Horror Movies of the 2010’s

In the horror genre, you have to wade through a lot of mud to find the gems, but over the last 15 years this task was made easier as one frightening movie after another was released. The following films are what I consider some of those jewels. 

Martyrs 2008

The French film Martyrs is absolutely horrifying. It contains frightening ideas and puts decently sketched characters into ruthless situations. For instance the hero is haunted by the horrific child abuse she suffered at the hands of an evil cabal of socialites. The film depicts her attempt 20 years later to exact revenge. Martyrs contains extraordinary violence that sticks with the viewer.

If you’ve never watched it, stop what you’re doing and make a note somewhere to take it in at some point. You may want to remember to grab a little gravol to sprinkle into your popcorn. 

A l’interieur (Inside) 2007

The 2007 French film, Inside, is another film that felt bent on scaring the piss out of its audience. I believe that, like Martyrs, Inside set a high bar for subsequent horror films. A L’interieur is a depiction of the claustrophobic nightmare that unfolds when a disturbed woman comes to the home of a young couple to steal their unborn baby. Unholy chaos ensues as the couple defend their home. 

This film just goes too far- in exactly the way a horror film should. Inside racks up creative deaths by shocking violence, and issues provocative themes such as the dark side of motherhood and the isolation of middle class families. 

Livide 2011 (Livid)

Big surprise- I love French horror-thrillers. They often feel riskier and more brutal. Livid is another horror film from France that was really frightening and original. It depicts a woman who takes a job working as a nurse to a disabled woman living in an old mansion. After her first day, she and her low-IQ boyfriend break into the mansion believing it is without defense. The elderly homeowner, who lies tucked away on a breathing tube, is the only “thing” that stands in their way.

They succeed- if what you mean is meeting dreadful terror! The mansion is amazing. It comes alive as a multidimensional death trap and psychological torture chamber for the would-be thieves. Livide also has deeply unsettling ideas and images.The ballerina is hard to forget.

Get Out

Is it really a surprise that one of the USA’s best films about white supremacy and racial hatred also works as a ghastly chiller? Get Out is a mind blowing depiction of the violence orchestrated against people of colour in America. It blends this devastating theme into a twisted mystery-horror and scares the audience half to death in the process. As a subversive smack in the face, Get Out is the top of this list- by far. 

This movie’s scope details the pure evil of the Antebellum south, and weaves it into a profoundly frightening horror movie. I will never stir sugar into my afternoon tea again. 


Hereditary is a perfectly realized film about a family being corrupted by a clan of local Satanists.. The film is an uncompromising trip into hell that provides off-the-chart, unforgettable revulsion and fear. Though it successfully depicts horrifying violence, some of Hereditray’s most scary scenes are quiet bits of drama where reactions to what is actually happening move across characters’ faces. 

This was the only movie experience where for a moment while leaving the theatre I felt angry at the filmmakers for being so diabolical. It’s more like scarring now, two years and several counseling sessions later. Absolutely one of the best horror films ever. Tony Collette is incredible. 

Lights Out

Lights out plays on the simple, primordial idea that darkness harbours bad things that want to kill you. Good acting, writing and storytelling make this movie typical of the quality horror films that came out over the last 15 years. It’s really scary.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

This is one of my favourite movies of any genre. Like any good vampire film, A Girl Walks Home manages to be a frightening yet fuzzy-feeling romantic drama.

The setting is carefully portrayed to add dread. The surreal landscape of the desert town’s oil fields, railways and derricks churning on in the night; the deep sadness of Iran’s heroin problem and resulting cultural rot; and of course the night, beautifully photographed in black and white.

A Girl Walks Home expresses incendiary feminism and other structural themes. The vampire feeds coldly on the dealers of social decay wearing a burka. Bam! She parodies religious conservatism and exposes the tragedy of a community debilitated by the forces of industrialization, exploitation and mental illness. 

By the end of the film, the vampire vanquishes the innocent and falls in love with a boy. The record-playing scene is a masterpiece of Eros, transgression and subtlety.

A Quiet Place

Watching A Quiet PLace epitomized the feeling that quality was the focus of the recent decade’s horror films. It’s about a family surviving after the earth has fallen to an extraterrestrial race that hunt by sound alone. And by hunt, I mean humans. 

The monster is terrifying. This movie was frightening from start to finish. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski are amazing. There’s a number of great scenes where our heroes must remain completely silent during even the most… laborious moments. 

The Wailing

This slow burn builds ruthless tension with masterful storytelling, solid characters and haunting images. Well worth the 2.5 hours. One of the best horror movies I have ever seen. It’s also hard to explain.

What We Do In The Shadows

This is a spoof reality TV show about a house of vampires that is outstanding, hilarious and scary. 

It Follows 

It Follows works on multiple levels, employs good actors, has a solid story and invents a great new premise. This film has scared the crap out of me each time I rewatched it. I honestly can’t sit down in a park anymore without squinting into the distance at strangers who seem to be walking towards me….

It Follows flaunts gloomy urban backdrops of Detroit and it’s derelict, boarded-up homes. The city itself, like the film’s adolescent characters, live in the existential fog of neglect. It’s amazing soundtrack is deep, menacing synth that echoes 80’s horror films. Given the pure power of its frights, the simplicity of the main idea, and the calculated execution, It Follows is the most frightening film of the lot.


These movies are the reason I believe the previous decade or so was a golden era for horror fans. This list could be added to significantly, but these are a good cross-section of the excellent filmmaking that characterized the horror genre over the last 15 years.

Kindness in the Treatment of Traumatic Stress.

The experience of safety enables individuals healing from trauma to access levels of emotional pain required for healing. Feeling deeply is a natural human response to inescapably painful experiences. However, the personal and interpersonal dynamics that characterize traumatic stress prevent individuals from feeling at depth. This is part of the “hell” of PTSD- psychological disturbance combined with an unconscious apparatus that prevents sufficient awareness of traumatic memories.

Clinicians working with sufferers work firstly to establish safety. Safety is an internal experience related to calmness, and it includes a sense of connection to others. Thus, safety is both an interpersonal and intrapersonal phenomenon, reliant on the expression of humanistic traits such as empathy, creativity, and trust. These are modelled by clinicians in authentic ways, and emerge spontaneously in clients during treatment. Safety is a critical dialectic to trauma that must be realized in clients seeking recovery.

Kindness is a practical tool that can be taught to clients that also helps clients realize a dialectic to their pain. Like the stage-one trauma goal of safety, kindness creates feelings of well being and trust. Expressions of kindness likely result in kindness being returned, creating a self sustaining system of psychological reward, which can act in service to overall trauma recovery.

Kindness could therefore be used as the purposeful engagement of the complex, positive emotions that facilitate deep social connections. 

Polyvagal theory has discovered that traumatic stress disrupts functioning in areas of the body responsible for creating well-oiled social exchange. For example, warm facial expressions are sometimes reduced, making it difficult for others to approach them. Sufferer’s perceptions of positive social behaviour in others is also often disturbed. The hostility associated with PTSD, for example, can be attributed in part to missed or erroneous interpretations of social cues and their physiologic underpinnings in the body-mind.

