Bríd Keenan Training Director 2024

In the post- ceasefire 90’s, I was looking for some way of working with the expression of trauma which I encountered with clients in my hometown of Belfast, when – with great, good fortune - I sawPeter Levine (2002) working with “Ron -The Flying Dutchman.”  

His approach included 

  •  The emphasis on the client’s capacity for survival rather than the problem.
  • The quality of attending to the client via quality of tone, simplicity of language and phenomenological observation which supports safety in the therapeutic relationship.
  • Tracking changes in the nervous system without interpretation, assumption or reading body language.
  • Attention given to increased regulation.
  • Shifts in experience which the client described as, feeling alive.

I was really excited by the possibilities of SETM model and how necessary this approach was for Ireland.   Working with the incomplete self-protective responses, the SETM  approach helps us to work with - what Judith Herman refers to - as the dialectic at the heart of trauma i.e., the desperate need to speak out and the equally desperate need to stay silent.   

With a wide view of our national trauma history, The North has been speaking out for at least the last 100 years and the South of Ireland generally has been quiet.  Many clients for legal, social, political reasons remain silent. 

SE offers a way of putting language on the powerful current experience whilst not burying the past, through the use of SIBAM.  – Sensation, Image, Behaviours, Affect, and Meaning, guides the client “from the most primitive physical sensations to feelings, perceptions and finally to thoughts” (Levine, 2010: 139). We cannot just talk our way out of trauma.

The SE approach removes the self-recrimination at the heart of trauma which is evoked often in the repeated telling of the verbal narrative.  By contrast, it emphasizes the nervous system narrative, contact and connection through co-regulation, thus reducing, often years, of isolation and distress. It focusses on capacity and coherence (survival pattern) rather than helplessness and despair.  It emphasizes the present moment and makes it possible for people to honour their survival practices.  

Whilst all humans experience the physiological impact of trauma, how we survive – our survival style and strategy – is determined by our unique personal history and our political, sociocultural contexts. SE works directly with the bound-up trauma energy in the nervous system, exploring how that survival response has become and remains uniquely part of each person’s life and how this impacts the capacity for social engagement and self- determination.

We made a clear decision to place the training in a community-based facility, Corrymeela, in North Antrim, to offer the opportunity to people in the South to cross the border – and experience the North - for the first time for many and to offer the coherence of an all-Ireland group of practitioners.  Travelling to and training in this beautiful area of Ireland has been a very significant experience for the students who discovered the North.

As the future of Ireland is being negotiated, the transgenerational experiences of Irish people are also being renegotiated.  The work that we do may appear in ways that are universally recognized as trauma.  However, the ground of trauma work in Ireland, addesses both our history and our future.   Understanding it is critical to understand the connection between trauma memory and the process of peacebuilding.  

If as Judith Herma says “trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation”, then transgenerational impacts are the normalization of that experience, emerging over time. 

We firmly believe that any psychotherapist or mental health practitioner working in Ireland today needs to be aware of this influence and to explore our own enmeshment in this experience as well as in our own theory and practice.  

It is my experience that the SE approach offers the skills and experience to do this.