Light in Darkness

Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It is also the shortest day of the year. This is a hard time of year for many people, for various reasons:

  • Holidays of all sorts can be challenging for trauma survivors or any who are socially isolated or disconnected from their families.
  • This time of year may cause anniversary reactions, as survivors are reminded of dysfunctional and/or traumatic experiences at this time in years past.
  • So much focus is placed on Christmas in this part of the world, those with different beliefs/religions may feel especially alienated and set apart.
  • Those with seasonally impacted mood issues may feel more depressed and fatigued during the winter.

Here in Chicago it is bitterly cold and the days seem impossibly short. It is hard to remember a time of warmth and light. It may even begin to feel like it will always be this cold, this dark. We can forget that even the darkest times end.

While acknowledging that this is indeed a difficult period of time for many, I find myself wanting to think about what comes next. I turn to nature for a reminder that change occurs; that change is in fact natural. I like the reminder that on this, our darkest day, there is the promise of more light. Light returns. Every year on the first day of winter I stop and remember that each day following gets progressively longer. Instead of focusing on how dark it is today, I can celebrate the returning of the light come tomorrow.

I think we can apply this principle to other things as well. In fact, I think trauma therapists must honor the pain of today and simultaneously hold onto the hope for tomorrow. When you are in deep emotional pain it truly seems like it will last forever. I often talk with clients who experience depression about this cognitive distortion: in the depths of depression there is a tendency to forget times they felt differently. Believing you will always feel just as bad as you do now is unbearable. We need a reminder that  our darkest moments are not permanent. Moods shift, healing occurs, change is possible.

If you are depressed, if you are grieving, if you are in the midst of unresolved past pain, please know this: it gets better. Darkness is followed by the return of the light.

This year nature is giving us an extra bonus, a remarkable and rare occurrence to mark the turning of dark back to light: a complete lunar eclipse on this first day of winter. If the snow cooperates, I’m getting up early to take a look!

Some think about this seasonal shift as a time of new beginnings, an opportunity to let go of whatever is holding you back.

What can you let go?

Will you view the lunar eclipse or focus on the idea of returning light as a symbol of this process?

Will you contemplate letting go of the old and embracing the next phase of your healing journey?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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Freedom and Trauma Survivors

Sharing an older post, reflecting on freedom and trauma.

Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Tucson

On the Fourth of July we celebrate Independence Day in the United States. Last year I sponsored a Blog Carnival on this theme and shared that when I hear “independence” my mind counters with “interdependence“.

This year Hanne Blank’s independence day has me thinking about freedom and how it applies to trauma survivors. How meaningful is this holiday to you, if you feel stuck or trapped rather than free? So many trauma survivors do feel this way: stuck in unhealthy relationships or patterns, trapped in the pain of the past, limited by your own inner critical voice and self-hate.

How would it be to make this day a celebration of your own path towards freedom? What have you already overcome? Where are you headed? Take some time today to honor your progress towards healing, towards freedom from the cycle of abuse and violence.

There is tremendous freedom to…

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Throwback Thursday: Overcoming Shame

I have written before about how much we all need human connection  (see: Family of Choice, Connection Heals, Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices)and how forming positive relationships can be an important step towards developing self-love. The following research describes the role connection plays in overcoming shame, one of the core issues for trauma survivors.

Dr. Jessica Van Vliet conducted a study, published in  Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, that indicates that shame results from internalizing and over-personalizing a situation. The individual also seems to believe they are powerless to change their feelings or their fate. Shame in turn can lead to social isolation, with resulting decreased opportunities for having one’s faulty beliefs challenged by others or new, positive experiences.

Van Vliet states that connection (to family/family of choice, friends, a higher power, humanity as a whole) plays a crucial role in overcoming shame:

Connecting to others helps to increase self-acceptance, and with self-acceptance can come a greater acceptance of other people as well. People start to realize that it’s not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves, ‘This is human, I am human, others are human.’

The implications of this research for trauma survivors are clear. This is why establishing and building a support system is such a crucial part of the first phase of trauma therapy. Support groups and connections with other trauma survivors can also play a powerful role in establishing one’s sense of being part of humanity, not completely “other”. The good news is that you can overcome shame!

Kathleen Young, Psy.D


University of Alberta (2009, September 9). Overcoming Shame: Making Connections Is The Key, Says Researcher. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from­ /releases/2009/09/090908193523.htm

Van Vliet, K. J. (2009). The role of attributions in the process of overcoming shame: A qualitative analysis. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 82, 137-152.

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Throwback Thursday: Mindfulness and Trauma Treatment

Mindfulness and Trauma Treatment: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

I think I first encountered the term Mindfulness in 2000 at a workshop presented by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  DBT was primarily developed to work with those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a form of complex PTSD as I conceptualize such things. Mindfulness is the core skill of DBT and can be applied to help trauma survivors learn non-reactivity to thoughts and emotions. As such, it is highly applicable to trauma treatment.

In DBT, mindfulness practice is designed to help you learn how to experience a state Linehan calls “Wise Mind”. This is the same state others may call being centered, true self or authentic self. Wise mind refers to the state in which your emotions and your thoughts work together so that informed choices are possible, even when your life and/or circumstances are difficult. You’re in wise mind when you can meet each moment of life as it is, not as you would have it be, and respond to it effectively. Everyone has the capacity to experience this but trauma may have gotten in your way.

In Linehan’s Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder (1993), there is a clear explanation of mindfulness, as well suggestions for practice. This is a great practical resource for clinicians working with complex trauma survivors, not just those formally diagnosed with BPD. Linehan breaks mindfulness into six specific skills. I will elaborate on these and their application to treating trauma in upcoming posts.

Given the context of an ineffective family environment that often goes hand in hand with complex trauma, many trauma survivors need to learn skills and develop basic capacities that have been missing or lacking since childhood. These are the things the trauma therapist will focus on in phase one of trauma treatment. The lack of capacities like emotional regulation and frustration tolerance understandably make daily life more difficult. Grounding and mindfulness are emotion management tools that can come in handy here.

I feel like the following passage from the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blog captures what I see as one of the hallmark goals of this stabilization phase of trauma therapy: to increase the individual’s ability to tolerating sitting with the range and extent of their feelings. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. writes:

Daniel Siegel, M.D., author of many books the most recent being Mindsight, describes that we all have “a window of tolerance.” The heart of working with trauma is to get to a point where the emotional reaction from the trauma memory is no longer overwhelming. We can learn to ride the edge of this window and allow ourselves to look onto the emotional and physical distress associated with the memory with “nonjudgmental awareness.” While it seems counterintuitive, we want to very carefully bring the trauma into awareness so we can eventually change our relationship to it. This is challenging and takes practice and skilled support.

This is what you, with the support of a trained trauma therapist, can accomplish in the beginning of trauma treatment.

Kathleen Young Psy.D.

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Mindful Monday: Sky

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