The experience of a healing relationship, whether it is between a therapist and client, or parent and child, is the most change-producing factor. For example, many studies on therapy outcome reveal that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is the primary ingredient associated with positive results – more important than any theory or methods used.

Positive change requires a relationship in which people experience trust, safety, empathy, support, healthy boundaries, and “limbic resonance” (emotional and mental attunement).

Much of learning, growth, and healing is experiential and starts in the early stages of life. A baby’s experience of safe, nurturing, supportive and loving attachments not only affects emotional and social development, but actually shapes the baby’s developing brain.

A baby’s brain is an “open-loop system,” dependent on parent’s/caregiver’s support, security and emotional connection for healthy growth and functioning. Early attachment experiences shape the brain’s structure, chemistry, and genetic expression. These early relationship experiences impact the baby’s brain in several ways.

First, they activate neuronal firing, creating synaptic connections between neurons (“what fires together wires together”).

Second, biochemicals are triggered and released. Secure attachment between baby and parent triggers the release of Dopamine (pleasure, closeness, motivation), Endorphins (reduces pain, enhances calmness and contentment), Serotonin (stress reduction) and Oxytocin (fosters maternal behavior and bonding).

Third, early experiences of secure or insecure attachment are programmed into the implicit memory systems (preverbal and unconscious) of the brain’s limbic system, and become mindsets and expectations that guide subsequent behavior.

For example, you may fear intimacy and dependency as an adult because of experiencing abandonment and betrayal as a child.

Another example of the experiential basis for learning, growth, and healing is the relationship between a child and a healing parent. A healing parent helps children who had painful and damaging experiences early in life, such as abuse and neglect, and, consequently, do not trust adults or view the world as a safe place.

Parents who adopt children from foster care or orphanages must be healing parents because children typically do poorly when they lack loving and safe attachments during the early years of life. Early emotional connections affect every aspect of development – mind, brain, emotions, behavior, relationships and morality.

Beyond parenting concepts and techniques, the primary vehicle for positive change and healing from prior traumas is the child’s experience of a special relationship with his or her parents – sensitive and responsive to their needs, appropriate boundaries, and structure, being empathic, supportive, nurturing, safe, and a positive role model. The goal for healing is the experience of connection, not merely modification of the child’s behavior.

Experiential interventions are a necessary part of a holistic approach to recovering from trauma. Effective therapy involves mental, emotional, somatic and social experiences in a safe, supportive and compassionate environment.

Healing experiences in therapy have five components:

  1. Clients are fully engaged and motivated
  2. Clients acknowledge and experience authentic emotions, not intellectualizing, denying or avoiding
  3. Focus is interpersonal – therapist-client, parent-child, adult partners
  4. Using symbols that have deep meaning
  5. Incorporate imagery and visualization. Therapeutic experiences can facilitate deep and lasting change in many realms – rewire the traumatized brain, change negative core beliefs into positive and hopeful mindsets, create healthy relationships (trust, empathy, safety, boundaries, reciprocity, love), and learning empowering coping skills (anger management, conflict resolution, communication).

Specific experiential interventions we use with traumatized children and adults are described below:

First Year Attachment Cycle

The four stages of creating attachment between babies and caregivers are explained: needs – arousal – gratification – trust.

For clients who experienced abuse and/or neglect (i.e., early developmental trauma), they are asked to visualize their “inner child,” and to be aware of the consequences of compromised attachment (anger, fear, loss, lack of trust, shame, self-blame, anxiety regarding closeness, negative self-identity).

This sets the stage for cognitive and affective revision – empathy and understanding of the self, and the working through of emotional trauma.

Inner Child Metaphor

The client visualizes him or herself at an earlier time in life, when trauma occurred, and uses a teddy bear to symbolize their “inner child.” The client is asked to be aware of the perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and somatic reactions of that wounded child, and gives that child a voice.

This is usually very emotional and provides a vehicle for self-awareness, self-compassion and increased self-esteem, development of coping skills, and a sense of empowerment and mastery over trauma (i.e., from victim to overcomer).

Psychodramtic Reenactment

Treatment team members role-play scenarios from the client’s life to “revisit” and work through prior trauma. This experiential exercise enhances genuine participation in the therapeutic process, identifies thoughts, emotions, and defenses associated with trauma, and promotes empowerment and healing by achieving alternative perspectives, emotional resolution, and healthy behavioral responses.

For example, an adult client who was abused as a child talks with his or her abuser in the role play. The client goes from victim (fearful, emotionally shut down, experiencing self-blame and shame) to overcomer (assertive, emotionally genuine, externalizing responsibility for abuse) with the support and encouragement of the therapists. This leads to establishing new neuronal networks in the brain, self-enhancing narratives, and reduced fear.

Magic Wand (Forgiveness)

Forgiveness is associated with emotional, relational, physical and spiritual health. Forgiveness helps to reduce anger, hurt and fear, while increasing empathy, understanding, and compassion.

Forgiveness does not mean that prior maltreatment and betrayal were acceptable, but rather the person chooses to let go of negative emotions, create a new sense of self, and begins to thrive.

The therapist says, “pretend that with this magic wand the person who hurt you is healthy for ten minutes, will listen and understand you, and take responsibility for their part in the trauma. What do you want to express?”

During this dialogue, the idea is reinforced that the client is not responsible for early maltreatment (i.e., letting go of self-blame and shame), and the client may gain compassion toward the hurtful person. This experience often leads to forgiveness and mastery over the trauma.  

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TERRY M. LEVY, Ph.D., D.A.P.A., has been a psychotherapist, trainer, supervisor and consultant for over 40 years. Dr. Levy is the director of the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center and the Attachment Treatment and Training Institute in Evergreen, Colorado. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in Colorado and Florida, a Board Certified Forensic Examiner and a Diplomate and Master Therapist of the American Psychotherapy Association. He is co-author of the best-seller Attachment, Trauma & Healing (2nd edition, 2014, Jessica Kingsley Publisher, London), editor of Handbook of Attachment Interventions (2000, Elsevier Press) and co-author of Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love (2006, Child Welfare League of America). Dr. Levy was the founder and previous director of the Family Life Center (Florida) and the Miami Psychotherapy Institute, which offered family systems treatment and training. He was co-founder and past-president of the board of directors of the Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children (ATTACh), an international organization dedicated to attachment and its critical importance to human development.

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