The establishment of safety can be increased using kindness as a systematic interpersonal goal, in service to the dialectics of trauma recovery. Like the manner in which safety operates on an individual level, kindness resolves the social disconnectedness that lies at the heart of traumatic stress. 

Life In The Rest Of The Universe

The answer to whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is already available to you and me. 

We have a tremendous need for comfort on this matter and nothing provides relief like remembering how isolated and alone we humans are in the cosmos. If the universe happened instead to be full of life, as I believe it is, then not knowing this and not understanding this would be painful. Alone and isolated, or surrounded by life.

Our current approach is to put this question into science’s hands, which is totally understandable. Science’s approach, however, is to systematically deny it. That way, no one needs to feel pestered by the thought. 

I am going to try to demonstrate that life exists in the rest of the universe, but first let me mention beer-pong. If it were of interest to them, scientists might systematically observe some games of beer-pong, record those observations, use logic to reflect on their data, and compare this information to what we already know about the game of beer pong, or other drinking games. The scientists might uncover the game’s usefulness in helping students graduate college, by asking questions such as: “Does beer pong lead to bad grades in chemistry courses?” For the most part, science incrementally advances us towards knowledge, like this. 

Science has made some revolutionary discoveries: “The rest of the universe doesn’t revolve around the earth!” Most scientific headlines, though, make less of a splash outside their respective disciplines: “Mantis shrimp genes downregulate carrier proteins that control shell colour!”

If our question was instead related to whether beer-pong or mantis shrimp actually exist, scientific inquiry might not be the way to go. It’s too simple for science, in a way. It does not require systematic analysis to come to terms with the fact that beer pong exists. The existence of the game itself is understood through the much more basic level of experience. That would also mean getting drunk, by the way, which would probably count as a methodologic flaw in a study design.

How about the question, “does life exist?” Has it been answered fully for us? If a systematic inquiry were required for this question, science would probably have answered it long ago. This is not the case, however. A customer service rep at Wal Mart and DeGrasse Tyson are on equal footing here. The answer is available to both by experience.

“Does life exist” is already answered for the vast majority of people. First, we experience it. Secondly it is inferred. Admittedly, the inference, “life exists” is an assumption, but it is reinforced by the fact that the opposite sounds ridiculous: “Life does not exist.” The reason this statement sounds absurd is that it does not line up with the simple proof provided by experience. That is all that is required to answer basic questions about existence itself- beer-pong, mantis shrimp, or life.

By the way I’m not trying to prove this with logic. I’m sure this is full of fallacies. They do not interfere however with how simple experience answers simple questions of fundamental existence. The inference that life exists is the automatic conclusion of the experience. Even a 12th Century Priest would have agreed that life indeed exists. No peer-reviewed study needs to do the subject justice:

“Science Finally Proves That Life Exists!” 

Let’s consider the question, “Does life exist in the rest of the universe?” Sticking to the assumption that we don’t know whether life exists in the rest of the universe, might be the best way to avoid being one of those hippies that gather on rooftops in the California desert to invite “The Peaceful Ebens” for chamomile tea.

However, if life does exist in the rest of the universe, then our assumption is not only wrong, it includes a clear kind of suffering. You might call it the “desert island syndrome.”

When we say that we don’t know if life exists in other parts of the universe, what most of us honestly mean is that life does not exist in the rest of the universe until proven otherwise. In spite of what I’m about to demonstrate, most people spend their lives assuming that this beautiful blue rock is like a desert island.

Keep in mind, that our earth is positioned in a Milky Way with hundreds of billions of planets, a galaxy within a universe with maybe two trillion other galaxies

That life exists in other parts of the universe (or not) is not at all dependent on the human discovery of it. If that’s how reality worked, the sun wouldn’t have switched on until Hans Beth caused nuclear fusion in the 1940’s (bless his soul!). The modern scientist- and this is my complaint- currently has themselves and most of us convinced that life does not exist on other planets until it is proven by them.

Here is the thing. We are surrounded by life in the universe just as we are surrounded by life on this planet, and one day it will seem silly that we denied it. This denial though is not simply naïve, it is unhealthy. Like the belief in a geocentric universe, where the heavens revolve around the earth, denying a life-abundant universe disallows everyday people an understanding of their cosmic identity. There is an incredible feeling of interconnectedness that attends the realization of this truth. A lack of that is what I define as suffering in this case.

My basic proof is as follows: To say that life doesn’t exist in the rest of the universe relies on an implicit decision that we humans make, to divide “my world” from “the rest of the universe.” This is as much an existential problem as it is an astrological one, because as soon as my definition of the universe includes my backyard, then I notice that the very first example I see when I walk out the patio door is not a desert island floating randomly in space. Instead, my yard is abundant with life- my own life included. 

The universe hosts life in the way that my yard hosts life.

The stogy status quo would hasten to qualify their denial: “Haha, Bob. You can’t include the rest of the earth- or your yard- in your definition of the universe. I’m sorry we didn’t mention that at first!” You see? It’s one of those cases where the primordial assumption of our aloneness, prevents the simplest, most basic form of proof from being inferred: experience.

Experience is what tells us this universe hosts a staggering amount of life. We just look at our local universe. So long as we don’t exclude the earth from the cosmos, we understand this. Of course, it just so happens that it is the spiritualists who are closer to understanding this, because spirituality often start from the assumption of an interconnected cosmos, rather than proceeding from the assumption of a cold dead rock.

I don’t deny that from our current scientific angle, life in the universe is extremely rare, but we likely have a poor understanding of the apparent vast distances between celestial objects, which makes traversing those distances seem impossible. There is extraordinary abundance, along with vast distances of space. The addition of a technology beyond our current grasp likely fills this deeply mysterious paradox.

The earth also happens to contain a proliferation of sentient beings, should we apply the same simple, experiential proof. We couldn’t fantasize of a place with a greater abundance of sentient beings than earth- our home and the very first aspect of the cosmos of which every human has an experience.

That likely means 

there is a feline species, 

out by quasar 66, 

rolling around in the dirt right now, 

eating something like tuna out of an old tea-saucer, 

put out by someone in an apron does dishes

under a fan-like-thing sweeping back and forth

only poorly cooling things off.

One day, the erroneous belief that we exist in a cold and dead universe will evaporate and everyone will be better for it. 

How To Use Radical Acceptance As A Political Tool

Radical Acceptance is a skill from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy.

Some structural social problems are serious enough to warrant radical acceptance on our part. Though resistance is also crucial to changing social issues such as the rise of neoliberal fascists like D Trump, such events also challenge us to do more than simply change. Radical acceptance as a political tool enables us to do something other than resist, but which is complimentary to such resistance.

By including non resistance, we may enable deeper political truths to pervade, leading in turn to more potential critical social action or thought. In DBT, radical acceptance is a skill taught to transform clients experience by helping people regulate their emotions. We can adapt this skill quite nicely, however, to political or structural problems.

