How therapists help clients change…new pathways….

When you take an action, a neural pathway is created which allows that action to be taken more easily next time. This is the ‘learning to ride a bike’ thing. You can’t ride a bike, then suddenly you can, and you don’t forget again. My father learned to swim at the age of 70. Throughout my childhood I knew ‘Dad can’t swim’. Then one day out of the blue my mother telephoned, and announced that he could swim. He had learned – he created a neural pathway and now (he is in his nineties) he is a swimmer. So the neuroscience is clear, if you create a pathway for something it becomes a possibility. This is a form of neural plasticity – the brain can change.

How can this be harnessed for therapeutic change? This is simple. Understand that when you get in to action, you create some sort of a pathway. So for example, if you forgive someone who has wronged you, something shifts inside of you. A pathway is created within you. Probably you will feel this in the chest/heart area. As you let the hurt go, and re-open to goodwill for that person, you are DOING something in your body, there will be a sensation (an actual sensation) in your heart area. This is the creation of a pathway. Next time you take the same path (forgive that person, forgive another person) it will be a bit easier.

In trauma, one of the things that happens is that we have a moment of sensing that there is nothing that we can DO. We freeze. We might be right about this – it


may be that in the trauma moment there is no action open to us. So in working with people who are struggling with trauma, one of the most simple interventions which you can make is to help them to take an action. Notice where a person might be experiencing something non-optimal (particularly to do with their freedom, their body) and notice where they are not taking ACTION to alleviate the symptom. When your client walks in to the room, are they clear where they want to sit or are they waiting for you to indicate? Instead of indicating, experiment with offering the person the chance to make the choice, and to take an action. Then to change the action if they want (choose) to. Do this countless times. Make it conscious (in other words, begin a dialogue with the client about actions and freezing).

Therapists know that it is often the smallest of interventions which make the difference in the transformation work with someone. Paying attention to bodily action is a way of addressing embodiment which is unthreatening, effective, and holistic.

Overcoming trauma – a transpersonal roadmap

Here are four easy principles for working with complex trauma – your own and your clients’ traumas. If you follow these principles you will not go far wrong. This is based on the work of Bessel van de Kolk, and David Emerson. The reason I have posted this is to begin to address the growing sense of anxiety and diminishment of confidence about working with trauma. An integrative therapist can and should be working with trauma – this is how.

A word of clarification – complex trauma is the term given to an accumulation of difficult experiences over time, which disrupt the person’s capacity to experience normal cycles of arousal and rest. Where the ‘trauma’ is much more of a single event there are other interventions which can be of great benefit and which work on that specific event. This post is about complex trauma.

  • Encourage present moment awareness. Bring the therapy in to the here and now, work with breath, presence, and conscious in-the-room-nowness. In trauma we are whisked out of ourselves and our present moment – tackling trauma involves rebuilding faith in the present moment.
  • Encourage choice. Do not made decisions for your client. In trauma choice seems to be removed, we feel we lack choice about what happens to us. So in tacking trauma we need to restore the truth that we have choices.
  • Get in to action. In trauma we ‘freeze’. Tackle this by taking an action. You feel hot? take of your jumper. You have a tickle in your throat? Cough. These basic actions (and look how basic they are!) are about taking ACTION to change your circumstances. Working like this with trauma means we are addressing the freeze.
  • Foster rhythm. Humans are rhythmic beings and trauma bounces us out of rhythm. Get back to rhythm. Think heart rhythm. Think breath. Think routine. Keep stable weekly appointments. Boundaries, rhythms, and this will correct the crazy.


And that is how you work with trauma. Be generous and loving. Be kind. Remember that it is scary. But take these four principles to the heart of your work with trauma and people will recover. Really they will. What you don’t want to do is just operate a flimsy talking therapy which ignores these basic principles. Present moment, choice, action, rhythm.

How is this a transpersonal roadmap? I use the expression because there is a lot of confusion about how transpersonal work only works with energies which can often seem to be quite disembodied. Disembodied work will NOT work with trauma, either specific trauma or complex trauma. The only way to make any kind of effective and safe intervention with trauma work is to restore a sense of whole-being embodied presence in the moment. Restoring a sense of being an embodied being. That is what this road map seeks to do. So this is transpersonal work par excellence.

Present moment, choice, action, rhythm. Be calm. Be reassuring. You can do this.


Emerson, D., & Hopper, E. (2011). Overcoming trauma through yoga: Reclaiming your body. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Van, . K. B. A., Pratt, S., Gildan Media Corporation., & Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma (this ref is for an audio version of this classic).

Therapy as safe harbour.

During times of turmoil, the therapeutic relationship can provide a refuge, a moment of peace, a place of safety. It is not always like this of course, nor should it be. Sometimes the therapeutic relationship is fraught and frightening – we use the therapy space to grow and as therapists we offer ourselves to our clients as companions in the agonies of encounter with the Other. But sometimes therapy is a refuge. Knowing what is called for at any particular point of a person’s therapeutic journey  is one of the reasons that therapists train for so long, and stay in life-long supervision for their work.

But sometimes therapy is a safe harbour. Equally, sometimes we have to look for the safe harbours in our life which will be therapeutic for us. It might be a spiritual practice, or a physical practice. Maybe it is  gardening,  making bread, stamp collecting, or bell ringing. Your safe harbour might be a particular relationship, or a known and supportive routine. Knowing what it is that provides you with refuge is important.

Dissociation is the shadow of this. When we dissociate we ‘check out’ of life. We become absent, not present. It is not a way of living, but a way of dying. A way of being un-alive. You can spot the points in your life when you have been dissociated, because they are the ones of which you have little memory. Many people say that they can not remember much about their childhood – this is probably because they were dissociated for the majority of the time. It is a trauma response, a way of coping when life does not add up. But it is not living. Dissociation robs you of your life. It is not a safe harbour.

Seek refuge from Life in Life.  This koan-like structure can help us with the struggle, and can be a safe harbour all by itself. Don’t dissociate. We miss you when you are not here.IMG_1005



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