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“In human beings, there is a will and desire to heal. Part of that process is finding and holding onto what is wanting to emerge on that journey. It takes perseverance. It takes courage. It takes time.”
In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Atira Tan. Atira is a somatic trauma specialist in sexual abuse recovery, educator, and activist. She has worked with survivors of child sex slavery, natural disaster survivors, victims of domestic violence, etc. And she has a very compelling TED Talk about these experiences. She is also an Expressive Art Therapist (MA), a senior yoga and meditation teacher, feminine leadership coach, and public speaker.
Atira teaches practitioners in trauma-informed plant medicine facilitation. She also works as a psychedelics facilitator at Aya Healing Retreats.
She is the Founder and Director of The Art2Healing Project, a non-profit that provides therapeutic support to women and children impacted by child sex slavery. She also provides trauma and psychological support to international NGOs for sex trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.
In this interview Dr. Joe and Atira explored:
- Her professional history working with trauma survivors
- The definition of trauma
- What is trauma-sensitive therapy
- The different between the responses to trauma for collectivist cultures compared to individualist cultures
- What is involved in teaching trauma-informed plant medicine facilitation
- What is involved in the preparation, duration, and integration of a trauma-informed psychedelic session
- How to create a safe container to hold a psychedelic experience for a participant
- What is missing from the modern day psychedelic field
- The importance of practitioners and their own personal healing
- How to build resilience
Here is more information on subjects mentioned in this episode:
- Somatic Experiencing created by Peter Levine
- Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
- Trauma-informed therapy
More quotes from Atira from the interview:
“Trauma healed can be a beautiful gift. It can help people tap back into what I call the essential blueprint that we’re born with.”
“With trauma comes the innate capacity of cultivating many different qualities that make us human such as courage, empathy, compassion, and aliveness.”
“Essentially trauma disrupts our ability to be in here and now.”
“Trauma recovery doesn’t happen alone.”
“The goal of a trauma-informed plant medicine facilitator is to support participants to build their own resiliency, establish a greater sense of self-regulation, and to support the trauma resolution which is unfolding in the session.”
“We’re really creating that container to prevent re-traumatization from happening. It’s really more about what we can do as facilitators to create that container for the person to feel really met.”
“When that relationship has been made, as practitioners, we can understand their needs. If the trauma imprints did arise, we are more equipped to provide the antidote, rather than to amplify the rupture.”
“We can’t really understand what it means to find and hold a safe space for other people, if we haven’t felt that felt sense of safety in ourselves as therapists.”
Here are some highlights from their conversation:
I wonder if you could give just some highlights or kind of reflections on how the trauma informed approach or this trauma sensitivity might show up in the different phases of the psychedelic healing. As I think you said that the trainings you’re doing are sort of structured around that. How might we think about trauma sensitivity in like prep, during the actual medicine sessions, and then in integration?
How I kind of understand working in the psychedelic and plant medicine space is that the medicine actually starts to kind of work with us when we kind of said yes. So it doesn’t just start when we enter a session, it actually starts way before with the intention, when an individual says, ‘Yes, I’m going in for this experience.’ I believe that there is a kind of portal or connection with the medicine or with the intention of the participant.
And what I kind of understand is that people come into the space of plant medicines and psychedelics for many different reasons. But for me as a somatic trauma specialist, I work specifically with people that come in who are wanting to heal trauma imprints. Something is not happening in their lives. They feel disconnected. They feel stuck. They have been suffering from mental health issues for a while and they want to be free from some of these imprints.
So from the get go, my sense is that in order to create that safer space for people, there needs to be a dialog around the intention of people wanting to come in, what the categories of trauma are, what the symptoms they are experiencing in their lives, and also the intention for having the session. And if that can kind of be met with the same kind of attunement and care and empathy, which is kind of needed for this work, then as a result, a person will probably feel more regulated, more safe as they enter the session, and also kind of more prepared.
As you know, this field of plant medicine and psychedelics as we entered is an altered state of consciousness space. It is a mystery. And this can create high arousal and high activation in the nervous system. So as we create the container of safety and prepare–help to regulate and discuss resources, but also understand the individuals entering the session with us as practitioners, we can really understand their needs in this session in a bigger way. And when that relationship has been made, people can feel more comfortable with us as practitioners in order to, number one, have choice and agency around the session. As a practitioner, we can also understand their needs if the trauma imprints did arise and we are more equipped to, as I mentioned, provide an antidote and to repair rather than to amplify the rupture, so to speak. So I hope that I’ve answered your question.
So in talking about trauma, I also want to make sure that we talk a little bit about resilience because prevention is often the best medicine. And so I’m curious how you think about cultivating resilience, especially in the context of how ‘life is suffering.’ We’re always just one step away from being confronted with some really challenging experience.
If I think about how I’ve been thinking about resilience over the years before really appreciating the trauma informed lens, I would think, for example, of this very classic Viktor Frankl quote that circulates a lot in the mindfulness world, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom to choose.”
I think the core message there is that there’s always choice. And it’s how we choose to respond to things. And that’s been a powerful principle for me personally and in working with my clients to help people develop a sense of self-efficacy and a sense of resilience against stress. And again, there may be this piece where it’s not trauma informed as a way of approaching it. I’m just curious how you think about resilience in this context.
I think it’s very interesting what you’ve kind of brought up around the subject of choice and agency and trauma. So as I’ve kind of mentioned in the definition of trauma, there are certain times that happen in our lives where we didn’t have choice. Whether we were children or if something happened way too fast. For example, if we were perhaps in a high velocity motorcycle accident and we were unable to protect ourselves.
And I think that it’s important to acknowledge that for people that have felt that in certain circumstances in their lives, where they have felt that there has been a lack of agency. And I think that for these people, from a trauma perspective, part of the antidote is to renegotiate the trauma so that the body can experience what it’s like to have choice again. And what it’s like to have agency. And perhaps what it was like if we could replay or renegotiate that certain event, what it was like to have choice and the body to experience that.
So part of this work in trauma resolution and healing is around cultivating resilience. And we can cultivate resilience in many, many ways. And I agree with you that exploring choice and perhaps giving people who haven’t had choice in past experiences the chance and opportunity to renegotiate that can be something that can be very, very empowering for a person.
But there are also other things, other elements that can add to our cultivation of resilience. And two things that I will name, which I find very important. Number one is to understand and to track what’s happening in our inner worlds, in our nervous system all the time, and to understand how we can settle and self-regulate ourselves. Especially when we’re feeling perhaps more activated in the sympathetic nervous system, for instance.
And part of that is being able to self-regulate or co-regulate is really a conversation around our resources and how we use our resources. Because all of us have inner resources and outer resources, too. For most people, we are unaware of our resources and how to tap into that resource vortex in a way, a healing vortex in a way.
And part of this work around trauma is not all about focusing on the trauma and focusing on the suffering. More often than not with clients it is really about amplifying what is resourceful for them or what is life affirming or what’s life giving. And because they are living in such a place of neuroception where they feel danger constantly, they are unable to even drink in or receive the resources, the inner and outer resources which are available in the here and now at all times. So those are certain things that I think could be helpful for folks out there to cultivate resilience.
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