Steps for radical acceptance of political phenomena, modified from DBT:

  • Observe that we may be fighting reality in some way (“It shouldn’t be this way”).
  • Remind ourselves that the reality is as it is and cannot at the moment be changed.
  • Think of ways the event was caused.. Be as objective as we can. If we are doing the acceptance exercise for a structural problem such as poverty, try to filter out beliefs that might impede us from noticing other things. For instance, if you are left-oriented, it may seem antithetical to notice that there could be an element of choice in the stories of some people experiencing poverty. 
  • Notice that, taken together, the facts and history about the phenomenon have all led to this moment.
  • Actively search for one or two ways, by which we directly or indirectly were a part of the manifestation of this reality. That is, radically accept our small part in the manner in which the issue arose. (For example, I have tried to accept that my own political philosophy and convictions were at least insufficient to prevent the election of D. Trump. This was an important and energizing realization for me). 
  • We could also notice and compare the ways we both did and did not influence the phenomenon. (For example, we may acknowledge that while people can vote in America, there are also serious problems with our voting system that make it less effective than we might think, or that that system excludes certain people or groups from voting, or that the system relies on antiquated methods such as the electoral college to finalize the tally).
  • Practice accepting the reality with mind, body and spirit. Ask yourself, “what would it feel like if I accepted this reality?” We can incorporate a relaxation activity as we try to actively accept. 
  • Attend to body sensations, thoughts, emotions.
  • Allow disappointment, sadness and grief to arise within.
  • Acknowledge that life can still be worth living despite bad things happening.
  • Notice the dialectic between radical action (ie protest, etc.) and radical acceptance (contemplation).

The power of acceptance is based partly on its innate, paradoxical connection to change. The world has problems that need to be changed. The western political tradition- much like the western psychological one- is driven largely by change. We will make an effort to change. Once we have changed things or ourselves sufficiently, we’ll be done. For example, we might believe that we need to get the neoliberal bully out of the White House. 

From this perspective, acceptance of a serious political problem is difficult, is it not? 

We can both oppose fascism, and somehow accept it, just as it comes: the crass billionaire who has never paid his taxes, pretending to be a populist. From this perspective, can we see that acceptance can produce the need for change, just as change produces the need for us to accept- even if it’s only to accept the new changes we have made!

DBT capitalizes on this dialectic by incorporating eastern philosophy and practices to help people resolve emotion regulation issues. For most DBT students, including myself, acceptance is the more difficult to master. Once we have got past why we even should accept something, we may then start to ask how…how can we accept?

If we have spent no time accepting distasteful political outcomes, it may help, especially if those outcomes keep happening. Not to in any way support them. But because it may be the one thing we haven’t tried in our earnest efforts to change.

This skill can give us a little bit of peace. Systematically accepting something as problematic as a major political issue, is a relatively clear cut way to begin such work. 

Desert Mountain Drive Meditation

You are driving along a two lane highway, through the desert, in Nevada. There is no where particular to get. It is a warm day, and the car you are driving moves effortlessly, at 60 or 70 miles per hour. If this is too fast or too slow, increase or decrease your speed as you wish. It is safe and easy to do so on this road.

The road you are on runs a clear, straight line from your position, takes on a slight incline before disappearing in a set of purple mountains in the distance, 20, 30 or even 50 miles in front.

Notice the road. It has some loose gravel, but is otherwise clean and dry, near perfect for driving. Its once black asphalt surface has been blanched by the sun and now appears light grey. There are cracks here and there that the car goes over.

You notice that this road is like a tiny spine running through the desert. The road takes you as much as you it.

Purple mountains are visible to the left and right. They seem closer than they are, like you could reach their footings by an hour’s walk, however this is an illusion. To reach them, one would walk for many days. Noticing the sheer immensity of this place has a sheltering quality.

Here and there, a few of the higher mountains have a brief section of snow at their top, before giving way to the sky above and beyond. Beautiful.

The windows to your car are open and the air is gusting in. Notice how different the air looks out on the desert-plain, where it is noticeably still, vast, and silent.

You seem to barely be moving. The car’s velocity is steady and comforting.

The sky is a shade of purple, and has gold, blue, and white. There are a few clouds. You can see that a few larger clouds cast shadows on the desert floor as they speed along, changing their color like a fine artists brush.

Maybe 15 miles on, a car is travels ahead. You wonder who is in the car. Are they noticing the things you are? Every ten minutes or so, a car passes in the other direction, with a thrush of wind that rocks your vehicle for a second, then disappears.

You notice then that the car in front of you begins to melt into the mountains ahead as it drives on, until you cannot see it anymore. Notice that as it does, that you are now by yourself, a feeling in this case that you welcome. Ahhh.

Notice how your car floats as it moves. The landscape shifts, but only subtly as you drive. The light brown color of the desert floor, from lighter to darker shades. It’s undulations. Notice the plant life. There are low shrubs all around. You notice the occasional whip-tail cactus, which have large, sharp thorns. There are other cactus types, visible in any direction you look. Some of these have curious, interesting shapes.

Consider the wildlife that populates this landscape. Though you may not see them right now, you wonder about rabbits and coyotes. Where do they sleep? What other small furballs exist here and call this their home? You then remember that rattlesnakes must live here too, of no danger to you as you drive.

Just as you think about the strange and amazing creatures that call this place home, you notice two hawks out to the right, maybe 70 feet from the desert floor. Their wings hardly move. The smallest adjustment seems to keep them afloat. They are nearly effortless, shifting lightly to make circles. They appear lifted, which indeed they are.

Now notice that you are also one of the organisms inhabiting this place, for this moment in time, with all of these other creatures and plants.

Notice how good it feels to drive on a long smooth desert road. Notice thoughts as they arise, but then drive past them.

Listening to Psychosis: Nine Perspectives for Psychotherapists

Psychosis can present a real challenge to therapists working with the condition. Here are nine theoretical perspectives to help. They are alternatives to the standard brain disease perspective. I don’t mention that theory here, because most of you know the dopamine brain disease theory for psychosis already. None of these perspectives is intended to be “anti psychiatry.” They are instead meant to be practical ways to overcome clear issues that are unique to working with people with psychosis. 

From years of knowing them and working with them, these are some of the best alternative ways of thinking about people with psychosis I could offer.  

Perspective one: Generously Validating

How do we validate a person with psychosis? What do you say to a client who tells you they can influence history by concentration upon certain television characters? For one we can do so on the basis that it sounds interesting. ‘Really?! Which characters?  What historical events? I want to know more.’

Secondly we could analyze our own consciousness for a bit of non-ordinary thinking.  Some very common thought patterns do not line up with conventional reality. For example, did you ever have Living La Vida Loca stuck in your head? I did. Or back in the 80s, True Blue, Thriller, or Back In Black? Ever believe someone was talking about you and they weren’t? Ever think someone cut you off on purpose, only to find out they didn’t? What’s that about? 

Connecting with those experiences can help us relate to the psychotic experiencer a little more. It can take some of the potential alienation out of an interaction where we simply feel we cannot personally relate in any way whatsoever to what the person in front of us is saying.

Analyzing our dream life could be another way. In dreams we pass uninhibited into the ether. Is the psychotic experiencer not stuck in a dream, halfway in his own unconscious, and halfway in conventional reality? Maybe the psychotic mind overlays basic reality with more of its own production-house of effects. Can we use some of the psychoanalytic tools of dream interpretation to make a little more sense of the psychotic experience? 

