3 Tools that Can Help Victim-Survivors Heal

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

In the aftermath of sexual abuse, many victim-survivors struggle with their mental health, facing problems including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and intimacy issues. As knowledge about trauma recovery has grown, mental health experts have developed an array of tools that can help survivors heal.

To learn more about some of the tools and techniques available to aid survivors, we spoke with Patricia Gallagher Marchant, MSW, LCSW, a Milwaukee-based psychotherapist with more than 35 years of experience working with survivors of a range of traumatic experiences. These include grief and loss in relationships, health crises, physical abuse, and child sexual abuse. Marchant understands this work on a deeply personal level; she is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest in her home parish when she was just eight years old. (Marchant shared her story with Awake earlier this year, in a post available here.)

Marchant says her own healing involved many chapters of talk therapy, which she began in high school. As useful and important as it was for her to talk with a skilled, trusted therapist, psychotherapy alone did not address all of her pain. “We couldn’t get at the frozenness I felt in certain parts of my body,” she explains. “The younger you are when you are harmed, the harder it is to access that verbally. Most who have been severely traumatized will describe that they experience a numbness or frozenness that can be constant or come and go.”

In the early 1990s, Marchant began learning about a then-new tool called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. She trained with one of the pioneers of this therapy just as her own frightening memories from childhood were resurfacing, triggered by her own daughter reaching the age that Marchant was when she was abused. EMDR was helpful for Marchant, and she saw the possibilities for her patients as well. “It’s in that frozen space that EMDR really opened up hope and possibility for complete healing,” she says.

Since then, Marchant has received additional training in modalities that can help people process their trauma and heal from it. The combination of talk therapy and these other trauma-centered therapies helped her to ease both the pain of her abuse as well as the additional trauma of what she describes as “institutional abuse”—being challenged and silenced by Church leaders when she came forward in her 30s to share her story. “The denial within the hierarchy, the harboring of pedophiles, and the culture of secrecy all required courage to confront,” she explains.

Here Marchant shares three techniques that she and others in the field say can be useful in helping victim-survivors heal.

  1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. This technique was initially  discovered by psychotherapist Francine Shapiro, who was walking in a park in the 1980s when she noticed that when she moved her eyes back and forth rapidly while thinking about a disturbing memory from her past, her distress around that memory eased. She tried this same technique with Vietnam veterans with PTSD, and learned that they experienced a similar calming effect. She theorized that the back and forth eye movement is similar to the rapid eye movement that happens during deep dream states, which may allow the brain to process traumatic memories. Survivors also start to link the distressing memory with more positive beliefs, and good feelings follow. Since Shapiro began developing EMDR therapy, hundreds of studies have found that the technique is effective in helping people achieve emotional distance from intense, painful memories, allowing them to heal, Marchant explains.

    When EMDR was first introduced, therapists would move their hands back and forth rapidly in front of the client’s eyes as the client thought about the traumatic event. Now, instead of using their hands, many therapists use sound. The client wears headphones and listens to music or other sounds that alternate from one ear to the other. The therapist and client then pause and begin to talk about the memory. “You create enough distance from the disturbing memory that it’s like watching it on a movie screen, or watching it go by while sitting on a train,” Marchant says. “The train is going down the track and you’re seeing that time in your life go by without being in the gut of it.” Typically EMDR is integrated into ongoing psychotherapy. To find a trained EMDR practitioner near you, Marchant recommends visiting the EMDR website at emdria.org.
  2. Brainspotting. This is a therapy related to EMDR and developed by David Grand, Ph.D. He believes that where we rest our eyes in our visual field affects how we feel emotionally and in our bodies. Grand says that people have a “relevant eye position,” or a place where they tend to gaze when they are focused on a feeling or memory that is particularly difficult or stuck. Marchant explains that this spot is different for everyone. The therapist guides the client to look around their visual field until they settle on what is most activating and disturbing. When the client’s eyes reach that relevant eye position, the therapist helps the client stay there for as long as feels comfortable, to talk about and explore the memories and feelings that surface.

    Marchant says Brainspotting is one of the tools she uses most often with people who have traumatic wounds. “It’s an opening to process pain directly and the pain can be released quite comfortably,” she says. “Brainspotting paired with audio EMDR has helped a lot of people. These are powerful tools.” The website brainspotting.com includes a directory of practitioners trained to perform this technique for recovery.
  3. Somatic Experiencing (SE). This body-focused therapy maintains that our bodies hold on to past traumas, which may show up as physical symptoms including pain, panic attacks, digestive problems, rage, or insomnia. Somatic Experiencing was developed by Peter Levine, Ph.D., who noticed that animals in the wild regularly face life-threatening situations but do not show signs of trauma, in part because they have techniques for discharging the massive energy required to fight or flee after the threat passes. Levine suggests that people with post-traumatic stress disorder need help discharging that energy, which turns off the alarms that keep them in a state of alert.

    In Somatic Experiencing work, the therapist and client focus very closely on the client’s inner physical sensations, including heart rate, breathing, body temperature, body movements, and more, which are linked to the traumatic memory. Over time, the therapist and client work to “discharge” that old, stuck energy little by little, teaching the client to notice those sensations and to draw on positive memories, activities, or people who bring them comfort to anchor them and help them feel stable.

    The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute at traumahealing.org includes a “Find a Practitioner” button on its home page.  

Many victim-survivors benefit from some combination of talk therapy along with one or more of these tools, Marchant says. “A good relationship with a trusted therapist allows one to let go of the deeper pain and accompanying fear,” she says. The creative arts, including dance, art, and music, as well as acupuncture and yoga can also be deeply healing, Marchant adds. And she has found that the Comprehensive Resource Model, developed by Lisa Schwarz, M.Ed., can be helpful in cases of complex trauma.

No matter which tools you use, Marchant stresses that it’s important to find a knowledgeable, skilled practitioner with whom you feel safe. “It’s critically important to be paired with an unconditionally supportive, trusted therapist or psychiatrist,” Marchant says. “I would recommend interviewing your therapist to see if you experience a good connection before you begin this deep work.” She notes that skilled practitioners are particularly busy right now, especially during the COVID pandemic, which has led more people to seek mental health help. But she notes that there are many trauma-informed therapists currently working in the Milwaukee area.

Marchant has a message for survivors who may be struggling. “Healing is possible,” she says. “Grieving what happened to you is essential to reclaim all of yourself, your wholeness. Allow yourself to go to the depth of your being, talk about what is unspeakable, and release the anger, hurt, fear, and pain you have carried for years.” Many clients do achieve acceptance and peace. “Letting go of trauma is a complex process,” Marchant says. “It is definitely worth the time and patience with a good therapist as a guide to discover new life and possibility.”

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.

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