When we experience trauma, it affects our minds and bodies in ways we may not even be aware of. Somatic therapy is a way for us to begin to understand the ways in which our bodies react to traumatic events so that we can process, heal, and move forward. This week’s guest Rachele Moskowitz specializes in this form of therapy and in this conversation she urges listeners to think about trauma and healing as a full body experience.
To learn more about the concentration in Somatic Therapy in the Masters of Art in Clinical Psychology at Antioch Santa Barbara here.
This episode was recorded on August 4, 2022, via Riverside.FM and released September 28, 2022.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.
The Seed Field Podcast’s host is Jasper Nighthawk, and its editor is Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Sierra Nicole DeBinion, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland for their contributions.
To access a full transcript and find more information about this and other episodes, visit theseedfield.org. To get updates and be notified about future episodes, follow Antioch University on Facebook.
Rachele Moskowitz is Clinical Faculty and Director of Clinical Training in the Masters of Art in Clinical Psychology at Antioch Santa Barbara. She has over 15 years of clinical experience and more than a decade in research and teaching. As a therapist, she specializes in the treatment of complex trauma and works to incorporate relational neurobiological concepts into her work. Rachele has a certificate in Integrated Somatic Trauma Therapy and is an EMDR Certified Clinician.
S4 Episode 2 Transcript
[00:00:04] Jasper Nighthawk: This is The Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories, and come together to win victories for humanity.
I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. Today, we are joined by Rachele Moskowitz for a conversation around trauma and healing. Rachele specializes in somatic therapy, which is a relatively young field within therapy that offers a different approach than traditional psychotherapy, you know, where you spend sessions primarily in conversation with your therapist.
Practitioners of somatic therapies claim that they can be more effective at truly addressing trauma. With that in mind and perhaps having not stated that entirely the way that Rachele would, I’m really glad to have her here having a conversation asking her about where trauma sits both in the mind and in the body and maybe questioning whether treating the mind in the body as two separate things is really the right approach. I have so many questions and I’m really excited. Let me introduce Rachele.
Rachele Moskowitz is clinical faculty and director of clinical training in the master of arts and clinical psychology program at Antioch Santa Barbara. She has over 15 years of clinical experience and more than a decade in research and teaching. As a therapist, she specializes in the treatment of complex trauma and works to incorporate relational neurobiological concepts into her work. Especially relevant to this conversation, Rachele has a certificate in integrated somatic trauma therapy and is an EMDR-certified clinician. Rachele, welcome to The Seed Field Podcast.
[00:01:43] Rachele Moskowitz: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I appreciate the invitation and I didn’t say it before, but I also love the title, seed field.
[00:01:52] Jasper: That’s great. It comes from a quote from Horace Mann where he said, “Time is a seed field; and in life we sew it with causes, and in after life we reap the harvest of effects,” which is like a very 19th-century way of saying, “Do good stuff and reap what you sow.”
[00:02:09] Rachele: I love that.
[00:02:10] Jasper: As we start into this conversation, we always like to disclose our positionality. I think that’s especially important when we’re talking about something like trauma, which intersects a lot with the ways that our society accords power and also suffering. I will start off with myself. I would like our listeners who can’t see me to know that I am a white cis-gendered man. I’m not living with a disability though I do struggle with anxiety and depression and I see a therapist myself.
I also should mention that I have steady income, I have steady housing, and I have a college degree and went to graduate school. That’s also a way that privilege can be accorded but enough about me. Rachele, as much as you’re comfortable, would you disclose your position?
[00:02:56] Rachele: Absolutely. Before I do that, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that I am speaking to you today from along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland which is the original land of the Susquehannock, the Piscataway, and the Patuxent native tribes. I feel like it’s important to do that whenever possible.
Personally, I am a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, Caucasian female of Jewish heritage. I’m coming to the conversation aware of the myriad ways in which I have experienced privilege, will continue to experience privilege as a result of my identified membership in some of these groups.