Perspective two: Symbolic Significance

In this section, I propose a possible symbolic interpretation of a client’s expressions as an example. Note that the particular interpretation I use is not meant to be determinative in any way. It is just one of many ideas that could be used in the situation. The use of symbols in the interaction is also where the therapist’s reflections about what a client says become more influential. It’s a creative process, based on associating in our own minds, what we ‘see’ in the images conjured by clients, through expressions such as dreams or drawings. 

To implement this perspective, we could look at the many granular details of the psychotic client’s descriptions, leaving nothing out, and noting their potential symbolic value. This can help with case formulations, or notes for direction in future sessions.

One of Jung’s students once supposedly asked him, “’My patient told me she went to the moon in her sleep last night. What should I do?’ And Jung apparently answered, ‘She went to the moon. Proceed based on that.’”

A long time ago, I was presenting a short talk on yoga in front of a small crowd of schizophrenic clients, their families and a nurse, gathered for a class I was teaching. A young fellow stood up and abruptly and asked me for the flip chart marker I was using, which I resisted before handing it over. He proceeded to draw what he called his invention- an, “engineering breakthrough,” he said. The crowd watched him and I expectantly for about three minutes. He defined its edges with the black marker efficiently. No one spoke. (note: generous validation was helpful in surrendering the flipchart marker to him). 

When he was done, he turned around and smiled proudly.

He called his drawing a wedge that could be used for various construction projects. From a symbolic perspective, it’s rich. I began to entertain the idea that he had indeed created an advanced construction tool. He believed on some level that he had. I wanted to hear his truth…

This wedge was an important idea to him, beyond just its monetary value. I looked up ‘the wedge’ afterwards, and was curious to learn that wedges are considered one of the six classical, simple machines, with a vast impact on human progress. This confirmed that discussing his invention on that level could well make for a productive session. How was it made? What applications did he have in mind for it? Where did he get the idea for it? Why was it so revolutionary? Amazing!

Furthermore, could the wedge be a primal, psychic image of some sort? If the image he had drawn showed up in a dream, what fundamental ideas could it be expressing? The wedge is an important tool for the real world, but wedges might also sometimes be helpful to our psychology. A wedge might help people with the extremely common but difficult psychotherapeutic goal of creating boundaries. Was an interpersonal boundary the kind of wedge the young man was trying to draw out?

Some of the things the client said next confirmed this inference. Certain details emerged.  I then asked what other important ideas might be encapsulated in the client’s drawing? I noticed then that the drawing he made of his wedge could have easily been mistaken for a kind of diagram of a human vagina- the kind associated with an aspect of the universal feminine archetype. What he talked about next lent credence to the idea.

(Again, [please don’t take this as an assertion of what I know was going on. It’s just one possibility in a rich field of symbolic referents, employed in a psychoanalytic dynamic).

As he referenced the diagram he had drawn, the young man talked about his mother. According to him, the wedge was going to help resolve some problems he was having with her, including financial ones. He was dependent on his mom, and he said that she was controlling his fate by frivolously locking him up in psychiatric units. She did other disturbing things to him, related to his challenges with mental health. For instance she worked hard to make sure no one believed him and that she undermined the potential success of his wedge invention.

His views upon the wedge and my own associations with the image, potentially revealed a tectonic energy-system at work: from a symbolic perspective, the young man may have been grappling with and trying to grasp the universal feminine, the mysteries about the female organ itself, and perhaps be released from the overpowering figure of his mom. 

How could this interpretation have helped? It can be very tricky- even for perfectly sane young men- by necessity to outgrow their mothers. Often, people meet a partner in their early adult years that enables the individual to leave the childhood home. For someone with psychosis, this is much less likely to have happened in the normal timeframe. Mom often won’t let go either, creating powerful biosocial feedback loops. Seeing mother and wedge as unique symbols added explanatory power to what could have been an ongoing case formulation. I think it is also fair to say that psychoanalytic concepts like archetypes and the unconscious mind are indispensable to this perspective.

These symbolic interpretations could help a therapist contextualize what might otherwise seem like nonsensical, haphazard ideas, expressed by a person with psychosis. Symbols add structure to the work with psychosis, a condition deeply affected by an apparent lack of order. The ideas came from working with the symbols he presented, what he said, my own reflections, and investigating unconscious elements within them.

Perspective three: The Sudden Loss of Conventional Cultural Perspective.

The young man and many others like him have convinced me that psychosis is not just an illness. Under the spell of psychosis, conventional use of language disintegrates in varying degrees. Seeing symbolic structure in psychosis appears to reveal a language all its own, associated with the sudden, extremely uncomfortable collapse of conventional norms inherent in everyday language. 

From this perspective, the assumptions, body-language-conventions and symbols embedded in normal use of language are weakened in the mind of the psychotic experiencer, causing all kinds of issues for therapists trying to relate to them.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to state that psychosis is a dialect. This dialect may be precisely part of the construct of psychosis. Thus working with psychotic people on how they speak  from only a place of behavioural appropriateness, may be ineffective at times.

I believe that if we can see past our own conventional-cultural-linguistic limitations as a practice, the psychotic can suddenly sound a little friendlier, a little more relatable, a little more interesting, a little easier to follow.

Perspective four: Anti-Oppressive

This is the social justice perspective. As I’ve said many times in the past, psychotic experiencers’ fate would change overnight if people in the West just started to treat them with radical respect and kindness, rather than fear. By radical, I mean all the way, with our full bodies and minds. Also with gratitude. As if what they said mattered. To truly undo the stigma around being psychotic, we have to start treating such people- and their experiences- with the dignity and respect we do anyone else. More so, as they’ve been oppressed so strongly for so long.

Perspective five: Annihilation, Phenomenology and the End of Mind Body Dualism.

In the essay, “Shattered Worlds/ Psychotic States: A Post Cartesian View of The Experience of Personal Annihilation,” George Atwood introduces the idea that psychosis is a destruction of the self. This destruction is the central experience, and the consequent symptoms seen in psychosis, such as believing oneself to be a famous person reincarnated, are the compensatory measures taken by a psyche that believes itself to no longer exist. (It’s supposed to sound mind-blowing!):

One of the most dramatic consequences of adopting a consistently phenomenological, post-Cartesian viewpoint, is the opening up of the most severe ranges of psychological disorder- the so-called psychoses- to psychoanalytic understanding and treatment. This opening occurs because the experiences that characterize these psychological disturbances tend to cluster around themes of personal annihilation and the destruction of the world. Such experiences occur outside the horizon of Cartesian systems of thought, which rest on a vision of the mind as an isolated existent, that stands in relation to a stable, external reality. The Cartesian image of mind, rigidly separating an internal mental subject from an externally real object, reifies and universalizes a very specific pattern of experience, centering around an enduringly stable sense of personal selfhood, that is felt as distinct and separate from a world outside. Experiences of extreme self-loss [psychosis] and the disintegration of the world cannot be conceptualized within such an ontology of mind, because they dissolve the very structures this ontology posits as universally constitutive of personal existence (Atwood, Orange, Stolorow, 2002. file:///Users/paulgalloro/Downloads/shattered_worlds_psychotic_states.pdf).

