Bronwyn Robertson, LPC

Integrative, Mindfulness-based, Wellness-oriented
Therapy For Personal Growth and Healing




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Cinematherapy for Foster and Adoptive Families, and Individuals with Disabilities

Posted on July 9, 2017 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (4)

By Bronwyn Robertson

Why are movies, television shows, cartoons and videos so entertaining? Why do they have the power to engross viewers for hours on end, move them to both laughter and tears, and even inspire their insights and aspirations? Watching movies, television shows, cartoons and videos can be profoundly engaging and, in fact, quite therapeutic. It has even become a form of therapy: cinematherapy.

International research spanning more than half a century has shown that when carefully integrated into therapy, many forms of cinema can be highly effective. In recent studies, the movie The Transporters was used to enhance empathy in youth with autism spectrum disorders and Zombieland was used by the department of pediatrics at MD Anderson Cancer Center to enhance adolescent cancer treatment. The Lord of the Rings was used to treat adolescent depression.

“Movies have an important therapeutic function for each individual, especially when integrated in a specific framework of counseling and psychotherapy,” researchers noted in a 2014 study which used group cinematherapy to decrease anxiety in adolescents. “The encounter with some characters or sequences from the movie helps the client identify his own blockages, his present needs, his concealed and unspoken desires or expectations.”

Through cinematherapy, individuals can safely identify and explore characters, themes and situations which are most meaningful and relevant for them. Careful consideration of cinematic selections is needed, however. The selections used in therapy must resonate deeply with the individual and be based on his or her developmental level, specific needs, strengths, challenges, and aspirations.

As a licensed therapist, I began integrating the use of television shows, videos and cartoons in my work more than a decade ago. I have found that cinematherapy is highly effective with individuals of all ages and backgrounds, and is especially effective for children, youth and families in foster care, and pre and post adoption, and for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Super Girl, Maleficent, The Fosters, Frozen, Inside Out and The Wizard of Oz are among the cinematic selections which have helped the individuals I have worked with explore and process their own feelings and thoughts about foster care, adoption and disability, and to enhance communication and bonding within their families.

Cinematherapy is particularly well-suited for work with foster care and adoptive families, and individuals with disabilities. As noted in “Disabilities, Foster Care and Adoption on Television: 7 Shows to Binge-Watch This Summer” and “11 Films that Increased Our Understanding of Disabilities”, there is a wealth of binge-watchable movies and TV shows that feature characters with disabilities, and foster and adoptive families. These cinematic selections are among the tools through individuals can explore, identify and process their experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Cinematherapy can also be helpful for individuals who have difficulty with more traditional talk therapy, such as young children, individuals who have experienced trauma, or individuals with intellectual disabilities. Researchers have noted that cinematherapy moves beyond talk therapy because it is multi-sensory and engages the visual, auditory and others senses.

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson has noted that the multisensory nature of cinema provides viewers with an experience “that evolves over time, grabbing their attention and triggering a sequence of perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes.” A pioneer in the field of neurocinematics, which studies the impact of cinema on brain functioning, Hasson has found that our brains are actually “hard-wired” to be moved by movies. His brain scan studies have shown that watching movies activates areas of the brain associated with empathy, and emotional, motor and sensory processing. His studies have also found that when a group of people, such as a family, watch a movie or television show together, a phenomenon known as neural synchrony may occur. During neural synchrony, viewers’ brain wave patterns actually become synchronized. In other words, viewers’ brains begin functioning in unison. This can provide a collective experience through which viewers can better connect with the experiences of others.

Cinematherapy can provide a unique therapeutic experience through which individuals can more fully process their thoughts and feelings and bond with fellow viewers. Whether it is used in individual, group or family therapy, cinematherapy can be powerfully effective in promoting healing, insight and personal growth.

Originally published on LFSVA.ORG

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Bronwyn Robertson is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Tidewater who has more than 20 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. She specializes in integrative psychotherapy using mindfulness-based, trauma-focused, cognitive-behavioral, expressive, play and somatic interventions for adoptive youth and their families. She is certified as an adoption-competent therapist and adoption competency trainer via the Center for Adoption Support and Education and has lectured and published internationally on psychotherapy for trauma and anxiety and on mindfulness-oriented therapies including integrative, mindfulness-oriented cinematherapy. Learn more about our counseling services here.

References

All things connect: The integration of mindfulness, cinema and psychotherapy. Bronwyn Robertson (2016). Counseling Today, April.

