Law of Attraction

Transforming Trauma: Justine Melsande Polevoy on the Power of Somatic Psychotherapy


In our recent conversation with Justine Melsande Polevoy, MFT, a dedicated Somatic Psychotherapist, we delved into her transformative journey from metalsmithing to becoming a trauma-informed therapist. Justine’s profound personal experiences, including a life-altering car accident, shaped her understanding of the deep connection between the body and emotional healing, guiding her to help others navigate their trauma through holistic somatic psychotherapy. Learn more in her exclusive MysticMag interview below.

What can you tell me about yourself and your professional journey?

Before I became a Somatic Psychotherapist, I was a metalsmith. Despite enjoying the craft, it felt too small, like I wasn’t creating the significant impact I wanted to have on the world. I’ve always been driven by a sense of service, which can be both a blessing and a curse, especially in terms of personal care and well-being. I moved quickly through my educational and early professional life, having graduated high school early and diving into work right away. However, a car accident in 1992 when I was 20, significantly changed my path.

The accident forced me to stop working for the first time due to injury and illness. The accident pushed me into a deep physical healing process, and through this, I discovered how much emotion and trauma were held in my body. The journey of seeking healing for my physical body revealed the profound connection between our bodies and our emotional states. I learned that the body holds everything we have ever lived through. It was through that long journey, that I learned what I truly wanted to be when I grew up and knew that becoming a somatic psychotherapist was my path forward.

During this time, I was fortunate to have a partner who introduced me to the first therapist who actually helped me. She was a German body-centered breath psychotherapist who also practiced Hakomi, a Body Oriented, Buddhist-influenced psychotherapy. She also introduced me to the work of Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, who wrote, among other books, “Waking the Tiger,” which explores why animals don’t get traumatized and how this understanding can inform trauma therapy for humans.

These experiences coalesced into the realization that I wanted to pursue somatic psychotherapy. The accident made it impossible to continue metalsmithing, which, in hindsight, I would have wanted to leave anyway. This enforced break gave me the space to explore what I truly wanted to be.

This journey taught me that the body holds everything we’ve ever lived through. It’s a direct access route to how we’re organized and how we put ourselves together in response to what we’ve lived through. This gives us a direct way to change things. Healing doesn’t happen through talking, crying, or yelling, even though those things can be helpful. It happens through the body. My experience showed me that somatic approaches, which work directly with the body and nervous system, are crucial for transforming how we respond to past experiences. This understanding fundamentally shaped my path and led me to where I am today as a somatic psychotherapist.

How much is Trauma Informed Psychotherapy different from other forms of psychotherapy?

If you were my client, at the beginning of our session, you might not notice the difference. However, from my perspective, it’s pretty radical. In the past, we approached therapy with a one-size-fits-all mentality, treating everything with the same tools. Over time, we’ve realized that many conventional psychotherapeutic techniques can actually make trauma and PTSD much worse. Traditional psychotherapy, with its what’s wrong attention, in general, may even worsen various conditions due to its emphasis as it strengthens our orientation to what hurts, rather than what heals.

For instance, if I asked you to tell me about your mother, this would activate your nervous system, psyche, and all associated patterns, especially those linked to unprocessed trauma. This reactivation doesn’t help; it merely brings up past experiences without offering a new, healing experience. Traditional approaches, like Freud’s method of lying on the couch and recalling past events, often just reinforce existing neural pathways and trauma responses without fostering actual healing.

In trauma psychotherapy, we aim for a different outcome. We recognize that merely revisiting traumatic memories isn’t beneficial. Instead, we focus on helping the nervous system move through trauma, aiding in self-regulation, and providing new resources that were unavailable at the time of the original trauma. What’s important to note is the way trauma is stored within us.

Trauma Informed Psychotherapy necessitates an understanding of neurobiology. A trauma-informed psychotherapist must grasp what’s happening in the brain when clients discuss their past and what interventions are needed to facilitate healing. But a good psychotherapist, also notices what is right, what is working well, and helps the client notice those things too. By orienting towards our innate capacities and strengths, as well as what supports us in our environment, we increase our sense of support and resilience, which organizes us and allows us to more easily metabolize and integrate the hard stuff we have survived.

To me, this represents a more holistic form of psychotherapy, even though not all trauma-informed therapy includes a somatic component. Incorporating the body and the nervous system, understanding how our systems organizes in response to our experiences, and addressing what we have received or lacked, are crucial for genuine change. While we can’t heal everything, we aim to shift our relationship to our trauma and alter how it’s stored in our system, preventing us from being perpetually stuck in chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

When dealing with complex trauma, like developmental trauma, the situation becomes even more complicated. This type of trauma is not from a single event, but is woven into a person’s system from a very young age, often from utero onward. It requires a nuanced approach that acknowledges the depth and pervasiveness of these early experiences.