From this perspective,  psychosis disintegrates the very system of thought therapists often use to understand the condition. This system is often a set of clinical assumptions informed by the idea that individuals are self-contained subjects interacting with an objective world of reality. This worldview, Atood states, has been annihilated in psychosis, along with the self as we think of it. Thus, conventional Western, individualist assumptions are of much less value to the therapeutic process with a psychotic experiencer.

Annihilation provides explanatory power to some of the commonest psychotic beliefs, such as that individuals or groups of powerful people are deliberately maligning them- the young man with his mother, for example. It is also very common for psychotic clients to believe large police efforts are directed at them. Within the personal annihilation model, such behaviour is viewed as an attempt at a solution to reverse annihilation by bolstering a fantastic identity.

The phenomenology of Atwood’s perspective, “takes as its central focus, the world of experience of the individual, understood in its own terms and without reference to an external, objective reality (Atwood, 2002).” I use this challenging perspective often when speaking to psychotics. It helps me feel confident, helps me work with their families, and often leads to more grounded, productive sessions.

There are fundamental basic questions the psychotic mind is often dealing with, however unconsciously, that it can help to ask ourselves as well: “Am I here? Do I exist? How do I know I am here or that I exist? How does anybody know we are here, and that we exist?”

Perspective six: Abram Hoffer’s Perspective.

I have been surrounded by psychotic experiencers my whole life. I thus inevitably came across the work of Abram Hoffer. Hoffer’s approach is biomedical. He was a scientist, and published prolifically. Though he discusses brain theory, he departs from what has become the status quo version significantly. The status quo brain theory is related to the idea that psychosis results from excess dopamine. We derived this idea largely by applying hindsight into how antipsychotics work in the brain to reduce symptoms.

Hoffer took a different tact. He found that schizophrenia was based on a chemical imbalance in the brain, however his work focused on adrenochrome imbalance rather than dopamine. He postulated that a chronic overabundance of adrenaline-like compounds were behind some of schizophrenia’s most troubling symptoms.

This idea is important, because it links psychosis back to trauma, and the cascade of chemical changes that occur when we have stressors that we cannot escape. Disturbances in the ’hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis,” a powerful brain-body system, alters how we manage stress. I have noticed that psychotic experiencers have often been exposed to extensive trauma, often during developmental years, and that they have extremely low tolerance for stress. To me, Hoffer’s biology seems to dovetail well with what we know about trauma.   

Hoffer observed a structural similarity in chemistry between compounds like mescaline (that cause intense hallucinations) and adrenochrome. He then chose Niacin (vitamin B3) as his main intervention, based on Hoffer’s astute observation that severe niacin deficiency- a condition called pellagra- was nearly identical to the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Hoffer conducted at least six, randomized controlled trials that showed results, and tons more have been done since with niacin for psychosis. This is especially hopeful for sufferers, who often turn to such remedies, when conventional medicine takes them only so far. A great place to start in this direction is the following article: (Hoffer, 2008. http://www.altmedrev.com/archive/publications/13/4/287.pdf).

Why is this perspective important to psychotherapists?

Hoffer’s work bears discussion on the basis of it’s published, scientific findings alone. Orthomolecular medicine, basically invented by Hoffer, remains a rich field of academic study, with particular hope shed upon chronic mental health conditions like psychosis, studied over lengthy periods of time, using compounds that are nontoxic. There are very serious side effects from long term use of drugs like quetiapine, such as parkinsonism. Niacin seems to help prevent some of these.

Hoffer created tons of clues and leads within the mystery of psychosis. In doing so, he created hope, and I believe this hope can be spread to therapists who work with psychotic experiencers. Also, since the orthomolecular perspective on psychosis is consistent with other neurochemical frameworks about chronic stress and trauma, psychotherapists can with some degree of confidence, explore clients’ pasts for trauma. From this perspective, psychosis possesses similarities to dissociation- as an adaptive mechanism resulting from severe mistreatment, invalidation and abuse.

Perspective seven: Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan

Lacan’s discussions of psychosis were reflective of an attempt to listen to the whole history of the individual sufferer. His doctoral thesis on a woman he had treated, Aimee, included her own rich history of the events in her life. She had lived with extreme pain and isolation. Lacan listened.

In just one small example, the client’s mother had lost a son tragically while pregnant with Aimee- the boy fell into a furnace and burned to death. Furthermore, Aimee’s onset of psychosis really began when one of her own pregnancies ended in a stillbirth. She was later hospitalized by her parents, and spent years in institutions, isolated and withdrawn. Listening to the whole story is key to this perspective.

In the Lacanian conception of consciousness, paranoia plays a central role. It is not considered abnormal. Lacan did not believe that we can achieve a state of permanent lasting wholeness,, since our ego is in part defined by the others around us. Since we can never fully know what others are thinking about or feeling towards us, paranoia is natural, even a fundamental building block of normal consciousness.

Relating to the inherent inability for any of us to know exactly what others are thinking about us, and the ways in which that causes natural paranoia, can enable greater depths of empathy for the psychotic client.

Perspective eight: Psychosis As Non-Ordinary Experience:

Non-ordinary experiences is a term coined by Stan Grof. Grof used it to describe psychedelic as well as psychotic experiences. Grof later used the term for the state of mind created when we engage in specific breathing techniques. In that sense, non-ordinary includes things like dreams, normal experiences of intoxication, and what yogis refer to as ‘prana.’

Psychedelic experiencers report deep psychic disintegration during trips, which resolve in creative ways upon “coming down.” Sometimes, a new platform of experience ensues by which the individual inhabits previously unavailable parts of themselves- for example when deep feelings of well-being and trust redevelop spontaneously during psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Does psychosis embody some of these elements of the non-ordinary experience?

Early scientific research into psychedelics was in fact based on various researcher’s attempts to understand psychosis. Applying the term ‘non-ordinary’ to psychosis enables therapists to view the psychotic experiencer with even more respect, based as the term is on a rich field of academic, psychotherapeutic study. To me, the term non-ordinary entails an acknowledgment of the variations in consciousness that nature seems to create.

Perspective nine: Shamanistic Perspectives

I saw someone at a mental health event once, standing in front of a booth for the Schizophrenia Society. Figuring it might be openly acknowledged by now, I noted how it seemed helpful to read that some indigenous people see schizophrenia as a gift.

The lady asked, “Really? How so?”

I said,  “The experiencer is treated with high regard, as the voices they hear, the things they see that others don’t, were sometimes considered important messages.”

“Messages…From where?”

“Ahhh, um. The spiritual dimension, I believe,” I answered.

She looked at me like I had four heads, and that each one had dissociative identity disorder.

“Schizophrenia is a brain disease…” she said, we both smiled, and I walked away.

