The mind is a very powerful tool in our arsenal, and it can either heal us, or destroy us. In an effort to protect us, it can disconnect (called 'dissociation') experiences of traumatic events so that they cannot be fully accessed. And these disconnected, unconscious memories can, in the long run, be detrimental to our health.
Thankfully, there are various methods different types of experts can use to analyse and treat ailments of the mind, with certain approaches working better for some people than others. Psychotherapy is one of these approaches, but what exactly is it?
Psychotherapy, also known as ‘talk therapy’, involves a psychotherapist using a range of techniques to help a client overcome chronic discomfort, gain insight, and achieve personal growth.
There are numerous approaches to this type of therapy, and Spontaneous Healing Intra-systemic Process (SHIP®), a South African product, is one of them, Dr Jo Steenkamp, author of the SHIP® Foundation, explains.
This form of therapy that facilitates a space of trust, respect, validation and patience, focuses on psychobiological (emotional and physical), as opposed to psychological, healing when dealing with trauma.
Trauma, Steenkamp says, is when something happens that becomes an experience at your expense, and you can’t do anything to change or stop that.
“It’s a sense of powerlessness or defencelessness to change the outcome of the extremely uncomfortable situation. Your normal ‘fight/flight’ brain-stem reaction, at the expense of the experience, cannot complete its cycle, and so, this incomplete psychobiological cycle becomes frozen and stays on hold inside of your neural system, and does not disappear until you allow it to complete its cycle.
“Think of a wave that’s crashing as it develops into the process of its formation, and halfway through it freezes. And so, what we do in this particular type of psychotherapy, is create a space where that wave can complete its intended motion."
Dealing with trauma
There are two main types of trauma, Steenkamp explains, namely developmental trauma that is mainly associated with the first nine years of childhood, and current or shock/acute trauma which is mostly related to current experiences, such as an armed robbery or an accident.
"Both of these traumas can be part of the formation of a trauma-chain in your system, where different incomplete overwhelming experiences link into each other. Incomplete experiences imply that they are 'on-hold' and you cannot live your life completely," Steenkamp explains.
When it’s in its frozen state in the neural system, one way it manifests is when it starts giving you chronic discomfort, or ‘chronic dis-ease', which can manifest in the form of migraines, ulcers, anxiety, etc.
"The second way the dialogue manifests is through interpersonal interactions, especially in work and intimate relationships. The dialogue creates an awareness in you through recurring feelings of discomfort, such as you not feeling good enough; or that things do not work out the way it's supposed to. It can also cause chronic isolation and finding it hard to trust people," Steenkamp adds.
'Humans have a natural spontaneous healing'
According to the SHIP® philosophy, everyone has a natural ability to be "whole" and "in flow", which is the result of an internal process of autonomic regulation.
“For example, when you breathe or digest food, you’re not thinking about it, because it’s autonomic,” says Steenkamp.
“And your system is always in process of returning you to your flow state. Should you go out of that flow, the dysregulation manifests as a short-term spike pattern that is again regulated through the brain-stem towards your natural flow.”
With trauma, however, you’re continuously dysregulated out of your flow, says Steenkamp, and unfortunately the person tries to stop these spike spontaneous healing reactions. This ‘moving away’ from such reactions is mainly because the person feels a sense of out control when the release happens.
Essentially, it’s non-education that causes people to remain dissociated from their spontaneous healing process, Steenkamp says. "It's because we’re taught to smile and show our 'coping face' to the world, that we are dissociated from a natural process, and therein lies the problem."
How trauma is addressed
There are different stages of psychotherapy and in SHIP®, the psychotherapist is a mere facilitator of the client’s healing process, Steenkamp says.
"The focus is to hold clients in a healing space wherein the psychobiological spontaneous healing reactions release of their own accord. Spontaneous healing is the opening of the dissociated memories through the telling of the untold frozen story of trauma, so the previous frozen wave 'unfreezes' through such spontaneous healing reactions and completes its natural sequence.
"Once the complete psychobiological dialogue of the previous disconnected memories is released (it is not a cognitive management technique), the therapy concludes with an integration phase to ensure that there are no longer activation triggers," says Steenkamp.
Is psychotherapy for everyone?
"The best person for psychotherapy is a motivated person," says Steenkamp.
“It is someone who wants to get their life into flow again, free of those uncomfortable dis-eases that negatively affect their quality of life.“
The Foundation's website indicate that it can be helpful in the following scenarios, problems and chronic dis-eases, among others:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Headaches: Migraines (vascular); Tension (muscle contraction)
- Post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)
- Angry outbursts
- Anxiety disorders and problems
- Sexual dysfunctions and problems
- Panic disorders and panic attacks
- Eating disorders
Psychotherapy and medication
Steenkamp says that about 50% of clients are on some or other prescribed medication for their psychobiological condition, but that this is not a problem for psychotherapists as they understand that it plays a role modulating the client’s flow pattern so that they can adapt to the stressful life they are experiencing.
It only becomes problematic when the client is so over-medicated that the therapist can’t get through to them, adds Steenkamp.
Becoming a therapist
To apply for training at the SHIP® Foundation, candidates must be registered as either a Clinical, Counselling or Educational Psychologist with the HPCSA.
Is there evidence on the effectiveness of psychotherapy?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 75% of people who enter psychotherapy show some benefit from it.
Steenkamp's latest book, An Integrated Theory & Psychotherapy for Trauma-spectrum Manifestations is a compilation of 34 years of research and practical experience in the field, and includes international research that confirms the work.
However, it’s important to note that, in the words of Steenkamp, “There are certain kinds of psychotherapies for certain kinds of people under certain conditions.”
For it to be successful, you have to be prepared to look your inner trauma-demons in the eye – if you are unwilling to be actively engaged, it will not benefit you.