How watching the movie Zombieland helps treatment of cancer in teenagers. Subbiah, V (2012). Journal of Cancer Education, March.

The effects of a cinema-therapy group on diminishing anxiety in young people. Sorina Danela Dumtrache Procedia (2014). Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 717 – 721.

Treating Trauma: Body, Brain and Behavior

Posted on July 10, 2016 at 9:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Joey is a quiet and shy child. The 5-year-old is prone to daydreaming and seems content to play alone. He rarely gets into trouble, unlike his 11-year-old brother Jonathan who is easily agitated and always seems to be angry. The brothers were removed from their biological parents two years ago and placed into foster care. They are now with loving foster parents who want to adopt them but are concerned about Jonathan’s aggressive and destructive behaviors. The boys’ social worker has referred Jonathan to a therapist but not Joey. He seems to be adjusting well, quietly settling into his adoptive family.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that virtually all children who have been adopted and/or have been in foster care have experienced trauma. They all have experienced some form of maltreatment, neglect or abuse. At least one fourth of these youth will eventually be diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But for some youths, symptoms of trauma-related disorders may be missed. They will go undiagnosed, or even misdiagnosed. When trauma goes unrecognized and untreated, “the lifetime consequences of early trauma are often severe,” the American Academy of Pediatrics notes.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, traumatic stress occurs in youth when they are exposed to traumatic events or situations which overwhelm their ability to cope. Abuse, neglect, removal from biological parents, multiple foster home placements and even transitioning into adoption can be very traumatizing to children. Depending on the youth’s age, and the type and severity of trauma experienced, they may respond in different ways. As noted by the Network, youth may show signs of “intense distress—disturbed sleep, difficulty paying attention and concentrating, anger and irritability, repeated and intrusive thoughts, withdrawal and extreme distress.” They can become stuck in fight or flight, like Jonathan, or shut down and frozen in fear, like Joey.

Fight, flight and freeze responses are activated when we feel threatened or in danger. These primitive responses were helpful to our ancient ancestors during their encounters with hungry predators. Fight or flight activates intense, automatic responses in the brain and body. The rational, reflective, and verbal part of brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, shuts down while the reactive, emotional limbic area of the brain becomes highly activated in preparation to fight or flee a predator. The body prepares itself by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, tensing muscles in the arms, legs and torso, elevating heart rate and respiration, and shutting down parts of the body not essential for flight or flight, like digestion.

Fight or flight served our ancestors well while they were trying to avoid being eaten by predators like saber tooth tigers. But when they were cornered or captured, with no real hope for survival, our ancestors’ only option was the freeze response. During the freeze response, an individual can become paralyzed, like to a deer in headlights, unable to move or respond. Freezing helped our ancestors avoid detection by predators. But when under direct attack with no hope for survival, they collapsed into a “profoundly altered state of numbing,” according to Peter Levine, renowned trauma expert and co-author of “Trauma Proofing your Kids”. In this state, our ancestors were not fully conscious and were numb to pain. Children who have experienced chronic trauma can also collapse, becoming “lost in a kind of anxious fog,” Levine notes. “Being scared stiff or frozen in fear, collapsing and going numb, describe the physical, visceral, bodily experience of intense fear and trauma.”

Young children and females are most likely to go into a freeze response when under stress or triggered by reminders of past trauma, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Like Joey, these children can appear quiet, passive and spacey. They can also be misdiagnosed as having an attention deficit disorder. Older children and males are more likely to respond via fight or flight. Like Jonathan, they can become highly reactive, destructive and aggressive, and may attempt to flee challenging situations. These individuals are often misdiagnosed as having disruptive, impulse-control or oppositional defiant disorders.

The temporary states of fight, flight or freeze/collapse can become “long-term traits” of traumatized youth, according to Levine. These youth can become “stuck in in habitually ineffective and often compulsive patterns of behavior.” The chronic activation of the freeze/collapse response “gives rise to the core emotional symptoms of trauma; numbness, shutdown, entrapment, helplessness, depression, fear, terror; rage and hopelessness.” Chronic activation of the fight or flight response becomes a “vicious cycle of intense sensation, rage, and fear.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that “traumatized children do not have the skills for self-regulation or for calming down once upset” and “don’t always know how to say what they are feeling.” Given these unique needs and challenges, youth who have experienced trauma may not always respond well to traditional talk or cognitive therapies because they may not have the ability to process their trauma verbally.