I wanted to add that it is interesting to me that you mention in your introduction struggling with depression and anxiety in part and maybe this will take us nicely into talking about somatics and trauma, in part because I think it’s difficult for many people to own that struggle if that’s a part of their existence, but also because I think every person on the planet is a person living with the impact of trauma on their mental wellbeing and on their bodies.
[00:04:26] Jasper: I think that you’ve provided a lovely transition into this broader conversation. Just for one moment, thank you for mentioning the original inhabitants of the land you’re speaking from. I’m coming from Los Angeles, which is traditional Tongva territory among other people who’ve lived here. You bring up trauma and somatics and I wanted to actually just start with this word somatic, what does that mean?
[00:04:54] Rachele: The soma is simply our bodies, our physical bodies and so somatic of the body. Anything pertaining to the body is somatic. Any therapeutic modality that doesn’t see the mind and the body as separate and that considers the body positioning, body sensations, body temperature, the wisdom of the body, the innate wisdom of the body in as much as it considers cognitions or emotions, would technically fall under the umbrella of somatic therapy.
[00:05:33] Jasper: It’s kind of a broad umbrella. To be a little more specific, what are some of the strategies that a somatic practitioner might use in a therapeutic session?
[00:05:44] Rachele: That can look like a lot of different things under that broad umbrella. There’s very specialized approaches or techniques but in a broad sense, a somatic psychotherapist is going to be looking to connect their client with that innate body wisdom. Right? There’s this understanding that when the right conditions are present and when the central nervous system is calm and alert and responsive as opposed to reactive, which is how many of us walk around in our day feeling tense and like what’s next, what do I have to do or what did I forget to do or what did I mess up? We’re in this reactive state, but when we can be helped, sometimes it requires help into a more responsive, regulated, or co-regulated with the therapist state, then we can begin to listen better to the messages that our body is sending us through pain or a lack of pain, through the way that we hold ourselves, through our posture, or through site shifts in our posture, through bringing focused awareness to a specific sensation or a specific emotion that I might be feeling in my chest.
Going back to your question, a lot of what a somatic psychotherapist is going to do is bringing the client’s attention to what’s going on in their physical body as that connects to everything else in their life, what they’re thinking about, and how their worldview, and the people in their lives and all of those things.
[00:07:33] Jasper: It’s interesting having this conversation and hearing you bring up these different ways that we can have an awareness of our body. I can’t help, but feel my posture and feel what stress I’m carrying in my shoulders and how I’m breathing and all of that. It’s interesting what just bringing a little bit of awareness into that, how it does change your conversation even outside of a formal therapeutic context.
[00:08:02] Rachele: Absolutely. You’re hitting the nail on the head to a certain degree. When I’m working with a client, I am really attuned as best I can to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, but also what they’re not saying and how they’re holding their bodies and trying as best I can to simultaneously be aware of what I’m feeling and what I’m sensing in relation to what my client is putting out there.
For example, if I’m in a session with a client and I’m all of a sudden overwhelmingly feeling sort of scattered and overwhelmed and agitated, there’s a very good chance that my client is feeling scattered and overwhelmed and agitated and my body because of the way that we are biologically engineered to co-regulate with others in our physical space. My body’s giving me signs and cues and saying this is what’s in the space, this is what’s being put out there and if you listen to it, if you pay attention to what’s going on in your own body you will also get additional cues and information about what your client is sitting with.
[00:09:19] Jasper: That’s so interesting also that matter of co-regulating. I know that we will mirror other people’s facial expressions, but you’re saying it goes further than that. That we’ll also sometimes mirror just their psychic state.
[00:09:33] Rachele: It’s not even so much– Mirroring to me sometimes implies a conscious choice. Not that it has to, but just at a very, very deep subconscious level. The only way that a baby can self-soothe or regulate itself, get itself back to some sort of homeostasis is with assistance from some a caregiver.
