“Symbolism…It’s Not Just for the Jung Anymore!” Part Two.


As a continuation of the first part of this article, the role of symbolism and symbolic acts in the healing of past trauma is long standing and can be quite effective. Past events affect us traumatically through the recognition of symbols. Parking garages, fireworks, men with dark hair…these images take us back to the incident that is now burned into our right brain. Yet, if the sound of fireworks triggers flashbacks in an Iraqi Vet, this same individual can be “guided” to recognize something symbolic from Iraq with a strong positive, peaceful meaning. Perhaps this veteran’s primary image of Iraq is the desert and his symbol of the desert is the cactus. He engages in the act of planting a cactus, one he will care for and nurture. He does so in his therapist’s office, a safe place, while invoking peaceful images and positive memories.   He now has a piece of his past memories to his time in the Middle East linked to this positive event.

One of the most widely known uses of symbolic action in therapy is Fritz Perl’s The Empty Chair. Born of Gestalt therapy, this technique encourages the client to become more present-minded by bringing a traumatic event to the here-and-now…where the client can now feel safe to address it. The client is presently granted the opportunity to speak to those that have victimized them in the past. While the event may have been months or years ago, the resolution the client so deeply seeks occurs in their present.  And the present is all we can change.

In my own practice, it is so important that traumatized client recognize that I am going to walk this path with them toward healing. We sometimes symbolize our alliance in overcoming the trauma quite simply. The client provides a symbol of the traumatic event. The dress worn during a violent rape, for example. A snippet of the tag from the dress is removed from the garment and placed in a “possibles bag” (similar to a medicine pouch), which is worn to the sessions. The client recognizes that this is a joint venture towards healing as well as reducing the feelings of “alone-ness” in their trauma.

From Shamans to Carl Jung to Fritz Perls, symbolism and the symbolic act has been a powerful tool in healing emotional pain and moving towards a more peaceful present.



Managing Anxiety…It’s Not All in your Head.


These are some techniques that can help with the management of anxiety.

  1. Breathing:   In through the nose, out through the mouth. Find the count that works for you (i.e. Inhale for 4 seconds/exhale for 5 seconds).   Always exhale longer than you inhale. This helps empty the lungs of carbon dioxide of which a build-up can contribute to anxiety type symptoms.
  2. Systematic relaxation:    Work on each body part in a systematic manner. i.e. clench hands tightly for 5 seconds, then completely relax all at once. Then, tighten lower arms for 5 seconds, then completely relax all at once. Do this for each part of your body.
  3. Visualization:   Chose a positive, relaxing place/event that is very vivid to you. Engage all your senses in the visualization (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch).   The more sensory involvement you have in the visualization, the more effective.
  4. Grounding:   This is used to bring you back to the present and out of thinking/memories that may be triggering the anxiety. This is usually done though physical sensations. Snapping a rubber band on your wrist, using something intense (but pleasant) smelling, using something intense (but pleasant) tasting. A particularly effective grounding technique is to tightly squeeze an ice cube in the palm of your hand. Not too hard as you do not want to injure yourself but squeeze it hard enough to be mildly uncomfortable.
  5. Relaxing the vagus nerve:   One technique that is a good place to start learning how to relax this nerve is to squat. When anxiety creates racing/abnormal heart rhythm and/or breathing issues, it is often due to the vagus nerve being interfered with as the abdomen tightens. When you squat and bear down (as though trying to “push out”) the muscles can not physically remain tightened and will relax around the vagus nerve, allowing the nerve to resume normal function.   As you become more in tune to the sensation of relaxing this nerve, it can be accomplished though visualization and relaxation while in a sitting position.