Traumatic memories are not stored in areas of the brain associated with language and verbal expression. They are stored in more primitive, reactive and emotional areas of the brain, and in the body itself. “For this reason, behavior and memories cannot be changed by simply changing one’s thoughts,” according to Levine. He notes that most traditional trauma therapies also involve the individual’s reliving of his or her traumatic experiences through various forms of exposure. “Just exposing a client to his or her traumatic memories and having the person relive them …. is at best unnecessary (reducing feelings of mastery and goodness) and at worst re-traumatizing. If trauma is to be transformed, we must first learn not to confront it directly. Therapeutic approaches that neglect the body, focusing mainly on thoughts, will consequently be limited. One must also work with sensations and feelings … the totality of experience.”

Levine has found that psychotherapeutic treatment of traumatized youth is most effective when it helps to “cultivate and regulate the capacity for tolerating extreme sensations through reflective self-awareness, while supporting self-acceptance.” Therapies which integrate experiential, such mindfulness and movement based approaches, along with expressive art approaches have been proven effective in this regard. The use of mindfulness, movement and expressive arts in therapy enhances the individual’s ability to identify, express and release traumatic stress. Neuroscience research also shows that mindfulness and expressive therapies are effective in activating and strengthening areas of the brain responsible for reflection, self-awareness, self-regulation and positive emotions. Levine’s treatment approach, Somatic Experiencing (SE), was specifically developed to do this. This novel form of therapy helps youth gradually develop capacity for self-regulation so that they can manage uncomfortable sensations and feelings without becoming overwhelmed or re-traumatized. Though SE’s gradual, balanced approach, youth can develop an awareness and mastery of their own emotions, physical sensations and behaviors.

Parents can also use the SE approach to help train their children to rebound from stressful and traumatic events, and help prevent them for developing a trauma-related disorder. In the book “Trauma proofing your Kids,” he and his co-author Maggie Kline offer a simple-to-use, step-by-step guide on “stress busting, boundary setting and sensory/motor activities” which counteract trauma’s effects on youth.

(Orginally published in Adoption Today, June 2016)

References

Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope with Trauma. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://nctsnet.org/

Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Peter Payne, Peter Levine, and Mardi A. Crane-Godreau. Frontiers in Psychology, Feb. 4, 2015

Trauma-Proofing your Kids: a Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience. Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline. Random House, Inc. 2008.

 

Mindfully facing our Fears on Halloween

Posted on October 27, 2015 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Fears can imprison us, haunt us, and cause us to view our lives through a lens of darkness and negativity.

 

Fear is an intense physiological, emotional, and mental reaction that sends stress hormones and adrenaline surging throughout the body and brain, and causes the heart rate to soar. Intense, overwhelming fear literally shuts off parts of our brain and can lead to obsessive, negative thinking, nightmares, and a persistent state of heightened vigilance and reactivity.

 

When haunted by our fears it is best to retreat or to venture forward to face them, even to laugh in the face of our fears?

 

Research has shown that it is through approach not avoidance that we overcome our fears. Neuroscience researchers have found that engaging in mindfulness-based practices which actually focus our attention on our fears can enhance our ability to tolerate and regulate intense emotions. Mindfulness practices can, in essence, neutralize our reactions to the things that scare us.

 

When we are gripped by fear, the limbic system in our brain is activated and parts of the prefrontal cortex, the center of reflection, problem solving, insight and positive emotions such as empathy, are deactivated. The limbic system is the area associated with the fight, flight or freeze response, and negative emotions. Activation of this area of the brain causes us to remain on guard for the things that threaten us and to view almost all things as threatening and negative.

 

Halloween, this modern day “carnival of mirth”, gives us the opportunity to not only approach but also to laugh at the things that scare us. Laughter calms our fears by producing endorphins, activating the prefrontal cortex and deactivating the limbic system, thus toning down the fight, flight and freeze response.

 

As observed by the poet Nicholas Gordon: “Halloween wraps fear in innocence, as though it were a slightly sour sweet. Let terror, then, be turned into a treat.”

 

Happy Halloween!

(Originally published via the Examiner)

 

Healthy Relationships are Essential to Well-Being

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 9:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Good relationships are good for our health, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Institutes of Health. Having positive, supportive relationships can prevent illness by boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress levels. Research shows that merely being in the presence of caring, supportive people can lower our cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that floods the body and brain when we’re under stress. In the short term, it can be beneficial by increasing energy, activating muscles, decreasing sensitivity to pain and elevating heart rate. Long-term elevation of cortisol levels, however, leads to a number of health and mental health problems including high blood pressure, chronic pain and inflammation, decreased memory and attention, impaired problem solving, anxiety and insomnia. Brain imaging studies indicate that chronic elevation of cortisol may actually shrink the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that coverts short-term memories into long-term memory.