Babies look to their caregivers, their mothers, their fathers, their aunts, their uncles, their grandparents, and when that person is kind and soft and compassionate and attuned and making eye contact and touching gently and holding, then the baby’s system learns to regulate in response to that, and ultimately, will teach itself to regulate. That’s the best sort of example that I can give as to why we even have this co-regulatory ability because my central nervous system is not designed to operate in isolation of those around me. It’s designed to be responsive.
[00:10:50] Jasper: You’re saying there’s not a moment when it’s like, and then you’re four years old and you never emotionally co-regulate ever again, you’re saying that that remains with us as part of us, even if we aren’t very conscious of it?
[00:11:01] Rachele: Absolutely. I don’t think the listeners out there can just think of a time when they were with somebody who was really, really just high energy, perhaps even hyper or manic. And you can, even without– just imagining that– you can feel your body responding to like a super high-energy person and then picture yourself with somebody who’s very calm and takes their time. Perhaps even just very intentional with what they say and how they move, and then imagine yourself in the presence of that sort of person and how your body responds and reacts to that energy.
[00:11:48] Jasper: That’s beautifully explained. Specific people popped up for me as you say that. I want to keep our conversation in the formal realm of therapy and the therapy world, but I want to know your story of how you came to these different somatic practices and whether that was from the start, how you approached therapy, or maybe you came into psychotherapy in a more traditional route. I would love to hear a little bit about that.
[00:12:13] Rachele: Absolutely. I think for me, there were a couple of parallel processes going on. Most people walk out of graduate school feeling most comfortable in evidence-based practices like cognitive behavioral therapy, structured, concrete, more cut, and dry approaches. I wasn’t really any different from the typical graduate student. I think that’s where I fell into initially, even though I was always really interested in trauma work.
I think it just seemed super obvious and without getting too much into my own background in my formative years and my own experiences taught me that trauma is everywhere. It’s the person who shows up in your office with depression or with substance abuse problems or with a relational difficulty. Oftentimes the underlying mechanism is some form of developmental or non-development trauma. That was always my lens.
Then at some point, became very interested in EMDR and did some EMDR training, which was the first way in which I got my feet wet a bit with the body and bringing the body and body sensations into the work that I was doing.
[00:13:38] Jasper: Can we pause on EMDR for a second? For our listeners who might not know that stands for Eye Movement De– sorry, you’re going to have to get that to me, what it stands for.
[00:13:47] Rachele: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which I very rarely actually explain to anybody unless they ask, because it sounds very science fiction and weird, and it’s essentially a type of, I’m going to be super summary here.
[00:14:09] Jasper: Simplifying, yes.
[00:14:10] Rachele: Super simplifying. It’s essentially a treatment that relies significantly less on talking and more about experiencing.
[00:14:21] Jasper: Just to cast it in practical terms, I know people who’ve done EMDR or myself haven’t, but the therapist guides you as you like sweep your eyes back and forth at the same time, as you relive variances through perhaps unknown connections helps you to reexperience and process those memories in a way that is different than if you were just talking about them.
[00:14:45] Rachele: You’re referring to the eye movement, portion of eye movement, desensitization or processing. The eye movements are somewhat mysterious in nature. EMDR has a lot of clinical research backing it up, but nobody knows–
[00:15:01] Jasper: Yes, we know it works, right?
[00:15:04] Jasper: We don’t know exactly what the eye movements are doing. What we do know is that certain parts of our brain are offline when we experience something that overwhelms our resources, which is another way of saying we experience something traumatic and the eye movements are thought to help bring online the parts of the brain that need to be online in order to adaptively process, the information that the body encoded unadaptively, maladaptively during the actual experience of the trauma.
[00:15:38] Jasper: Wow. That’s so interesting.
[00:15:40] Rachele: It is! I think it’s fascinating. Going back to that question of, how did I fall into this? EMDR was a little bit of my gateway drug because it introduced me to the body and it also really sparked my interest in neurobiology and the neurobiology of trauma, the neurobiology of attachment, which then got me into interpersonal neurobiology, which is a separate field. I was learning more about the body and the way that our brain works and organizes our body’s experiences.
