MysticMag chats with Dr. Lisa S. Larsen (she/her/hers). Lisa has over 20 years of experience and helps individuals navigate trauma and grief. She offers personalized psychotherapy aimed at achieving clients’ goals and specializes in traumatic grief treatment. With a warm and interactive approach, Dr. Larsen fosters a safe space for healing. Committed to inclusivity, she serves diverse communities, including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and various religious backgrounds. Her multicultural upbringing and extensive training drive her empathy and understanding. Dr. Larsen’s mission is to empower clients, guiding them from painful pasts to a future filled with resilience and personal growth.
Lisa, your expertise spans various therapeutic approaches like EMDR therapy, Ericksonian hypnosis, Solution-Focused Therapy, and CBT. How do you integrate these diverse modalities to tailor treatments for individuals coping with trauma, grief, or anxiety?
As you can imagine, not every client responds well to all the different types of therapy.
Some people really love hypnosis and ask for it frequently, while others fear losing control of their minds and bodies, and so prefer CBT or Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT). I educate clients and explain the risks and benefits of all the different therapies that I do, but sometimes people are convinced that something doesn’t work for them. I respect each person’s preferences and find a way to tailor the therapy for that individual. All four types of therapy can help with trauma, grief and anxiety.
Sometimes I use a combination of different techniques for the person’s presenting problems.
Anxiety lends itself very well to hypnosis and guided imagery, but for people who are more concrete thinkers, CBT and SFBT work better. There are many different reasons that someone might become anxious, so it is important to pay attention to what is driving the anxiety as well as what the client wants and needs. This helps me choose which modality would be most effective and comfortable for that client.
Some people specifically want to work on trauma or traumatic grief using EMDR therapy because they have heard that it processes trauma thoroughly and quickly. Nonetheless, it still requires a certain amount of assessment and resource building before we reprocess the trauma. EMDR therapy and Flash Technique are very good for integrating the fragmented memories of a traumatic event, as well as removing the intense emotional and somatic reactions to the trauma.
The main goal of trauma treatment, besides stabilization and improved coping, is memory reconsolidation. This can also be achieved with SFBT, CBT, and Ericksonian hypnosis as well. Complicated grief often results from sudden and unexpected loss, which can feel traumatic to the mourner. I have found that a combination of hypnosis and EMDR therapy can help the person move past the traumatic shock and integrate the memory into their personal story. The added benefit of hypnosis is that using trance logic, you can help a person imagine things that the conscious mind would not accept, such as the possibility of speaking to or visiting with the person they lost. This can help the client have closure with the deceased and integrate the memory more completely.
Trance logic also allows clients to revisit the trauma or loss while in a hypnotic state, so that the client can have a different relationship to, and experience of, the trauma. The client can imagine a different ending, or bring in a resource person who can help them survive the trauma in their imaginations. This can be a gentler way of confronting the loss or trauma without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by it, as people often do with exposure therapy (a CBT approach to trauma resolution).
Your work emphasizes helping LGBTQ+ communities cope with trauma and loss. Could you elaborate on how your practice creates a safe and affirming environment for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking therapy, and what unique challenges or considerations this demographic might face in the healing process?
In addition to the stressors that heterosexual and cisgender trauma survivors and mourners face, LGBTQ+ people must also deal with minority stress. Minority stress is a concept that acknowledges the additional stress of stigma and discrimination due to membership in a disenfranchised group. Belonging to stigmatized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, can be like belonging to African-American, Latinx, and other people of color in the way they are treated as less than by members of the dominant society.
Unfortunately, despite the progress that we’ve made in the USA to acknowledge LGBTQ+ people, there is still a huge stigma and physical threat attached to being part of that community, in some parts of the country and world. Bullying, harassment, rejection, and ostracization often result. I have worked with LGBTQ+young people whose parents and other family members rejected and abused their children for belonging to that community. Parents sometimes go to great lengths to try to change their children with conversion therapy, which has been found to be ineffective and often traumatizing to children and adolescents, as well as adults.
In my work with members of the LGBTQ+ community, I validate their minority stress and strive to be culturally competent and sensitive to the unique challenges that they face. Social justice informs my work with all members of disenfranchised groups. There can be micro aggressions, such as being left out of social, academic, and occupational opportunities, and/or outright violence against them because of who they love or how they identify. This adds to Traumatic stress and anxiety for LGBTQ+ individuals. As a cisgender therapist, I need to be aware that just because I don’t get discriminated against in these ways, doesn’t mean that they don’t.
Another way that minority stress can impact grief and loss the relationship a person has to the deceased may not be acknowledged as important. For example, if a same-sex couple lives in a conservative area and one partner must be hospitalized for serious illness, the healthy partner might be barred from seeing their sick partner by the hospital staff or by the family members. They may also have difficulty finding community resources like grief support groups that are sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ+ couples or families. I can’t change how society views LGBTQ+ individuals, but I can facilitate healing between family members, lovers, and individuals by being aware and sensitive to their unique struggles.
With extensive experience in trauma recovery, including techniques like EMDR therapy and the Flash Technique, what are the critical elements in guiding individuals through the journey of posttraumatic growth? How do you navigate this path with your clients?