 

 

Healthy relationships also promote the release of beneficial hormones and brain chemicals. One such hormone and brain neurotransmitter is oxytocin, which is released when we bond with significant others, hug our children or even pet our pets. Studies have shown that oxytocin elevates mood and self-esteem and decreases physical pain. The release of oxytocin also has a calming effect and enhances the experience of empathy and emotional connection, according to research conducted by the University of California at Berkley and University of Southern California.

 

Feeling connected with others is good for the brain, too. We are “wired” to experience empathy, love and compassion, according to noted neuroscientists Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) and Daniel Siegel (UCLA). Whether we are directly experiencing positive interactions with our loved ones or merely observing other people engaged in kind, compassionate behavior, areas of our brain associated with positive emotions, insight and creativity are activated. The experience of love, compassion and emotional connection not only elevates our mood but also improves memory, learning and problem solving.

 

As Siegel notes, the relationships that begin in infancy can have a life-long impact. Being nurtured and loved by one’s mother as an infant promotes the healthy development of brain cells and the nervous system, and strengthens the immune system. Several recently published studies have highlighted the healthy effects of receiving positive parenting as a child, including the prevention of hypertension, diabetes, stroke and mental health disorders.

 

How we connect with others has a profound effect on our physical and mental health. Feeling love and compassion connects us with others, can heal our physical and emotional pain, improve our memory and mood as well as enhance our overall well-being.

 

( Originally Published in The Health Journal)

 

Mindfulness Meditation promotes Mental Health

Posted on February 8, 2014 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (1)

What are the mental health benefits of meditation, of slowing down, paying attention and directing our focus inward? Research from some of the world's leading practitioners and scholars supports that the practice of meditation, specifically mindfulness meditation, lowers our stress level, improves concentration, and enhances our ability to manage our emotions and tolerate pain.


A recent study from Wake Forrest University School of Medicine suggests that during the first few days of practice, mindfulness meditation can reduce fatigue, anxiety, and  improve memory and concentration. Research also shows that long term practice actually transforms the brain, increasing grey matter and connections between brain cells.


Mindfulness meditation practices are effective in promoting both mental and medical health and are being used with everyone from preschoolers with behavior problems to people battling cancer. These practices  are so effective, in fact, that they have become part of a curriculum of study for medical and nursing students, such as at the Eastern Virginia Medical School Psychophysiologic Evaluation and Treatment Laboratory (PETL)


(Originally published by Examiner.com)

Mindfulness Demystified

Posted on February 8, 2014 at 2:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Mindfulness is a hot topic. While its concepts and practices first emerged from Tibetan monasteries in the 1800s, it has been studied extensively by western scientists for decades and is now branching out into mainstream culture. One needn’t ascend the summit of some lofty peak or be involved in ivy league research projects to be exposed. Mindfulness related magazines, TV talk shows, and self help books abound. Mindfulness-based practices have also been effectively integrated into mainstream psychotherapy and are being used to treat everything from post-traumatic stress disorder in active duty military to chronic pain in the elderly.


With so much information now available, some of it conflicting information, the practice of mindfulness may seem discombobulating to some or too esoteric and “new agey” for others. Mindfulness practices are, in fact, grounded, skill-based exercises that strengthen one’s ability to be alert, aware and calm. Basic mindfulness skills involve intentionally directing, maintaining and shifting one’s attention. Mindfulness practices are “daily brain fitness practices”, according to Dan Siegel, a well published neuroscientist and founder of Mindsight Institute. Research has shown that daily mindfulness practices enhance neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change and repair itself, and strengthen neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with emotional regulation, attention, insight, intuition, and empathy.


A recent conference at Emory University explored results from the latest neuroscience research on mindfulness meditation practices. As reported, individuals who had engaged in more than 10,000 hours of daily mindfulness meditation practice were found to have permanently changed the way their brains function. They had significantly increased activation of the brain’s left-sided anterior region, an area associated with the experience of positive emotional states. Research also showed that enhanced activation of this area of the brain also occurred in individuals who had practiced mindfulness meditation for only eight weeks.

Scientific research on mindfulness is only it its infancy yet has produced amazing results and has shed light on the profound benefits of these ancient practices.


(Originally published by Examiner.com)


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