At the same time, I think I was going through my own personal journey when the pandemic started and somewhat before that because I had two children of my own, which as you can imagine, changed my body in all sorts of ways and the way that I experienced my life and the lives of others around me. There was this concurrent professional exploration into all these new things that I was just really excited about.
Also this real slowing down of my personhood into what does it mean to be me, interestingly, in my 40s coming into this finally, this place of, okay, this is me as separate from you. This is me in a place where I can feel comfortable. That really required me to slow way down and sit with a lot of things that I had previously pushed back against both theoretical things and really concrete, physical pain things that I had struggled with. In that slowing, I found a lot of peace.
[00:17:38] Jasper: I love the way that you describe your own life and your professional life and your interest in this field intersecting. I feel that’s the dream to some degree of work is that it will help you answer your own deeper questions. I appreciate you bringing up the hard science backing up these questions within therapy.
Specifically, I want to drill down on this word trauma that we’ve been using throughout this conversation. The psychological explanation of trauma is becoming more widespread, but I think a lot of people also hear trauma and they think of like a trauma ward and people experiencing gunshots or other kind blunt trauma. In the therapeutic context, what does trauma mean?
[00:18:25] Rachele: Well, I can tell you what it means to me. I think that that’s a question that you’re going to get a slightly different answer from, depending on who you’re talking to. I think the simplest way to explain trauma is any experience that in the moment overwhelms an individual person’s internal and external resources. That is significant when you break it down and think about it because it means that trauma is not held in the event itself, whether something is traumatic or not is occurring in the experience.
If I’m having a day or let’s say I’ve just experienced a major loss, and then I get in a car accident, that car accident might be experienced as hugely traumatic for me, because I was already depleted my resources. Weren’t there to meet the need in that moment. However, if I hadn’t experienced that loss and maybe I got the same car accident, I might have been on my A-game and I might have felt like, okay, I can handle this. I’m okay.
I’m in the hospital, but whatever it is, it can be different from day to day. It’s going to be different from person to person. We see people walk away from horrific, natural disasters, psychologically and physically unscathed. Then we see others walk away, maybe physically unscathed, but really psychologically impacted from the exact same experience. It boils down to what resources were available to you in that present moment?
[00:20:07] Jasper: That’s interesting, I think it valuable in seeing how people can have very identical experiences but have different reactions to them. I feel like I see that all the time in my own life and out in the world. Is it necessarily always a car accident or an incident with an abusive person, or can it also be somewhat more intangible? You mentioned earlier a parent who wasn’t verbally or physically abusive but was absent. What is the range of events in one’s life that can lead to trauma?
[00:20:41] Rachele: That’s a great question. You’ve put the word out there, there is a range. Think of trauma with a capital T as being those big interpersonal traumas like neglect, abuse, assaults, things like that. Then, separately, we have chronic stress, which could happen as a result of any number of things. It could be that disconnected caregiver, it could be an emotionally unavailable partner, it could be living in poverty, living in a war-torn country.
Anything that is chronically day-in and day-out causing stress on the body creates, again, going back to the central nervous system, a central nervous system that is just chronically inflamed and stressed out. There is nothing maybe horrific or life-threatening going on on any given day, but just that chronic stress and chronic inflammation in and of itself creates a scenario where the resources that are available to that person, the internal resources, and oftentimes, by default, the external resources that are available are minimal at best.
[00:22:07] Jasper: That list that you gave, I feel like it intersects with a question that I had, which is just about the uneven way that trauma is distributed in our society. As I was preparing for this, I was just thinking about all of these things from American history, like Jim Crow, Japanese internment, the genocide of indigenous people, redlining, and to this day, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, mass incarceration, police violence, housing insecurity, I mean it’s like these violences that fit under the umbrella of social justice concerns sometimes, but it strikes me that a lot of people in our society, and often those who are disempowered, have all of these additional sources of trauma that they pick up and carry and continue to live with the effects of in their life, and so I was curious if you see that in your clients and just in the wider society?
