkit.
These tools can help you focus on one of the following:
You can download the PDF here.
I hope these resources will be valuable to you if you need them, or that you can share them with anyone who might. Remember that the Family Violence Info Line in Alberta is 310-1818 for call (toll-free) or text in over 170 languages, and you can also chat online 24/7 for support, information or referrals (in English). Finally, if you or someone you know is in immediate danger, always call 911.
In Canada, June is an opportunity to celebrate and learn about Indigenous history. At the same time, though, we're coping with a profound national grief. Some people are coming to terms with the truly devastating realities our Indigenous communities have faced and continue to face for the first time, while others have expressed that they are saddened but not surprised by the ongoing news. The mass graves found at the sites of former residential “schools” are painful reminders of not just a historical trauma but also the current and ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma, cultural genocide, and persisting systemic racism. Instead of celebrating Canada Day this Thursday, here are 3 calls to action to honour Indigenous peoples.
Before we dive in, for any Indigenous community members who have been affected by this news, please know that there are resources available to support you, as listed on SACE’s website.
Hearing the truth
Some of you who are not part of the Indigenous community have already been wondering how you might be able to respond to surfacing events. Personally, I appreciate SACE’s sentiment that “Reconciliation must start with truth”. We can all make a commitment to hearing the truth with humility and compassion.
Following this, we can become familiar with the calls to action of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the calls for justice found in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
As we all move through this challenging time and more people reconcile with the truth, I imagine that waves of grief may arise, though experienced differently for everyone. It may be helpful to keep Susan Silk’s “Ring Theory” in mind. From my perspective, it reminds us that we’ll all be impacted by the stories we’ve been hearing to varying degrees. Our job is to ensure that we’re gaining the support we need from those in our own circle or further away from the trauma, and sending support toward the centre of those most impacted by the event.
Source: Illustration by Wes Bausmith
While reading or listening to stories of trauma, I also think it’s important to consider how we can do so in a way that allows us to stay in a seat of empathy and presence. Often, people begin with an aim to stay informed but end up dissociated because they’ve become dysregulated by imagining the traumatic events. You may relate to the idea of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” in order to understand what they’ve gone through.
It turns out that imagining what it would be like to experience someone else’s trauma not only puts us at risk for vicarious trauma, it also isn’t very effective. If you’re reading or listening to a lot about trauma right now, I invite you to try something else instead: stay curious. I’ll be sharing more about this idea in an upcoming course I have on vicarious trauma, so please watch for that.
Ensuring appropriate healthcare access
Finally, for those who are healthcare professionals, there are a number of things we can do to ensure appropriate healthcare access. Start by checking out this article on How We Can Support Indigenous Peoples’ Wellness. I also have found it helpful to learn about the ideas around decolonizing mental health. It aligns really well with a feminist counselling perspective where we try to understand the historical and present context people are dealing with in order to understand why they might be struggling and offer trauma-informed support that aims not to pathologize.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Karlee Fellner where, in addition to talking about decolonization, she focused on “Indigenizing Psychology”. On her website, she offers a definition for both terms:
“decolonizing involves breaking down colonial ideologies & how they manifest, looking to Indigenous counter-stories of survivance & relationality instead. Indigenizing centres Indigenous ways of knowing, using local knowledges, traditions, and languages to address the interests of particular communities. together, these processes contribute to Indigenous self-determination and healing”.
I hope these brief ideas have been helpful. If you’re looking for more, please keep listening - both inside yourself and to the many voices in our Indigenous communities as well.
It’s hard saying no. For a lot of new therapists, we really struggle with the idea of disappointing someone in our care.
It can be easy to feel that because our clients need something, we need to be the one to give it to them. I hear new therapists say things like “but they need evening hours – they can’t make it during the normal workday“ or “they need a sliding scale – they can’t afford the full fee”.
When I saw Dr. Gabor Mate - author and renowned addiction expert - speak in October 2012, he gave a definition of trauma that I wrote down, and since then I’ve been collecting other definitions. I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of what it is we’re trying to heal. Dr. Mate would say that trauma is the suppression of natural fears and emotions, and that all mental illness is an attempt to get away from ourselves.
I'm currently reading Peter Levine's "Healing Trauma" and feeling SO GRATEFUL that he's written out a handy list of words to describe bodily sensations. When I work with clients, I often ask them to describe thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations of any given experience - and a lot of folks struggle with this! Most of us live in our heads and have a difficult time finding words for these other, equally important, parts of ourselves. So the next time your therapist asks how you are, instead of "okay" or "not so good", try asking yourself what sensation in your body tells you you're feeling that way.
Working in the area of sexual violence has taught me that for many folks, understanding our experience and having a name for it can help us heal from it. Knowing the definitions of sexual assault and consent and being able to claim the word "survivor" can be extremely powerful.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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