The shamanistic perspective, which has been unified as a theory by Joseph Polimeni,  is the single most evolutionary perspective:

In its simplest form, the shamanistic theory of schizophrenia says that people with schizophrenia are the modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans. In other words, the inborn cognitive factors or personality style that would have predisposed certain people to become shamans is the same psychological mindset that underlies schizophrenia. Although the idea is straightforward, a proper evaluation of the hypothesis is complicated and must take into account the latest discoveries from psychiatry, medical history, evolutionary science, anthropology, psychology, religious studies and genetics. The primary purpose of this book is to put forward a contemporary version of the shamanistic theory of schizophrenia (Shamans Among Us, 2012, http://josephpolimeni.com/excerpts.html).

If it helps, Polemni is a psychiatrist who takes pains to explain how the shamanistic theory of schizophrenia is not anti-psychiatry. Instead, it attempts to explain a confluence of symptoms that, although very troubling, do not correspond to a notable illness, such as how depression can be explained from a disease perspective:

Other common psychiatric illnesses have some sort of rational explanation within reach. Depression appears to have something to do with mammalian expressions of submission, while anxiety is connected to fear and fleeing. Obsessive-compulsiveness may be linked to overly persistent habits… In contrast, schizophrenia is not an obvious extension of any other behaviour and has no tangible analogue in nature. The motor and sensory systems have gone awry but not in a haphazard or unsystematic way. Clear patterns exist but are inexplicable in the context of twenty-first century life…The resemblance of schizophrenia to the ancient institution of shamanism surpasses coincidence.

The shamanistic theory involves incorporation of evolutionary psychology, fascinating unto itself. Polemni states that schizophrenia used to provide an evolutionary advantage to a group reliant on hunting or farming. They were ‘the seers,’of a community, which at about the dawn of the industrial revolution, became unnecessary to the social order. 

I hope you have enjoyed these perspectives.  

A Dialogue Between a Behavioural Therapist and a Psychoanalyst

Setting: Recently, at a meeting with a number of psychotherapists. 11:30 am, just before lunch. Somewhere.

Characters: Jungians: Mid to late 50’s. Exploratory. Patient. Interested in the unconscious. Behaviourists: Early 30’s. Goal oriented. Time-conscious. Interested in changing behaviour.

Behaviourist: Ok everyone. What should we choose as our agenda?

Jungians: I think we should spend some time talking about our mothers.

Behaviourists: Excuse me?

Jungian: Our mothers. Perhaps the agenda item could read, “discuss the impact of our relationships with our mothers, and how that affects the therapy space” (appears quite satisfied with themselves)

Behaviourists: I would not feel comfortable with that. We all have a lot to do. So. Any other items we want added to the agenda?

Jungian: My mother taught me everything I know about protestant work ethic.

Behavioural: Curious.

Jungian: You think so?

Behaviourist: I’m pretty sure I know so.

Jungian: Would you like to explore the part of you that isn’t sure? (more satisfaction)

Behaviourist: Not particularly. Ahh..not right now, ok?. Right now we are setting an agenda.

Jungian: Why?

Behaviourist: This is a meeting. We are trying to get started.

Jungian: Precisely. The work has already begun.

Behaviourist: Speaking about your mother is not an agenda item.

Jungian: Oh? And why is that?

Behaviourist: To be frank, it’s an inappropriate revelation. Especially within a clinical context. 

Jungian: Clinical, yes.

Behaviourist: Yes. Clinical.

Jungian: (long pause) Interesting… Where did you grow up?

Behaviourist: That, too would be inappropriate. (Deferring to others in the room) Agenda items?

Jungian: (warmly smiles) I also wonder about your father….

Behaviourist: Also…  

Jungian: inappropriate…(longish pause) What did your father do?

Behaviourist: Do?

Jungian: Yes, for a living.

Behaviourist: He was a trucker,

Jungian: Oh, ok

Behaviourist: He was a dock worker. A sous chef. A beggar…. It doesn’t matter what he did?!

Jungian: (as if peering) What else do you find inappropriate?

Behaviourist: The subject is agenda items. Anything outside ‘agenda items’ is inappropriate.

Jungian: Tell me more.

Behaviourist: What? We’re not getting anywhere.

Jungian: Uh huh… Go on.

Behaviourist: No. Wait. What are you doing right now?

Jungian: Why don’t you tell me?

Behaviourist: I don’t honestly think I could. Are we all in agreement that “our mothers” do not belong on this agenda? (hand gestures the quotes)

Jungian: Aha…

Behaviourist: Anyone? Agenda items?

Jungian: Hmm… (several long moments) Tell me something you don’t feel like talking about.

Behaviourist: This is crazy.

Jungian: Who taught you about disapproval, I wonder.

Behaviourist: I don’t feel like talking about my mother- or yours- because it’s inappropriate. Can we maybe start with program development?

Jungian: Sure (gazes on)

Behaviourist: That’s it! (looking around for help) I am asking what people want to talk about at this meeting.

Jungian: (shifts in seat. No change in gaze)

Behaviourist: Stop it!!

Jungian: (continues to visually engage Behaviourist warmly, invitingly)

Behaviourist: Can we maybe start over again?

Jungian: I sense this is important work for you.

Behaviourist: This is ridiculous that we should be having this conversation. I also do not even know what we are talking about, because we are not talking about my mother.

Jungian: Maybe we are making progress.

Behaviourist: Maybe this is why people do CBT.

(long pause)

Jungian: You think?

Behaviourist: Maybe talking about people’s mothers all the time is… unscientific. Let alone alchemy or astrology.

Jungian: So you’ve studied psychoanalysis.

Behaviourist: We had to in school.

Jungian: The unconscious…

Behaviourist: Evidence.

Jungian: One of the great discoveries of science! Maybe we can make it an agenda item.

Behaviourist: What?

Jungian: The unconscious.

Behaviourist: Does anyone else want “the unconscious” added to the agenda?

Jungian: “Until we make the unconscious conscious, it will direct ours lives and we’ll call it fate.”

Behaviourist: I don’t even know what that means. CBT is evidence-based. People do it because it works. It’s effective.

Jungian: It’s a quote, from Jung.

Behaviourist: (under breath) At least we’re no longer talking about our mothers.

Jungian: Say again?

Behaviourist: Fine. Let’s add, “the unconscious” to the agenda.

Jungian: And what about our mothers?

Behaviourist: No!! Look, I’m sorry. But we are not talking about my mother at this meeting, or yours!

Jungian: So talking about your mother hasn’t worked for you in the past?

Behaviourist: Has it ever really worked? For anyone? Maybe this is the reason that behavioural interventions are so popular!

Jungian: I have a robust practice.

Behaviourist: How long do clients have to come before they see a benefit?

Jungian: That all depends.

Behaviourist: On what? Oh wait, let me guess. On how quickly they process their relationship with their mothers!

Jungian: We should all be the descendants of Pavlov’s dogs, I take it.

Behaviourist: It’s better than spending an hour and a half taking about German fairly tales! Where’s the statistics on that?

Jungian: Statistics give you…

Behaviourist: … evidence, that’s what. That people behave and think in predictable ways when they are exposed to one or another stimulus. Change the stimulus, change the pattern.

Jungian: Fine. What about mystery? How can we possibly do therapy without a philosophy about…what consciousness is, or…. the nuances of desire within human relationships. And how on earth can we do all that without talking about our mothers?