[00:23:09] Rachele: Gosh, so important. Yes, we know that trauma can get experienced intergenerationally, across generational lines. We know that parents pass down their traumas to subsequent generations through epigenetics. Essentially, subsequent generations end up predisposed to experiencing PTSD, to experiencing symptoms of depression, of anxiety, to falling into their own unhealthy life situations.
Specifically connecting to that social justice piece, we all live in a society in which white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, those things are the default. When that experience isn’t my experience or isn’t your experience, then best-case scenario is that you live your life feeling other-than. Worst-case scenario, you live your life feeling less-than. Again, we’re talking about just a chronically stressed out nervous system, which then sets you up to be impacted to a significantly greater degree by those unexpected, unwanted challenges when they do arise, and they always do arise because that’s life.
If I can, I think it’s important to even go one step further to say that not only does the reality of white supremacy affect the experience of trauma, it also affects the treatment of trauma. This is the piece that I wish more people were talking about in my field, in the classes that are being taught, in the program where I teach because the medical field, including the field of clinical psychology, was really built around this notion of treating the normative client, which means that, unless the therapist actively seeks to educate themselves about what it means to be anti-racist and not just culturally competent, then they risk ending up unintentionally perpetuating client trauma.
[00:25:43] Jasper: That seems like an inevitability, to some degree, in a culture where the history of therapy is incredibly white. The people who were starting these ideas were, to a one, European white men and the occasional woman. To back up a step, and I want to stay on this topic of anti-racism within the field of therapy, but also, when you were talking about the way that trauma can be passed on between generations, it sounded to me– I think we have a discourse around cycles of abuse in our society, but it sounded like you were describing also cycles of trauma in the way that trauma can re-perpetuate and can have effects that are just passed down over decades and just continuing.
As we start to run out of time here, I want us to talk about interrupting those cycles of trauma and strategies to do that. I want to know how somatic psychotherapy really can address that in a different way than traditional talk therapy. Then I also want to get that piece of the anti-racism in that mindset, but maybe we could start with the somatic psychotherapy. How does it differ in its approach to treating trauma?
[00:27:03] Rachele: I think that, historically, what has been purported to be the most effective treatment oftentimes is centralized around cognitions and around cognitions and feelings associated with the trauma narrative. There’s always a treatment, not always, but oftentimes, there is this notion that we have to dive into a client’s narrative, their story, and the meaning that they have attached to that story, and beat up those faulty cognitions and the feelings that are coming in association with that. If we can do that, then they’ll be released from this notion.
Hallmark’s example is the person whose story, whose narrative is that “I experienced this abuse, and it was my fault.” Perhaps along with that, there’s these beliefs around, “And I should have moved past it already. I shouldn’t still be bothered. I should be able to engage in intimacy with other people. I should know better. I should, I should.” All of that is well and good, but what it doesn’t do is–
Going back to that idea that trauma occurs in a very specific part of the brain, trauma when you are overwhelmed, it lights up your subcortical brain structures, the primitive parts of your brain that are not good or even capable of analyzing and judgment and problem-solving, that thinking of, “Okay, I can get through this. I know I’ve gotten through hard things before. I just have to X, Y, or Z,” or, “This is a moment in time, it doesn’t define me.” Or think of a child as the perfect example, incapable of abstract thinking and being able to say, “Okay, well, my parent is doing the best they can with their limited resources.” Kids can’t do any of that.
If you understand the reality of where trauma lives in the brain, then to engage in a treatment that solely lights up the prefrontal cortex, the cortical structures, it just doesn’t make any sense. From a somatic psychotherapist perspective, you have to do– It’s both and. You have to do those cognitive interventions and also involve the body so that healing can take place where the original trauma was experienced. There’s elements of essentially pushing the narrative out of the way, almost seeing it as EMDR therapists would say, “Well, the narrative is irrelevant. The details of what happened are irrelevant.” What is relevant is what you’re living with right now, the symptoms that you’re experiencing in your body, the tension, the dissociation, the inability to tolerate any sort of physical intimacy with another. The inability to focus on your body for more than five seconds without having a panic attack. All of those things are important.
