Understanding Gestalt Therapy and its Benefits
When it comes to addressing the complicated nature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex PTSD, there are a number of therapeutic approaches available. More recently, Gestalt therapy has emerged as a promising and innovative treatment, offering a holistic and experiential approach to easing symptoms and healing.
At its core, Gestalt therapy is all about embracing the present moment and fostering self-awareness. Rather than focusing on the past, this therapeutic approach centres on what’s happening right here and right now, promoting positive changes in one’s life.
Understanding Gestalt Therapy
The term “Gestalt” originates from the German language and doesn’t have a direct translation in English. It essentially conveys the idea of “wholeness” or “form.” This concept embodies the belief that each individual is a complex blend of mind, emotions, body, and soul, shaped by unique experiences and realities.
In practice, Gestalt therapy focuses on the here and now, emphasising the importance of living in the present moment. It encourages individuals to develop new perspectives and bring about positive changes in their lives by increasing self-awareness and a clear understanding of their present thoughts, emotions, and behaviour and can bring about powerful change and new perspectives.
Gestalt therapy offers a range of advantages, particularly in the assessment of the current moment. Apart from fostering heightened self-awareness, Gestalt therapy can offer these benefits:
- Enhanced emotional regulation
- Heightened mindfulness (encompassing acceptance, objectivity, and non-judgment)
- Enhanced resilience to adversity
- Deeper understanding of personal needs
- Expanded perspective
- Improved communication
Applicability of Gestalt Therapy
Since its inception, Gestalt therapy has proven to be a versatile and effective therapeutic approach, helping people to cope with a wide range of issues. Here are some of the issues that can be addressed effectively with Gestalt therapy:
- Anxiety: By focusing on the present, individuals can identify immediate thoughts, feelings, or behaviours that trigger anxiety and work on managing them effectively.
- Mental Health Issues: Gestalt therapy can help conditions like bipolar disorder, substance abuse, compulsive gambling, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It helps individuals develop new perspectives on life and make positive changes.
- Depression: Since Gestalt therapy emphasizes self-awareness, it can help individuals become conscious of the stressful situations that trigger their depression.
- Relationship Difficulties: Gestalt therapy assists couples in recognizing destructive behaviours impacting their relationships. This awareness can lead to positive changes in both the relationship and individual lives.
- Self-esteem Issues: People with low self-esteem can use Gestalt therapy to identify and address underlying factors contributing to their low self-esteem.
Gestalt Therapy: A Path to Healing from Trauma
Trauma can leave deep scars on the human psyche, affecting both the mind and body. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD) are conditions that arise from experiencing traumatic events, and their effects can be profound and long-lasting. Fortunately, Gestalt therapy offers a ray of hope for people struggling with trauma-related issues.
Trauma, whether resulting from a single catastrophic event or a prolonged period of stress and abuse, can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. The symptoms of trauma-related conditions, such as PTSD and C-PTSD, often include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, emotional numbness, hyperarousal, and a sense of helplessness. These symptoms can persist for years and interfere with daily life.
Gestalt Therapy: A Holistic Approach to Healing
Gestalt therapy provides a holistic and empathetic approach to trauma healing. It focuses on the present moment, which is a crucial aspect of trauma recovery.
- Mindful Awareness: In Gestalt therapy, individuals learn to stay present in the moment, concentrating on immediate thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. For those with trauma-related conditions, this mindfulness is invaluable. By remaining in the present, individuals can regain control over their minds and bodies, reducing the frequency and intensity of distressing flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.
- Emotional Release: Gestalt therapy provides a safe space for individuals to explore their emotions and express the pain, anger, and fear associated with trauma. The ‘Empty Chair’ technique (more information on that further down this page) is particularly effective for addressing unresolved emotions related to past trauma. By confronting these emotions in a controlled setting, individuals can release the emotional burden they carry.
- Reframing and Reconstructing: Gestalt therapy encourages individuals to develop new perspectives on their traumatic experiences. Therapists work with clients to help them see the events from a fresh viewpoint. This process can be transformative, as it allows individuals to move beyond the trauma and gain a new understanding of their experiences.
- Empowerment and Self-Responsibility: Trauma often leaves individuals feeling helpless and out of control. Gestalt therapy promotes a sense of empowerment and self-responsibility. By focusing on the present and acknowledging their capacity for change, individuals with trauma-related conditions can regain a sense of control over their lives.
- Enhanced Self-Awareness: One of the fundamental goals of Gestalt therapy is to increase self-awareness. For those dealing with trauma, understanding their reactions and triggers is essential for healing. Gestalt therapy equips individuals with the tools to identify and address their emotional responses and behaviours, providing a path to recovery.
Gestalt therapy employs a variety of exercises and experiments, which can be conducted individually or in group settings. These techniques serve to increase self-awareness and deepen understanding of the present moment. Every individual’s unique experiences mean that different techniques may work differently.
Here are some examples of Gestalt therapy techniques:
- Paradoxical Change: This technique focuses on self-acceptance and improved self-awareness. By making peace with who they are, individuals experience more positive feelings and mood, enabling them to live in the present.
- “Here” and “Now”: By appreciating past experiences and their influence on the present, individuals can learn to let go of the past and focus on the present moment. This technique helps them make positive changes going forward.
- The Empty Chair Technique: In the ‘Empty Chair’ technique, the person is asked to sit facing an empty chair. The empty chair represents a person or situation from the individual’s past or present that remains unhealed and emotionally charged. The person is encouraged to imagine the person or situation in the empty chair and engage in a conversation as if that person were present. This technique provides a safe and therapeutic space to express pent-up emotions, frustrations, and thoughts. By engaging in this dialogue, the person can release their emotional burdens and frustrations in a controlled environment. This process often leads to emotional healing, closure, and a newfound sense of understanding and acceptance. The ‘Empty Chair’ technique is particularly valuable for individuals who have experienced trauma or unresolved conflicts. It allows them to address their emotions in a safe and non-confrontational manner, ultimately facilitating personal growth and healing.
- Exaggeration Technique: This approach helps individuals become aware of underlying issues related to their present problem. The therapist may request them to exaggerate a specific behaviour or emotion, facilitating the identification and resolution of the root problem.
Gestalt therapy can offer a profound and empathetic approach to healing for people who have experienced trauma, whether it’s PTSD, C-PTSD, or other forms of emotional distress. By focusing on the present moment, encouraging emotional release, reframing traumatic experiences, and promoting self-awareness, Gestalt therapy provides a path to recovery and empowerment. Through techniques like the ‘Empty Chair,’ individuals can find healing, closure, and a renewed sense of self.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
Deconstructing the Gestalt: Mechanisms of Fear, Threat, and Trauma Memory Encoding by Stephanie A. Maddox, Jakob Hartmann, Rachel A. Ross, and Kerry J. Ressler
Photo by Paula Schmidt
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.