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PTSD: the focussing first aid kit

PTSD can be so deep-rooted and complex that no self-help can resolve it. However, while therapy is always required, there are steps you can take to deal with the symptoms, and these will help greatly with the healing process



What is focussing? This is a technique developed by Eugene Gendlin, a psychologist, and is particularly effective in the healing of PTSD caused by accidents, sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

It is a safe and gentle techique in which you can learn to observe, at a safe distance, with your therapist or on your own, the painful experiences which have marked your life. It allows you to re-enter a terribly painful past scene, freeze-frame it, and while you examine it, to put boundaries around whatever needs to be contained in order for you not to become overwhelmed anew by the trauma.

From here you can reconnect with whatever needs you were unable to feel or attend to at the time of the experience, perhaps because it happened at too young an age, because you were too overcome with distress to act clearly on your own behalf, or because you had to give precedence to others needs first. By tuning in to your feelings and needs again, you regain a sense of personal agency, identity and dignity.

During trauma, every part of you was saturated in the intensity of the experience, you were engaged right down to your cells with the business of reacting to the threat. Most often, such experiences are too big to be processed at the time, and large chunks of it are frozen in our unconscious mind. The unresolved parts can, however, be affecting our responses and behaviour patterns daily, like a puppeteer pulling our strings without our knowledge. Huge amounts of energy can be tied up in keeping this knowledge from seeping into our full awareness, lest it overwhelm us.

After trauma, you can be living at a distance from the experience but can have inklings of its presence as a background anxiety, anger or sense of powerlessness. Releasing this bound-up energy and helping to move our knowledge of the issue along is what focussing is particularly good for.

Focussing reaches into the body, sensing it from the inside, entering it more and more deeply, unveiling intricate patterns of personal experience through giving expression to this ‘felt sense’, and allowing the issue to ‘unstick’ itself and begin being processed by your psyche. This can ‘open’ into a whole field of intricate detail from which surprising steps towards change can arise.
Here is a summary from Gendlin’s cornerstone book Focussing. For more visit the Focussing Institute website.


How to practice focussing –— the six steps
No two bodies are the same, and your trauma is unique to you alone. So it’s important that you go at your own pace. The moment something feels uncomfortable or too overwhelming in your body, stop and back up slightly. Don’t push on if it doesn’t feel right, but don’t run away either. Stay where your attention is until whatever is in the way becomes clear.


1 Clearing a space
Become silent and quiet in yourself, taking a moment to relax. Now, pay attention inwardly, perhaps to your stomach or chest. See what comes there when you ask “How is my life going? What is the main issue for me right now?”

Sense within your body, and let the answers come slowly from this sensing. When some concerns arise, do not go inside it yet. Stand back, say “yes, that’s there, I can feel that right there in my stomach/chest.” Let there be a little space between you and that. Then ask what else you feel. Wait again, and sense. Usually there are several things.


2 Felt sense
From among what came, select one personal problem to focus on. Do not go inside it. Stand back from it. There will be many parts to that one issue that’s come up, too many to think through each one on its own. But feelings work differently, so it’s possible to feel all of these things together. Your body ‘knows’ the whole of each context, vastly more aspects of it than you can enumerate separately.

Focussing happens at a deeper level than your feelings, in a physically sensed ‘murky zone’ which opens with giving it bodily attention. Pay attention now to that place where you usually feel things, and in your stomach or chest you may touch in with a sense of what all of the problem feels like. Allow yourself feel the unclear sense of all of that.


3 Handle
What is the quality of this unclear felt sense? Let a word or a phrase or an image reveal itself from the felt sense itself. It might be a quality word, like tight, sticky, scary, jumpy, heavy. Or a phrase like “I’m so bad, life sucks, people are scary”or an image like a blank wall, a fiery ball or black clouds. Stay with the quality of the felt sense until something fits it just right.


4 Resonating
Go back and forth between the felt sense and the word, phrase or image, checking how they resonate with each other. See if there’s a little body signal that lets you know there’s a fit. To do it, you have to have the felt sense present again, as well as the word that sums it up. Let the felt sense change, if it wants to, and also the word or image, until they feel just right in capturing the exact quality of the felt sense.


5 Asking
Now ask “what is it about this whole problem that makes this quality (which you have just named or pictured)? Make sure the quality hasn’t faded, sense it again freshly, vividly, (not just remembering from before. When it’s fully present again, tap into it, touch it, be with it, asking “what makes the problem so __________ ?” Or ask “what is the essential ingredient that makes the sense feel this way?”

If you get a quick answer without a shift in the felt sense just let that kind of answer go by. Return your attention to the body and freshly find the felt sense again. Ask it again. As long as you have touched on a holistic body-sense of the problem, then you have focussed.

Be with the felt sense until something comes along that feels like a shift, a slight ‘give’, a release as it registers the ‘rightness’ of the information which comes from the felt sense. Therapeutic change is bodily and feels good, even if the content we are dealing with is painful. It doesn’t matter whether the body-shift came or not, it comes of its own accord, we can’t control these things.


6 Receiving
Receive whatever comes with a shift in a friendly way. Stay with it a while even if it’s only a slight release. Whatever comes, this is only one shift, there will be others. You can probably continue after a while, but stay here a few moments to let this one fully finish.

A sense of the whole situation having shifted often occurs, with new possibilities for fresh thinking and action arise beyond the already-given alternatives. When we attempt to solve our problems with what we already know, think, and feel, then we may find we’re just going around in circles.

After connecting with this deeper level of awareness the whole scene and what it means is sometimes seen in a new light, with an easing of tension telling us we’re on the right path. Where there was only the tiniest bodily sense at the start, what emerges can be an intricate territory of factors, events, conditions and new questions.


More on PTSD

Links to

Eugene Gendlin

Peter Levine

Aphrodite Matsakis



Waking the Tiger, by Eugene Gendlin

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Complete Treatment Guide, by Aphrodite Matsakis


CD set

Healing Trauma, by Eugene Gendlin


Further reading
Alice Miller’s books all deal superbly with the effects of violence in childhood: The Drama of Being a Child, Banished Knowledge, For Your Own Good, and Free From Lies
John Bradshaw’s books cover inner child work: Healing the Shame That Binds You


See also links elsewhere on this site to other aspects of healing trauma such as anger management, bullying, panic attacks, depression and assertiveness