Let’s, in a titrated, safe way, work to just slowly increase your tolerance for frustration and slowly work to increase the amount of time that you can spend in your body by, let’s first spend time in the parts of your body that feel comfortable and safe. Then once we have an anchor there, maybe we’re going to start spending time in some of the parts that feel iffy.
Only once we master those are we going to even touch the part that feels really, really scary. I’m trying to give you a little flavor of the way in which a somatic therapist is going to just come at the entire person in the room with them from a different vantage point than simply what are the faulty cognitions here and what are the feelings associated with those faulty cognitions?
[00:31:38] Jasper: That makes sense and thank you for giving those specific examples and that larger idea of in order to treat the underlying trauma, we sometimes have to set aside the questions of why or the questions of even how we understand what it is that happened and just to treat the symptom almost. I wondered if you could expand just a little bit more for our listeners about the way that that method of treatment can intersect with an anti-racist outlook. The level of thoughtfulness that you bring and you encourage your students to bring to this work, understanding that you’re practicing in a society with all of the history that ours has.
[00:32:24] Rachele: I don’t know that it does intersect in a really obvious way and I think that that’s a good thing because you don’t need to be a somatic therapist or have any interest in somatics whatsoever in order to be an anti-racist therapist, a therapist who is ideally promoting social justice without pushing a particular agenda, which is a hard line to walk and maybe a different conversation, but any therapist who does anything, so it used to be that the whole idea was, “Let’s be culturally competent, let’s be aware of the fact that we’re going to be seeing clients from all different walks of life and with all different historical and ancestral experiences. Let’s be openly curious about those differences.” The anti-racist therapist and I’m using that as a loose term because I’m not just talking about race, I’m also talking about gender identity, sexuality, and ability and all of those things age, body size, all of the things that make us very different in numerous ways. Any therapist can move beyond that and say, “Okay, well, cultural competency is great, and it’s not enough.”
An example of that is if I as an identified Caucasian female therapist, I’m sitting in a room with an identified African-American client or an identified client who is trans, and if I don’t mention the fact that I am white and you are black or I am able-bodied and you are not, any of those things if that doesn’t become a part of the conversation and how are you experiencing me as a white therapist and how are you experiencing your own identity?
What do you own about your blackness and what do you disown and where do you feel those different things? For me, it’s where do you feel those different things in your body and what is it like living with those things on a daily basis, if that doesn’t become a part of the conversation then, what am I doing?
[00:35:03] Jasper: Well, I think this is a good place for us to end this. I just want to thank you so much, Rachele, for coming in and sitting for this interview today.
[00:35:13] Rachele: Absolutely. This was great. I feel like we’re sort of truncating and we could just go on for hours and hours and hours. I love talking about what I do and anybody out there who wants to just take a dip into any of the things that we’re talking about, just spend a moment or many moments throughout the day just slowing down and asking yourself, what am I noticing in my body right now and where am I noticing that? What happens when I focus on that? What shifts, what becomes bigger, what becomes smaller? All of those things, we can and all should be asking ourselves more of that question all the time.
[00:36:01] Jasper: Thank you for bringing that up because I feel like those questions that you were asking earlier about how we’re relating with each other and how we can be anti-racist, I feel like that’s a potent combination.
[00:36:14] Rachele: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about all these things.
[00:36:26] Jasper: Rachele teaches in the somatic psychotherapy concentration in the MA in Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch, Santa Barbara. We also offer certificates there and we’ll link to more information in our show notes. We’re also going to add a link there to our recent common thread article about a class Rachele teaches called Trauma Counseling.
We post these show notes on our website theseedfield.org where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Sierra Nicole DeBinion, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.
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