How to quickly and safely de-traumatise victims of sexual abuse
These days, I am considered an expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My company is a registered stake holder with NICE and I am kept informed of updates to recommended treatments.
The method I use to resolve the symptoms of PTSD, and the subject of my book ‘PTSD Resolution’, is called the Rewind Technique. Other professional techniques are also helpful such as EMDR, EF T and Trauma Focused CBT. I think Rewind is the most effective but believe they all work due to the ‘polyvagal’ effect. In other words, a traumatic memory is recalled and manipulated in an environment of calmness and safety.
Results can be spectacular and immediate. I often see a phenomenon I call ‘Post-Rewind Euphoria’ as victims regain a sense of freedom and cognitive control is restored.
I wasn't always an expert of course and, when I started out as a rookie counsellor, I did what all trainee counsellors did; I volunteered to work for free to get experience. The trouble was, I often found myself in situations where I did not have the skills to deal with what my clients were presenting.
For several years, I volunteered at a bereavement charity, a young person's charity and a category A prison. Everywhere I worked I encountered the same thing; traumatic events that my clients could not get out of their heads, often from childhood and often to do with sexual abuse.
The Truth Project was launched in 2014 to give survivors an opportunity to share their stories and some of these accounts have now been published.
Of course, it's good to encourage people to report their experiences so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. But, in recalling these memories, victims may actually become re-traumatised. When the ‘box it up and put it away’ method of coping is abandoned, PTSD can result.
Victim or survivor
One woman who had been identified as a possible victim in an enquiry had a knock at the door from the police. She gave an account of what had happened to her many years ago, telling her story for the very first time. She did not receive any follow-up support or therapy and afterwards found she was plagued by nightmares as long-buried memories came back to her.
Years ago, as a trainee counsellor, the only skills I had in my professional toolbox where those that encouraged my client to talk. At that time I thought this was okay. I now realise that by encouraging my clients to disclose without having a mechanism for resolution, meant I had potentially become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
This unsettles me now, but I realise it was not my fault. Those I do question are the ones who ran, and continue to run, training courses for counsellors that encourage them to work with traumatised clients without teaching them the skills for resolution of that trauma. Worse still, some do not even educate trainees about the range of techniques now available so that they could at least refer elsewhere.
In quiet and reflective moments, memories of past clients often return to me. One of those is Simon…
Simon became my client when I was working at a prison. He was around 22 or 23 and was in for petty crime driven by drug addiction. He had been living on the streets for a while.
At first it seemed to me that Simon did not really want to see me at all. He often rocked backwards and forwards on his chair, joked around a bit and talked about nothing in particular.
But we got on and, week after week, he kept returning for his appointment. Back then, everything I was learning in my studies, was about relationship building. I was an empathic listener and did not judge or condemn. On week six of our eight-week contract, Simon turned up in a completely different mood. He looked nervous and I thought perhaps he had been crying.
I reflected my concerns. ‘Is anything you would like to talk about in particular this week, Simon?’ I asked.
‘I want to tell you something I've never told anyone’ said Simon, quietly looking at the floor, unable, as it seemed to me, meet my gaze.
I listened silently and respectfully.
‘I was sexually abused by my stepfather when I was 13’ he began. ‘He was an alcoholic. He's died since, but the trouble is, I can't get what happened out of my head.’
‘Do you want to tell me about it?’ I asked, and he did, in graphic detail. I was not prepared.
‘What can I do to get rid of these memories?’ said Simon. He was unravelling in front of me and I didn't know how to help him, other than to hear his story. He must have had a sense of my own despair. I felt unskilled.
At the end of our session, I was able to walk out of the prison. Simon, on the other hand was left alone with his memories, locked in a cell for 23 out of 24 hours.
I spoke to my supervisor and asked if she knew of anything I could do to help.
‘You are not the expert’ she said ‘Simon will resolve it in his own way.’
I spoke to my tutor at college about my concerns for Simon. ‘You're trying to be a fixer’ she said ‘your client will have to hold his emotions until you meet next time.’
When I went next week, Simon did not come in for his appointment. I shouldn't really have been surprised. He had reached out to me in his despair and I, in my ignorance, had little to offer.
This is what I should have said:
‘Simon, you do not need to tell me all of the detail about what happened to you but I do have a way of helping you process these memories and letting go of them.
It's a simple technique called Rewind where I get you to either close your eyes, look down into the palms of your hands or even focus on a spot on the wall, and imagine those events as a film with a beginning middle and an end. When you get to the end of the film, I want you to re enter the memory and rewind it as fast as possible back to the beginning.’
I would have explained to Simon how traumatic memories are kept in a kind of ‘holding bay’ in the brain, not in the hippocampus where we store ordinary memories. The reason for this is simple: the emotional centre of our brain has the role of protecting our bodies and keeping us safe. If something that happens to us is perceived as so traumatic it could be a life or death situation, the memory is kept live. The brain stays hyper-vigilant, scanning the environment for anything similar where it may have to trigger evasive action.
Rewinding the memory allows the brain to recognise that this is not a current and ongoing situation. Once processed, the memory can then be moved to the hippocampus and be stored in the usual way. The emotional centres of the brain stand down and calmness is restored.
I do not know what happened to Simon. Having alerted the authorities to my concerns, I had to let him go.
But, in those quiet moments of self reflection, I often feel the need to apologise to him. There was so much more I could have done…
…if only someone had taught me how.
Learn more about Rewind
I’m running a one day work shop on Rewind in Bedfordshire on Sat 14th July, where mental health practitioners will have the opportunity to learn about, and practise, two versions of the technique. All attendees will receive scripts, protocols, outcome measures and a copy of my book ‘PTSD Resolution.’
If you would like to attend, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Worrying well, the Rewind Technique, Mindfulness Based Mind Management (advanced MBSR), solution focus, guided visualisation, resolving addiction, epigenetics, mapping the connectome, polyvagal theory, the reticular activating system (RAS), secondary gain, trauma resolution, coaching for kids, treating depression, worrying well, working SMART, therapeutic stories, insight, psycho education, suicide prevention, affirmations, positive mental rehearsal, imagery, dissociation, goal setting, new paradigms, reframes, fast track learning, perception shifting, self actualisation, positive psychology, reframing, metaphor, personal empowerment, motivational thinking, lifting depression, the happiness principle, resilience and resourcefulness, human flourishing, anchoring, rewiring your brain, the STOP System, the SAFE SPACE happiness recipe, holistic coaching and working on the continuum of wellbeing plus many other professional theories, tools and techniques underpin the content of the fast paced, fast track, Fusion training programmes.