Post-traumatic growth (PTG for short) involves learning from a traumatic event and growing into a more compassionate, resilient, insightful, or stronger person. Sometimes, people learn about their strengths by going through a very painful loss or another traumatic event. However, it is not as if people who develop PTG don’t experience pain and distress. The difference is that by processing the trauma, they can see it from a more mature, well-resourced perspective. As a result, they can reflect on what happened to them and see it differently, without blaming themselves for having endured it or feeling trapped in the past as a perpetual victim of abuse or misfortune.
EMDR therapy helps people process their trauma and integrate it with the rest of their life narrative or story. Once they have let go of the old way of seeing themselves and feeling about the traumatic event, I help them imagine themselves acting differently in situations that used to trigger a trauma response. For example, if they cannot speak to their employer without feeling extreme anxiety because the employer reminds them of their abusive parent, once we have processed the trauma and gotten rid of the intense emotion attached to the event, I have the person imagine themselves speaking calmly and assertively with their boss.
Education about trauma can also help people develop PTG, because it helps them put what happened in a context that they can understand. Clients come to realize that what happened to them was not their fault and that anyone would have felt upset because of that event.
This usually does wonders for a person’s self-esteem. Helping people see that their surviving the event required strengths and qualities that they didn’t recognize before can also facilitate PTG. They can also have spiritual realizations and develop more compassion for themselves and others. I model self-compassion and teach clients how to develop those skills for themselves during difficult times. All these techniques help people develop PTG.
In your experience, what role does Solution-Focused Brief Therapy play in helping individuals recognize and build upon their strengths amid grief, trauma, or anxiety? How does this approach differ from more traditional long-term therapeutic methods?
Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is primarily concerned with what the client has already done to solve or cope with the presenting problem. I give them the space to do that if they want/need it, but to heal they need to also learn something new or have a corrective emotional experience in addition to going over the past. Instead of describing, explaining, and focusing on all the things that are wrong in the person’s life and their difficulty coping with those challenges, SFBT asks the fundamental question, what is helpful about how you’ve met previous stressors? How can we apply that to what’s going on now? Many clients talk to me about how they can feel worse after confronting all the awful things from their past, which is understandable.
SFBT is future-oriented, focusing on how they will act, feel, and think differently once the problem is solved or once they’ve achieved their desired outcome. The miracle question helps them identify what will be different when they no longer suffer from whatever is bothering them. Even with something as complex as grief, they can project into the future what they will be doing when they are less emotional about the grief. This doesn’t ignore the problem nor does it mean they can’t discuss the problem. Nonetheless, we mainly attend to how they can cope better. For instance, if the person stopped exercising or socializing because of a loss or trauma, SFBT helps them remember what worked before, and allows them to consider those strategies for their current situation.
Therapies that are longer-term focus on the person’s inability to cope because of past developmental deficiencies, or faulty thinking that makes them feel worse. These models are not incorrect or bad, and some people truly benefit from them. However, believing in my clients’ strengths and resources gives them hope as well, leading them to believe that they can pull through difficult times because they have in the past. We focus on the outcome, not how the problem developed and perpetuated.
Highlighting ways that a person feels bad tends to reinforce this experientially, so the client may feel worse after talking about trauma, anxiety or grief. We therapists expect clients to hang in there through difficult emotions in the hopes that they will feel better someday, but if that someday doesn’t happen soon, some clients give up and conclude that therapy just doesn’t work for them. I’d rather help them find relief and hope before they give up on therapy as an ineffective resource, and/or see themselves as permanently broken.
Your engagement with adolescents and adults dealing with trauma and anxiety is notable. How do you approach therapy differently when working with younger clients, and what strategies have you found effective in helping teenagers and adolescents navigate traumatic experiences?
Thank you for that compliment. Adults tend to see the value of talking about and dealing with traumatic things that happened to them. The techniques I use generally do not force people to speak at length about the past traumas, but they do require people to confront them directly. There is almost an expectation among most adults that there will be some emotional discomfort in the process.
Adolescents sometimes embrace this mature, long-range attitude, but more often see avoidance as more comfortable and enjoyable. I must be more creative and flexible in working with adolescents to confront their trauma or anxiety. The Flash Technique is very helpful for adolescents who have gone through something traumatic, because it involves very little exposure to the upsetting memory, and they get to do something physical (tapping their thighs and occasionally blinking) while speaking with me is deeply absorbing. Sometimes, hypnosis can help them reduce their anxiety by guiding them to picture themselves handling the situation that makes them anxious more successfully. I can also teach them how to relax their bodies in tense situations, so that they remember how to do this at a subconscious level.
Adolescents still have an active imagination, are more willing to engage in creative arts, and this can be leveraged for emotional relief. I often use art and creative therapies to engage adolescents. Drawing a picture of the traumatic event and crossing it out with a crayon or pen can be a way of processing the trauma. Using metaphor and picturing themselves in the future without anxiety are some of my favorite creative techniques.
Adults can be helped in these ways as well, and I frequently use similar strategies. However, with adolescents, there is less willingness to think about disturbing psychological states. Sometimes, if an adult is artistic, they are also willing to engage in expressive arts therapy. However, there is an expectation for adults to be more serious. Again, I tailor it to the emotional development of the person with whom I’m working, regardless of chronological age.
If you would like to find out more about Dr. Lisa Larsen, please visit https://www.lisaslarsen.com/