Behaviourist: We both make relationship a priority! Don’t get so full of yourself. Cognitive-Behavioural work does not happen in some clinical vacuum. And anyways you don’t seem to have a plan whatsoever–

Jungian: —that doesn’t mean we don’t have structure–

Behaviourist: –how long do clients see you for, anyways? Years?

Jungian: Sometimes.

Behaviourist: It sounds like a sentence to me!

Jungian: How long to unravel a distant father? A recurring dream? We have to let the client’s associations flow, not just compartmentalize and prefabricate the healing process.

Behaviourist: Your clients ‘flow’ till no one can take another minute of it, I’m sure. Our folks are in and out of our offices in 5-10 sessions sometimes. Definitely not enough time for it to matter what Greek Mythology has to say about fathers! We simply don’t have the time.

(The two stare at each other slowly and raise a finer at the other, and then both say simultaneously):

Jungian: “You’re not in therapy.”
Behaviourist: “You’re in therapy.”

The Grounding Nature of Cooking

Caramelized onions may one day be studied for their antidepressant effects

Christmas and Hanukah reveal the chef inside me. I just took Fanny Farmer chocolate chip cookies out of the oven for the third time in 10 days. I could do that recipe with my eyes closed and they’d still turn out, I’ve made the very same ones on so many lonely Saturday nights that I’ve honestly stopped counting.

And though I am not the greatest cook, I believe cooking is great for me. Cooking is grounding.

To describe. Cooking is grounding because the food I prepare fills my belly when I’m done. This is due to the fact that I’m fucking hungry just before I cook, and doing so tells me I’m about to eat, which fills me with unequalled hope and other pleasant emotions. The equation is simple: on one side of the equals sign is most of my problems, and on the other side is a picture of me smiling and wiping au jus from my face.

Furthermore, I verge at times on hunger’s slightly less emotionally regulated, demented cousin, “hangry.” A good portion of the most fulfilling cooking-events throughout my life happened after I had waited way too long to eat. And as the sage noted, “eat when hungry.” But I am nearly positive he/she just forgot to also mention to “eat when hangry.“ If only they’d thought of it. Eating food is guaranteed to remove hunger and “hanger,” and looking forward to that while in the process of preparing food is pleasant in a way I call grounding.

Preparing food is also grounding because it’s inventive. True story: I used to cook for myself when I was a bit poorer. Oft times as a teenager, I went from despondently scanning our sparingly stocked cupboards to turning out an edible three-course meal, sometimes even for my buddies, too. It was creative. A piece of bacon, half a broccoli, butter and some fettuccini. Voila! These memories are conjured when I cook. They remind me of the fun I had creating something from nothing.

Keep in mind, my mom had to feed my brother and I when our teenage bodies were expanding on a daily basis, a growth that was facilitated by our unique ability to wolf down several days’ meals’ worth of food and then take long, unearned naps, behaviour patterns seen only in some dogs and bears basically operating on a gorge-fast cycle.

Moving on. Cooking also reduces anxiety. For starters, hunger causes a type of anxiety that only eating can quench- the anxiety of not knowing if you’ll have enough to eat. Poverty also makes hunger worse in that you don’t have as much food going into your body, which in turn could exacerbate anxiety on a physiological level. It’s therefore easy to see how eating- including the preparation of food- might protect against anxiousness, especially the type related to poorness and hungriness.

Also, the act of making food can clearly be made into a mindfulness practice- which is good for anxiety. Working with our hands, creating something, following a recipe, chopping vegetables, seasoning meats. Each produces inherent gratification because of their meditative aspect. Further, cooking is often done to feed others, and contributing to others can boost feelings of gratitude, connection and help us to enjoy the moment. Helping others basically helps us feel better about ourselves. Cooking is an ideal thing to do for someone else.

(Ahem.. cant help but to reflect on the positive impact on romantic intentions- themselves often hampered by anxiety- that can be wrought from some garlic and butter sizzling in a pan).

Physical tasks like food-prep are also naturally therapeutic. Work such as cooking, painting a bedroom and gardening inspire mindfulness, but they also produce something quite tangible. Making things can be good for us. Doesn’t hurt that with food, we get to eat it afterwards.

Finally, cooking is grounding in that it smells good. Can we not agree that certain kitchen odours, such as onions in olive oil, ought to be studied one day for their anxiolytic effects? Maybe they already have. Try it sometime. Remove anxiousness by making some good-smelling stuff: Cookies. Toast. French fried potatoes.

Who doesn’t like the smell of coffee, even if actually drinking it might contribute to anxiety? Who doesn’t love snapping open a fresh kielbasa, especially if your wife is vegetarian and eating sausage is like dining on rare burgundy truffles? Who hasn’t noticed that the food court at Sherway Gardens is one of the few places we can take a well-earned break from fast fashion outlets and Hudson’s Bay sales reps still hawking “Fahrenheit”? It’s the one place in the mall I can be myself, order the same, steaming pile of tempura that the last guy got, and allow myself to simply witness the ecstatic dance between MSG, my salivating tongue, evaporating hunger, and Christmas shopping. It’s like coming home.

Brief Protocol for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This protocol is a suggested brief intervention tool for use in settings such as retreats, where strict limitations on time requires adaptation of the eight phases of EMDR. Here, we will only use one disturbing event, and the main purpose of selecting it is to more concretely establish safety/ calm, container and resource installations.

Therapists establish safety and calm prior to working on more disturbing material such as trauma. Standard trust and rapport building encapsulate much of this kind of work, however strategic use of visualizations offers additional options to increase positive affect within the client. And many of these first stage therapy techniques are valuable all on their own. In this brief protocol, we are using them independent of work on trauma, to help people simply increase positivity, resilience in stressful situations, confidence, and self-soothing.

I am not intending to replace in-depth trauma work with this abbreviated protocol. Should you wish to explore traumatic experiences in more depth, I offer a range of strategies to clients including EMDR and yoga to resolve these in a more fulsome way.

A Note About Bilateral Stimulation (BLS)

BLS is bilateral stimulation. The inspiration for the whole EMDR technique came when Francine Shapiro was out walking in the park, when she realized that she became more emotionally resilient afterwards. She attributed these feelings of well being to the multiple ways in which her body enacted bilateral stimulation spontaneously while walking, including clear patterns of spontaneous eye movement. The mind’s information processing system is activated during BLS (think also rem sleep). With EMDR, bilateral stimulation includes techniques to create eye movements, tactile stimulation and sound to engage awareness from side-to-side. This enables you to achieve greater access to the mind’s information processing system.

