Truama Therapy with Dr. Deborah Sweet

Deborah Sweet, Psy.D. is a therapist who opened her private practice in 2006 where she began offering therapy to heal unresolved trauma and addiction. She has been sober since September 14, 1987. Prior to her own recovery she experienced repeated relapses over a four-year period. Frustrated, Deborah wondered what it was that kept her from getting sober. She realized it was two things: one, she was not ready; and two, it was her trauma which was mostly in the form of neglect. The nature of her unresolved trauma entailed moving fifteen times as a child, the death of her father at seven, being in critical foster family for a year and eventually being adopted when she was eight years old.

Deborah’s history prompted her interest in studying how to resolve trauma, both shock traumas and childhood traumas. In her doctorate program, she learned that “Little t” traumas can have the same effect on the body as “Big T” traumas and was introduced to SE (Somatic Experiencing) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). SE provides tools for clients who are stuck in the fight, flight, and freeze (collapse) responses to resolve these stuck states. EMDR utilizes eye movements to desensitize negative emotions that are associated with upsetting memories and create new belief systems for the person. Additionally she studied Attachment-Focused EMDR and honed her skills to help people suffering from childhood trauma.

In her own self-work, talk therapy was not the entire answer for the childhood material Deborah wanted to process. She became tired of hearing herself discuss her problems, had minor relief, but at times she felt she wasn’t making progress. Experiencing SE and EMDR gave Deborah the belief that these tools work for coping with and resolving trauma. She believes that regarding all therapies; an approach that utilizes many modalities is the answer. It’s about what the client needs at any given time.

Last year Deborah discovered Brainspotting (BSP). According to David Grand, Ph.D. “Where you look affects how you feel.” Eye positions often correlate with inner experiences. “When you ask someone a question and they look like they are looking into space, they are not, they are looking at an brainspot or access spot.” By bringing the client’s attention to the spot they are looking at plus an attuned relationship with the therapist, healing and resolution of issues that are held deeply in the non-verbal, non-cognitive areas of the brain are possible. In general, talk therapy engages the neo cortex or newer part of the brain, which is helpful in processing current events and making decisions. The most important part of part of the brain for discharging trauma is the subcortical region. BSP aims at a full, comprehensive release of activation held in the brain and body.

A short version of what it looks like in therapy is once the client has the awareness of an issue, the therapist asks where the activation (the feeling) is located in the body, such as in the chest, stomach or throat. Then between 0 – 10, asks what number they would give this issue. After these three things are established, the therapist moves a pointer across the client’s vision field and asks where the client feels the most activation. They stop on the spot the client chooses and then begin to process the material from there. The therapist checks in with the client as the client processes images, memories, thoughts and sensations when they arise. The goal is to feel better about whatever has happened in the past and many people report that they do, in fact, feel better.

Deborah works mostly with older adolescents and adults, 50% of who are either in recovery or struggling to get sober. “The tricky part of doing trauma work with newly recovering people is that there is a possibility that they can get triggered and want to use. It’s a Catch 22. Some people feel they can’t get sober because their trauma is in the way and others need to be sober first before they can deal with their trauma. When people are not ready to face their trauma, then we do what’s called resource work.”

for illustrative purposes only; any person(s) depicted in this photo is a model.

for illustrative purposes only; any person(s) depicted in this photo is a model.

Deborah stresses the importance of not jumping straight into trauma work; she first puts in place the foundation of “resource work.” The time it takes to do this is unique to each person. “Some people are ready, some think they’re ready but they’re not.” Sometimes trauma work doesn’t necessarily look like trauma work because part of what needs to be in place is a certain amount of trust. Someone might consciously think to themselves, “I like this therapist, she seems nice,” but sometimes it can take a couple of months before that person is deeply willing or able to do the work.

There is another “overlay” that Deborah uses called IFS (Internal Family Systems). This model addresses certain aspects of the self that need to be on board before trust and trauma work can begin. Very simply put: there is the Protector, the Exiles (the parts of us we don’t want to feel), the Self and the Firefighters. This is not comparable to having multiple personalities; all of us are made up of different parts. The “inner child” gets a bad rap. Deborah states, “There is an inner child and sometimes that inner child’s opinion matters.” Before trauma work can begin, these different parts need to be addressed so that trust is in place.

Deborah gave me a vision of how therapy looks in her office. “First, it’s about what we call resourcing, in 12-step we might call it getting in touch with our character assets, but it’s more than that. For some people it’s important to do a timeline because that creates a sense of organization internally. For different people it’s a different process; for some we can process material right away or with others, we wait. We process something small first, so they can know, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s like (SE, BSP or EMDR),” and a part of the self can say, ‘I understand what we’re doing,’ because we’ve processed something between 0 – 10 that’s a 3. “We don’t dive into the worse thing ever. That’s not a good idea and people who don’t know what they’re doing, well…that’s what they do.”

Deborah also offers regular “talk therapy” and prefers to approach people with a “non-pathologizing” point of view. People toss around terms now, such as Borderline Personality Disorder. “A lot of people in early recovery have what we call Borderline features but they don’t meet the full criteria for Borderline.” Deborah is careful to use resource work as a means of identifying trauma before she begins the work of uncovering what for many are the painful memories of childhood. She also believes in humor, art, music and poetry as ways of working with whatever it is the client wants to address. “There are different ways of accessing material for different people.”

Dr. Deborah Sweet is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in helping people recover from addictions, traumas and other life issues. She is certified in SE, Brainspotting and EMDR and also uses talk therapy, 12 step and Buddhist recovery models in her practice. To find out more about Deborah and all the modalities she uses, visit her website http://drdeborahsweet.com/

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