Eila Platt is one of Snowdrop’s two permanent counsellors who offer their services to our survivors in our dedicated counselling rooms. Here is an insight into the aims and achievements of counselling at Snowdrop.
What is the main purpose of counselling?
Counselling is about creating a safe place for somebody to be able to talk about what they want to talk about in relation to how they feel. It’s about building a therapeutic relationship with somebody so that they feel safe and able to share a situation or their feelings. Essentially my role is to walk beside them to help facilitate their processing of events, to gain more understanding and to learn how to manage things better for them.
One of Snowdrop’s counselling rooms – The Butterfly Room
How do you think counselling differs for survivors of human trafficking to perhaps your other clients?
I think it’s about ensuring that they feel in control, so that nothing is going to happen unless they want it to happen and they allow it to happen. They lead the pace of the sessions. If they initially want to talk about day to day symptoms, they may not be able to express fully how they feel – it’s about recognising where they are at and helping them to explain that. It’s showing that you don’t have an agenda, not that in other counselling you do, but you need to be very aware about making them feel safe and using each session for what they want. It also differs as you need to be aware of the effects of trauma. I am very mindful of thinking ‘yes, I want the session to be led by them’ while also needing to be able to help stabilise them. They may want to talk about deeper issues from session one, but as a counsellor you need to ensure that they are aware of coping techniques. They need to be aware of symptom management before they start to share deeper stuff. You don’t want them to feel unsafe and to not know what is happening. You need to equip them with the tools to be able to manage their symptoms if they do want to share.
You spoke about trauma; how does that effect the clients you work with?
At the point of trauma the thinking part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – kind of shuts down. We respond more from the emotional part of the brain and from what we call the reptilian part of the brain, the instinctive part, that covers breathing and heart rate. Because of this, memories are stored differently;they are stored more in the emotional part of the brain. This part of the brain is called the smoke detector and memories which are stored here can be more easily triggered. Moreover, because the thinking part of the brain has been shut down, the memories can be stored without a ‘date stamp’ as such, so when the events of here and now trigger a memory the survivor isn’t always clear that the trauma has finished.
This is why you can get physical symptoms linked to anxiety, such as the fight and flight response. Rather than feeling like a memory, it can feel to the trauma survivor that they are in danger now. So, with counselling it’s helpful to be able to understand some of that in order to understand the symptoms they are getting. Understanding how the brain works, understanding how trauma can be stored within the body and understanding feeling memory and body memory can help them to understand that they are in a safe place now.
You talked about the tools that you help equip clients with, what are some of these techniques?
Initially, the effect of trauma is that people can be in a state of hyper-arousal, this is more the sympathetic nervous system and the fight and flight responses. They might feel like they want to run away from something, they can suddenly feel incredibly anxious or feel like they need to fight something; this could be an increase in heart rate and breathing. In the hyper-arousal state it’s helping them to understand that they might feel more easily startled by loud noises or situations; it’s helpful to understand what their triggers may be.
We use grounding techniques to help bring them down from this hyper-arousal state into something that’s a bit more manageable, because when people are in that hyper-arousal state the prefrontal cortex part of the brain shuts down again so they might not know why they feel the way they’re feeling. Breathing techniques can help with anxiety symptoms. In hyper-arousal they may feel like they are back in the trauma so we get them to look around at things they can see, feel, hear, touch and smell and try to ground them in the present. Improving diet and exercise are things they can do to help. As well as hyper-arousal, there is a hypo-arousal state which is more of a slowing down of everything and in this state people can feel detached from reality, can feel a bit depressed with no energy. Again, it’s about helping them manage that, so doing gentle stretches or maybe going for a walk. It’s about helping them back into that ‘window of tolerance’ where you can manage your thinking and feeling at the same time.
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