The road less travelled and the role of Gestalt therapy - Guest Blog
We’ve previously written about benefits of Gestalt Therapy for those with PTSD and C-PTSD. Rod’s personal story in this guest blog sheds light on the transformative power of this therapy, covering experiences of mistrust, survival patterns, and how embodied approaches played a crucial role in his healing journey. Read on to discover how Gestalt Therapy made a difference in Rod’s life and how he found a unique path to healing.
“I have to confess that on my personal journey through Complex PTSD I had no sense in the early days that any therapy would work. The effects of my trauma had led me to a core belief that all adults were sinister and dangerous and the worst of the lot were the theoretically trustworthy ones. Without getting into too much detail and recrimination, my father was the cause of much of my trauma at an early age. Father was erudite and friendly outside of the family home but a control obsessed tyrant inside the house, with a vicious trigger temper to boot. No surprise then that I adapted my view of the world to see all adults as equally untrustworthy or unstable. Your primary caregiver gives you the learning you need for life and you can only hope that the learning is positive. Mine wasn’t, in that way, although I did learn a lot.
Cue many years of abuse and control which, had I actually trusted someone to diagnose me, would have surely led to a diagnosis of PTSD of the enduring kind – Complex PTSD. The road to health and transformation for me was arguably, not one of the many available these days and not just because of mistrust. There is so much more knowledge and research available these days that simply wasn’t available at my time of worst need. In many ways there is so much choice out there these days that the decision about which helpful path to take is a nightmare in itself!
When I became old enough and had overcome some of the fear of trusting someone in authority I used to go to the Doctor for my symptoms. I would describe my sudden onsets of rapid heartbeats and being frozen on the spot. My heart was checked and listened to and pronounced workable with a diagnosis of occasional arrhythmia. No link was made to the idea of panic attacks, and I don’t blame the medical profession here – I saw nothing on the phenomenon anywhere else either. Talk of nightmares was met with the offer of sleeping pills. Perhaps it was a simpler time, or perhaps more accurately I didn’t describe my symptoms well enough? It is possible. The cultural climate at the time also has to be taken into consideration. The key moment for me was when I had mentioned how strongly I wanted to kill myself and witness my parents finding my lifeless body. “Would you like to be able to talk to someone about these things?” I was asked. The answer was yes and after a long wait I found myself sitting opposite a therapist who described his approach as Gestalt. The idea of talking to someone seemed ridiculous in that first session because he barely said a word. He just kept sitting there half smiling in total silence. I could also do silence quite well – one of my adjustments, stay silent and don’t trigger father. The end result was long silences for a while but eventually I gave in and started asking questions. His answers would be redirect the question to me and ask me to reply using “I” statements, such as “I feel tired today” or “ I don’t like these silences” I learned that the idea was to take ownership of my thoughts and ideas which made for a more authentic dialogue. It helped me become aware of where I avoided truths to myself about how I felt or thought in order to protect myself. Because Gestalt focuses on moment by moment interaction your awareness increases about how you are in the world with others. Equally the relational dialogue aspect and authentic sharing from the therapist – example: “When you said that to me I immediately felt something in my stomach clenching and my eyes started to tear up” has the effect of letting you inhabit a more relational world than you might be used to. For many years the survival effect meant I shared almost nothing with anyone. This is quite a burden I realised – but only when I felt safe enough to trust my therapist and let it out there. The well know empty chair technique associated with Gestalt was also useful for working through difficult stuff. Imagining my father in a chair opposite me (and with the added support of my therapist behind me) I could tell my father exactly what I thought of his abusive treatment of me. This was all very releasing for me and I certainly felt improvement in my way of being in the world. I felt more empowered I think is a good phrase to use. Role play was also useful in working through my issues. My Therapist could adopt the role of my father, mother, sister, brother etc and increase my awareness of the powerful effect they had in my life and also how I had learned to adapt to them in the family situation. My experience with Gestalt therapy was so powerful that I ended up training in the modality and became a Gestalt Psychotherapist but I have to say that my journey didn’t end there.
Gestalt took me so far but there were still deeply embedded survival patterns in me that I thought could never be removed. Hypervigilance is an obvious one – constantly on the lookout for danger.
I also had many physical response triggers – if someone behaved like my father used to I would go into a shutdown mode, my muscles would freeze up and I would just go very still. Also – the opposite side of things – if I saw someone being weak and frail I would feel rise up in me the desire to hurt them. I always fought against this and managed to not go with the impulse but it was strong. Anything that caught me by surprise would instantly trigger what I realised was the fight flight – fast heart rate, tense stomach, narrowed vision. So all of those (essentially evolutionary) survival mechanisms which are the physiological responses in the body to perceived danger, triggering biochemical reactions, were still operating beautifully despite the danger being many years in the past. This was the one thing that the Gestalt therapist could only come with me so far on my journey with. The rest of my journey was made with what seem to be called embodied approaches these days – which I naturally seemed to gravitate towards. At the time a Gestalt book called ‘Body Process: A Gestalt Approach to Working With the Body in Psychotherapy’ was making the rounds and was seemingly breaking new ground since Gestalt and body didn’t naturally go together. The Reichian and somatosensory schools were all emerging and producing new research from the sixties onwards and the culture was changing. I attended various workshops given by some of the leading practitioners of working with the body as a relational process. The invitation was to go and be the client and be worked with on a one to one, face to face basis. Since I was more and more aware of my dysfunctional body I seized upon every opportunity to work with these people, who had come a long way to do the work. Most were from America but some from Germany – all with this new knowledge. The results for me were simply transformational. I ended up in tears, sobbing my heart out or doing things unheard of in my childhood like shouting and dancing, and my confidence just generally grew.
The “frozen” part of me was melted away to be replaced by a much more fluid approach to the world, but of course, since this was Complex PTSD it wasn’t done overnight. There were stages to go through and you couldn’t progress instantly from sitting there terrified and immobile to dancing around the room, but the progress was natural – my body would only allow me to go so far until I was ready for the next stage. The advent of more neuroscience research and understanding about the process related to Soma has led to more and more modalities adopting an embodied approach but I have not seen the same system being used that I had access to and I think it’s to do with needing a much more structured approach to be able to roll out to students, whilst also being mindful of safety considerations. The Guru approach – as I think I heard it described once, can only be transferred from Guru to student of Guru I suppose. There is so much more available these days but personally I am delighted that I followed my body where it took me at the time. For me the Gestalt therapy as a foundation is very helpful in my work and any bodywork I do is measured and negotiated carefully, but I am happy to refer to any of the new techniques out there.
Anyway, I’ll stop there and hopefully I have given you a little snapshot into the world of a Complex PTSD sufferer who found a way that worked, albeit in a way that might not be quite so available these days. Suffice to say that the choices might be many and not at all obvious in the early stages of seeking a solution but if you follow your body and it’s wisdom you may be pleasantly surprised. Go well everyone.”
Following his personal experiences, Rod is now a member of the the National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society (NCPS). He holds the Diploma in Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy and trained with the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute in York. Rod also holds the Diploma in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and is a trainer at the Complex Trauma Institute. Rod has also recently written a book about his experiences, ‘Surviving Complex PTSD: Flowers of experience from traumatic roots’ which you can purchase from Amazon.
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.
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