When your clients can't visualise 'happy', 'rich' or ‘thin’

If you're a service-based practitioner in the business of helping others change and transform, you already know cognitive techniques don’t work for everyone. This is particularly true for people whose brains have been changed by trauma.

We’ve all had clients who struggled with visualisation exercises. Did you feel your skillset was somehow lacking when you couldn’t help them? When you took them through your usually effective visualisation process, did it feel awkward - even forced?

Often accessing imaginal states and curiosity is challenging for people whose brains have been impacted by early trauma. (It doesn't mean they can't do it, but other neurons might fire more rapidly).

 

Let’s Start with Some Basics

The brain's neural pathways to happiness, wealth, satiety and pleasure are formed by the experiences an individual has in their life. Different life experiences mean the brain functions differently.

If your client has trauma rooted in early childhood experiences (which are likely to have impacted on critical stages of neurological and nervous system development), then methods that access conscious thought via the brain’s cortex (the thinking and analysing part of the brain) are often only partially effective.

That's because people with early trauma have a hair-trigger amygdala which sets off an alarm whenever stress chemistry is present – even ‘good’ stress that comes from excitement or novelty.

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Mobilising Self-Protective Defences

If the trauma happened at an early age (before arms and legs were able to respond), the person was unable to mobilise physical defences (e.g., running away, hitting, striking out). If the person experienced ongoing, repeated threat from an early age and were thus unable to defend themselves, their only response could be to use their mind to escape danger.

Thereafter, whenever that person thought about assessing danger and finding safety, their neural pathways etched deeper neural grooves direct to the neo-cortex to ‘think’ their way out of the problem (instead of mobilising physical resources to get away from the problem).

This means that someone with frequent experiences of overwhelming stress in their childhood is particularly effective at thinking and analysing, and they default to this strategy to escape from stressful situations.

In the face of overwhelming threat, that person will freeze. Brain and body will shut down, because there is no neural learning of mobilising a bodily response to defend against threat.

People with developmental trauma (also known as ‘complex trauma’ or ‘complex post-traumatic stress’), have practised over-riding their internal alarm when around other people so they can have the social connection they simultaneously crave and fear. They try to over-ride their instinctual fear by diverting neural resources to the neo-cortex, which sadly sets them up for anxiety disorders and panic attacks down the line.

However, there is good news for clients and practitioners!

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 Trauma survivors are incredibly adaptive and creative – they are able to problem-solve like none other. Many can creatively problem-solve at lightning speed. For some, it's not even a conscious process - their minds easily find the shortest route to the most innovative solutions.

The other thing many trauma survivors know how to do well, is to get out of situations that don't feel good to them - and if doing a visualisation or imaginal exercise doesn't feel good, they will find creative ways to avoid it - even constructing what looks like self-sabotage when it's actually a survival strategy.

The good news for practitioners is, the body doesn't lie. Learn/study/apply somatic techniques to help your clients bypass their rational mind, and you will assist even your most stuck clients meet their goals for change.

Holding a contained space by non-judgmentally welcoming the expression of your client’s whole self will help them sense that you are safe enough. A therapist who can let go of their agenda to ‘help’ their client or their need to help their client feel safe, will create the necessary conditions of safety (and ironically be more helpful).

Without safety, the client cannot work, so recognising that the real ‘work’ is embedded in the relationship between the practitioner and the client is the most important thing to bring attention and presence to.