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Assimilating Trauma Through Focusing

by Deirdre (Ricki) Morse, Ph.D.

My primary treatment for trauma is implicit in the process of Focusing, that is, experiencing the self as the locus of control. We all remember, or perhaps even experience daily, the sense of being out of control, assailed by emotions and events, battered by nightmares, flashbacks, terror, hyper-sensitive to the people around us. In working with someone for whom these experiences are a constant presence, I have found that Focusing, through its inherent structure, provides a path out of the cycles of anxiety and withdrawal. I follow a three-level process for teaching this path.

The first level is the most crucial and informs everything that happens throughout the rest of the therapeutic relationship as it establishes the parameters of the association between therapist and client. The therapist is a companion only, not a leader. All of the power to say yes and no resides in the client. The therapist provides a zone of safety in being congruent, believable as a person, consistent in body language and facial expression with the words spoken. Traumatized people are hypervigilant. They can spot a phony a mile away, and they are brilliant in recognizing manipulation. The therapist holds the client in "unconditional positive regard," to quote Carl Rogers. This doesn't mean affection, love or intimacy. It means something very special and very important. It means regarding the client as a separate, viable, unique, interesting and responsible person, with emphasis on the word separate. The therapist has no emotional conditions for the relationship, that the client improve, that the client comply, that the client agree with the therapist. And the therapist is not an expert on the client, nor will she ever be. This stance produces a safety zone in the office, and I like to ask on the second visit how the client feels about my office, being here, sitting in one seat or another, finding actual physical comfort. Safety resides in just such simple acts. This level may last for months, while the client tests this new experience of being listened to with complete attention, responded to in ways that indicate the therapist actually heard him, discovering through this exchange the complexity and multiplicity of feelings, sensations, memories, dreams, thoughts contained in a single experience. This relationship continues throughout the therapy, but will move to the next level as the client begins to get it, to get that he is unique, complex, more that thought, more than terror, more than any one aspect and that he can move from one perception of self to another with ease.

The second level is what I call peripheral Focusing. I spend some time modeling this experience and am certain to get explicit permission to suggest the client try it. "How would you feel about trying what I just showed you?" Often the first suggestion is rejected, which means to me I was pushing the envelope of their tolerance. "Slow down, slower, slower." When the client does try it out, I suggest he put his attention in a finger, a toe, his forehead, and really be present in that part of the body. During this exercise I encourage the client to let me know of any sensations that arise during this Focusing. Often memories come, or a recent experience, and we move out of the exercise, which we may try a few times each session over varying periods of time, as the client discovers the different sensory worlds of different parts of the body in a given moment and can slow down effectively to let the attention rest easily in a body part.

It is at this point that I introduce zooming, keeping the attention well focused in a body part and then moving away from the sensation there, and back into the sensation, zooming toward and away from the felt sense, as if attending to it from a great distance and moving closer, controlling the distance of the observer-self from the body sensation. Often during these exercises the client becomes interested in the observer-self, and we spend a lot of time noticing aspects of the observer, its objectivity, its imperviousness to anxiety, its omnipotence. A client once likened it to the eyes of a great owl, slowly turning toward him, huge round yellow eyes taking him in with no idea, no judgment, no emotion, but full attention.

You can readily see that the client now has powerful tools for dealing with his memories of the trauma. He recognizes his own complexity, that he is not all one thing (he is not just the overwhelming trauma memory). He now knows that he can gain a distance within himself from the "overwhelming," create a space which he can control. One client thought of it as a vast desert which he moved over at great speed, finding just exactly the tolerable distance from the felt sense of the trauma, so that he could still be curious about it but be under no threat from it. He described this experience of finding exactly the right distance from the felt sense as similar to the approach exercise which we had used during the peripheral level of Focusing.

The sense of zooming is very useful to the therapist also, allowing her to find just the right time, intensity, placement of a suggestion, coming from her own felt sense in this particular moment rather than from a model like the one presented here. To come full circle, I always hold my own felt sense as my best guide, better than a model, better than quoting someone else, because the felt sense is here at this particular, unique, never to be repeated moment, listening. Perhaps you will find that my suggestions are sometimes present in your moments with victims of trauma.