We chat with Larisa Traga from Empower TCT, a California-based practice with highly skilled consultants, which offers Training, Consultation and Therapy using namely EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Motivational Interviewing (MI), amongst numerous other specialized techniques.
Tell us a little about your background and professional journey.
I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and started out in the field of psychology at SUNY Binghamton. In High School (and ever since), I did a lot of volunteer work, namely as a peer support counsellor and this is how I decided what I wanted to do. I was accepted into the Master’s program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, which was very multicultural and comprehensive. Since finishing school, I have specialized in EMDR and MI mainly because I felt my education didn’t give me the necessary tools in order to be an effective therapist with severe and persistent mental illness. Continuing to specialize in these disciplines gave me a really nice foundation to build on because of the different techniques available when working with people around behaviour change.
In terms of my professional journey, I have been working with severe and persistent mental illness, in the non-profit and public sectors until I founded Empower TCT, LLC. Most of my experiences involve working with co-occurring disorders, people who have mental health, as well as substance use disorders, where there is usually some form of medical issue as well.
I have worked extensively with trauma, which is why I am passionate about EMDR, specialized in it and took it all the way to becoming an Approved Consultant and trainer. There is a lot of trauma involved when working with people with severe and persistent illness. I feel I have grown considerably as a result of my different experiences, working with the homeless populations, the underserved communities, the Native Americans, African Americans and the Latinx communities.
How would you define trauma?
Trauma results from an experience that overwhelms us and shocks our nervous system and hence we have a hard time making sense of the experience. It becomes isolated or frozen and we are not able to access it from an adaptive perspective.
We refer to two different types of trauma; the big T’s (rape victims, victims of child sexual abuse, veterans etc…) and the little T’s (maybe just a repetitive negative experience, being teased/bullying, public speaking etc…).
So really it is a combination of both.
Is addiction, in your view, part of our DNA?
Based on research, and from what I know, substance use disorders do affect our DNA, particularly alcohol. Alcohol does alter and damage our DNA if it has been used for a long period of time. Children of adults who have a substance use disorder do have a biological predisposition to addiction as a result of their use. However, there are also environmental factors that also influence why we engage in the behavior in the first place. The question comes down to whether the person started using because their parents were using, or because of the impact that particular environment had on them (abuse, neglect and trauma for example).
I am very much a follower of Dr. Gabor Maté, a medical doctor and specialist in the field of addiction, who promotes the fact that environmental factors are a huge contributor.
There is also a disease model too, as research has shown that some brains respond differently to stimuli than others. A complex discussion.
Why the affiliation with CalGET’s?
CalGET’s is a State program that works with individuals who have gambling disorders. What we do know is that when there is one addiction present, there are usually others. In my geographical area, there are not enough providers with the necessary skills to treat this successfully and because of my background, I felt that this was a really good fit for me. I provide a service to a population that is underserved.
What is the difference between EMDR and Belief focused EMDR?
The only people who really know the difference between the two are those who have been trained in EMDR.
Standard EMDR is very much focused on ten traumas in your life, starting with the earliest to the most recent. Belief focused EMDR is not about the events, but more about the stories and the schemas that you form about yourself as a result of the trauma that you experienced. If you can identify your schema, based on your experiences, then it allows us to go deeper.
We then use a processing continuum where we can do a little bit of work, as much as the patient can tolerate, and can help the patient recover from the trauma as far back as childhood. We can unchain the patient from the past in order to live better in the present.
Can everyone benefit from EMDR as we all carry some form of childhood trauma?
Yes, but some more than others. Based on my experience, those who have complex trauma benefit more from the Belief Focused EMDR because of the processing continuum. We meet the client where they are at and we can slowly work on healing while keeping them within their window of tolerance.
What is Motivational Interviewing exactly and what kind of person would benefit most from this?
MI is a counselling style to help support an individual to resolve their ambivalence for change. This means that anyone in any stage of the change process (pre-contemplative, contemplative, preparatory, action, maintenance) can benefit from the intervention of having a conversation within the style of motivational interviewing.
We teach MI to teachers, first responders, clinicians, etc… Anyone who works with people in a field that requires change can benefit hugely from learning how to use MI, so as to be more empowered in helping their patients through those stages of change. .
How does a new patient find direction?
Direction comes from having a consultation, and then possibly an assessment where I would be able to ascertain what treatment that patient can benefit from. Usually my approach is eclectic. I use Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing, EMDR, mindfulness practice among other modalities and the treatment is very much individualized.
Much of my work is providing training and consultation to clinicians, and this is my vision for EMPOWER TCT. Often they are feeling burnt out, or are struggling with clients who have some form of substance use disorder. Some are struggling with a type of behavior change or not knowing how to help their patients heal their trauma. I work with many clinicians who, like myself, feel that they need more in order to meet the needs of their clients.
Burnout is very common among clinicians, and I have found that both EMDR and MI, which are strength-based and client-centered, are so effective in reducing burnout. The clinician does not have to live through the client’s trauma vicariously with these modalities. My vision is to help and empower clinicians, therapists and healers to have clarity, therefore seeing their clients thrive and be more self-reliant and empowered as well.
What is a ‘sensitive’ person?
Fifty percent of clients that enter into therapy are what we call ‘highly sensitive’ or ‘high sensory’ individuals and it is a trait that we are born with. Someone who has this trait is someone who processes a lot more stimuli than an average individual. About 20% of the population falls within this umbrella of high sensory. If these individuals do not learn to balance all these stimuli, then it can result in overwhelming the individual which can lead to depression, anxiety and PTSD.
We also know that if we create the right environment, and provide nurturing and acceptance to a high sensory individual, they are much more likely to never experience depression or anxiety compared to an average individual.
Being a highly sensitive individual is a gift, and it is what makes me good at what I do; my ability to connect and convey compassion to others. I have learned to balance it, so it is a gift as opposed to a burden. One can start feeling burdened by it if one does not possess the skill to manage, balance or channel it. It is quite similar to possessing magic powers. Learning to manage these abilities is a journey, a process and a life skill.
This is a passion of mine. I really believe in what I do. I am passionate about helping clinicians, therapists and healers to learn skills that help them be empowered in the difficult work that we do.
Is training a big part of your practice?
It is a significant portion because it is a way for me to reach beyond the micro-level of an individual basis. I provide public and private trainings to agencies, counties, etc around the nation. We have been doing virtual only since COVID 19, but prior to that we were doing them in person. By providing these trainings, I am able to standardize practices and have a bigger reach around helping clinicians use the evidence-based practices within their clinical setting (EMDR, MI and crisis intervention like A-tip/CID, etc…).
How does one find YOU?
I am on the EMDR consulting website, I have my own website (www.Empower TCT.com). Many clients find me by word of mouth. I am also a provider with a couple of entities such as CalGET’S and MediCare so I often get referrals that way.
In terms of training and consultations, I feature in all the directories.
Growth over the last couple of years has been substantial and I am very happy to do what I do.