  1. Safe Calm Place
  • We use the 5 senses to create a safe calm place. This can be a place that is imaginary, real or a combination of the two. Perhaps it’s a beach, a cottage, or a place you’ve always wanted to visit. Name it, then visualize it, hear it, smell it, touch it, taste it, and then sense the emotions that go along with your perceptions. Create a cue word (ie: Alaskan Waterfront Sunrise).
  • Safe-calm place should contain zero negative themes, persons or experiences. If this is a challenge, I can help during our session and leading up to it.
  • In our telephone consult, I will answer questions and offer direction.
  • Next, we will choose a mildly disturbing incident that rates on a 0-10 scale of distress no higher than 2.5 or 3 out of 10. (ie, you lost a friendly but competitive soccer match; someone butted in front of you in line at grocery store; you couldn’t find your car keys the other day and ran late for an appointment). This is usually something we decide during your session, this disturbing thing should be recent, rather than something from the distant past. Also, I want you to feel supported as you access something even mildly disturbing.
  • We will then use your safe calm place visualization and the mildly disturbing incident to anchor and strengthen thoughts and feelings of well-being. With EMDR, we are really accessing the body-mind’s unique healing capacity to create permanent changes in how we feel.
  • Even a 1 degree adjustment to a sailboat’s direction turns into hundreds of miles of difference over the course of a long journey. EMDR kick starts what usually ends up a longer healing process of tectonic and permanent changes in clients’ responses to previously traumatic material.


  • Imagine a place of safety and calm. Begin to own that visualization by using all five senses. Please jot down what you notice about your place.
  • Container
  • Container is another visualization exercise that can help. We use it to create a sense of autonomy and privacy. Opening ourselves up to others can be inherently difficult. Creating a “container” that securely holds our inner material (memories, feelings, reflections) can help us feel more secure, safe and confident in our disclosures. People with trauma often feel that others can see right through them. Container exercises teach that we decide when where and with whom to disclose. This often helps to inspire hope and courage when facing difficulties.
  • Container is also useful when our goal is simply to establish more strength, resiliency and calm- it is not only people who wish to work on trauma who can benefit from it.


  • Visualize a container that you can open and close. It is a strong-box, essentially, with hinges and a functioning lock mechanism. We can place anything into our container. It is especially helpful to imagine ourselves putting disturbing memories into it.  Then, smell it, feel it, practice opening and closing it.  Please jot down any sense perceptions of your container (sight, sound etc).

  • Resource Development
  • Choose a positive emotion or state of being you would like more of in your life.
  • During our session together, we will choose a challenging situation, feeling, thought or relationship that you would like to balance with positivity or confidence (note, this should be something recent and not super-significant)
  • Many clients choose confidence, self worth, well-being, mental clarity, intelligence etc. Feel free to choose a positive emotion from a feeling wheel. When you think about (confidence, joy), what comes to mind? What would it feel like to have this emotion? What if all your cells were full of this emotion? What would it be like to have more of this emotion? If you felt that emotion, what would follow? What would follow from that? How would your thinking or behavior be different with this resource available to you?  
  • Please choose an object, animal, ancestor or symbol that best represents your resource. Take your time, and even allow this image, ancestor or symbol to emerge “by invitation.”
  • We will use BLS to “install” this resource. Address intrusions by using the resource. Apply to future templates.

What is your resource:

Object, animal or ancestor:

  • Positive Cognition
  • Choose a self-referential statement such as, “I am worthy,” “I am kind,” “I am hopeful.”
  • Scale 0-7 for believability (0=not believable at all, 7= totally believable)
  • We will use BLS to develop towards 7.

Feeling Wheel

Description: mage result for feeling wheel pics

Yoga As Phase One Trauma Treatment in EMDR

Before a course of trauma therapy gets into a client’s troubling experiences, they and their therapist usually work diligently to establish a sense of safety and calm in the present moment. I use yoga for this purpose as well. It helps me help clients to develop inner and outer resources required for the treatment of their trauma, because it connects people to their bodies and helps them feel strong and relaxed. Yoga can be felt as increased resiliency, relaxation and more adaptive thinking.

Safety and calm are trauma recovery skills. Traditional EMDR teaches the use of visualization exercises to increase these, but there is a wide set of available skills to increase or establish safety that do not require visualizations. Learning to feel safe and calm is what we are really after, not that we “know” the course of a particular mindfulness routine. Safe/calm place exercises are thus called affect regulation skills- where we make ourselves feel better. The body and breath are allies in this journey to increase regulation.

What inner resources and skills are you already using for the things you find stressful in your life? What helps you feel like you are rebounding after stressful things happen? Maybe therapy, maybe music, maybe your partner, friends and allies. Hatha yoga is simply another type to add.

Hatha yoga- generally speaking the physical branch of yoga- is a means to create space for inner awareness. It includes ancient as well as ever-evolving sets of techniques that remain viable thousands years later for millions of people due in part to the benefits of slowing down the mind’s compulsive thought-emotion-behavior patterns. Yoga increases awareness of and control over the body, necessary parts of the creation of a sense of safety and calm.


Polyvagal theory explains why yoga and other mindfulness are so helpful in phase one trauma treatment. Polyvagal postulates that the body is specially equipped to quickly sense safety and danger, which through the vagus nerve accumulates information and sends it back to the brain, informing it about the environment. This talent is called “neuroception.” Polyvagal shows that when we strategically engage and relax some of these parts of the body, our entire nervous system including the brain benefits, leading to various gains related to stress resiliency and trauma recovery.

Polyvagal refers to a set of three possible responses to our circumstances. It seems we had first conceived of two possible responses to our outside worlds: Sympathetic fight/ flight, and parasympathetic rest/digest. The third response third response – socialization- is considered in polyvagal to come first. We first try to resolve things with cooperating and communicating. It is only when this fails that we end up fighting, fleeing or freezing (parasympathetic from this standpoint talked of as freeze).

Associated with more recent evolution, this third response is also called our “smart vagus.”

Smart vagus is critical to having a functional relationship to our environment. Since fight, fight and freeze are less adaptive and require more caloric energy, they are less sustainable than connecting. Polyvagal’s developer Stephen Porges sstates,“To switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must do two things: (1) Assess risk, and (2) if the environment looks safe, inhibit the primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze.” Our intelligence and communication skills act as brakes on our more primitive responses.

When a person experiences trauma, socialization and problem solving responses are sacrificed. Sometimes this becomes a tragic and permanent transformation. We can become stuck in fight, flight or freeze responses. But we have reason to hope: We can re-teach the mind-body that we are safe in the world. Socialization and problem solving can again take precedence in our lives, keeping less adaptive and defensive thinking in the background. That is the promise of neuroception.

Hatha yoga may be a kind of neuroceptive activity, where chronic defense activations associated with trauma are re-written by controlling certain aspects of our physical lives. Yoga teaches we are simply at our best more often when we are not only relaxed, but when we know we can make ourselves relaxed, an empowerment that is indispensible to trauma recovery plans.

Stage one trauma work is about practicing the talents of safety, trust, strength and connection. Yoga provides the psychotherapy space with a host of specific techniques, such as asana and pranayama, each with hundreds of exercises to choose from. Coordinating with a trained yoga instructor- better yet one who knows therapeutic yoga- can play an important role in helping psychotherapy clients gain control of their inherent abilities to relax and be present. Hatha yoga is also a good alternative for clients who do not respond to verbally-guided mindfulness meditations. Adding coordinated breath and physical movement to relaxation programs can draw such clients in, make them want to try different things, and ultimately reap more of the the benefits of phase one trauma treatment.