Can you walk me through a Somatic Psychotherapy session?

That actually isn’t as easy as one might think because everyone is uniquely put together. However, I can share the aspects I pay attention to, which might be different from traditional therapy. One downside of virtual therapy is that I can’t see the client’s whole body and all its nuances. Typically, I can only see from the shoulders up, which limits my ability to track certain physical cues.

In a session, I’m tracking your posture, the way your tissues are organized, your level of awareness, energy, and attention. I observe your nervous system’s state—whether you are hyper-aroused, well-regulated, or hypo-aroused. I pay attention to your movements, your words, and your emotions. These are elements a traditional psychotherapist might also track, but I go further. For example, I watch how you respond to resources around you, like orienting towards the trees outside your window, and what happens when you face something emotionally challenging.

In trauma therapy and somatic psychotherapy, we don’t always need to discuss past events directly. Instead, we focus on how your history is manifesting in the present. You can tell me what you’d like to change about your current life, your limitations, and how you feel restricted. This gives me insight into what’s happening now, allowing us to discover together how to address it.

Another somatic psychotherapist might be able to provide a concrete list of techniques and modalities they use. I have a repertoire of techniques as well, but I don’t come into a session with a predetermined plan. Each person’s needs are unique, so it’s a process of discovery. My expertise guides the process, but ultimately, it’s about understanding your specific needs and how your system is organized and collaborating together to discover how change and growth will happen for you.

I also consider the state of your organization – externally and internally. For example, you might be struggling with interpersonal relationships, but excelling professionally, which is common in PTSD cases. My approach is holistic, aiming to understand and balance both your internal state and external circumstances.

So, my answer is intentionally vague because the specifics of what we do in a session depend entirely on the client. When potential clients ask what a session looks like, I always say, “I don’t know. Let’s see.” It’s about working together to uncover and address what you particularly need.

Can the same benefits of psychotherapy sessions be achieved via Zoom or phone as in person?

Mostly, yes. However, it depends on the practitioner’s ability to adapt to the virtual setting. In-person sessions have certain advantages, such as body-to-body communication and the unique interpersonal dynamics that occur when sitting in the same room. These include nuances in relationship building, a sense of connection or safety, and my ability to attune closely to you. The intimacy of being physically present can facilitate a deeper exploration of vulnerable topics, which might be more challenging for some people to share virtually.

On the other hand, virtual sessions offer benefits, particularly for those who find in-person meetings overwhelming. Being in your own environment can enhance feelings of safety and comfort, making it easier to open up. The physical distance in a virtual setting can reduce the intensity of the experience, which might help some people feel more at ease and make therapy more accessible and possible for a broader range of individuals.

While virtual sessions can miss the certain aliveness of in-person interactions and limit the ability to engage in physical practices, there are workarounds. For instance, while touch is an integral part of some somatic psychotherapies, many of the benefits can still be achieved without it.

Overall, I would estimate that about 85-90% of the therapeutic benefits of in-person sessions can be replicated virtually and the access to therapy due to online therapy is a game changer.

Can you share a memorable success story?

Even though trauma work is really hard, as there is a certain intensity to this work, I find it very satisfying. I have a deep faith and belief that it is possible to heal from anything we have ever lived through. I am passionate about helping people believe in this too and pursue being whole and alive. I have the blessing of people staying with me for prolonged periods. Even if they leave, many of them come back to do a bit more work along the way. That allows me to have true insight into people’s lives, their growth trajectories. and the unfolding of themselves. This is a pretty awesome experience to behold, to follow people from their youth to old age and I am deeply honored by

Because I have travelled with folks, in some cases since their youth, until their 40’s and 50’s, I have the ability to see the long story. I can track with them, their shift in their capacity from being flooded by traumatic memories and caught in the web of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation, focused only on survival, and seeking safety, but often finding just the opposite, to being able to engage in a healthy, loving relationship with another and themselves and being able to be more fully alive and themselves in their life and the world. To watch folks move from chaos to stability and expansion and be able to live a more true expression of who they really are, is a beauty to behold and an awesome joy to celebrate.

I’ve really got to see a lot of people’s stories unfold in this way. My first trauma case is also a very inspiring one. It left a profound impact on my understanding and approach to trauma work. This was back when I was 24, so quite early in my career. I didn’t even fully understand my own trauma yet, and my second client ever walked in with a very severe trauma history. An extremely traumatic event had triggered a flood of repressed childhood memories, making her situation one of the worst I’d ever encountered, even to this day.

She was in a very unstable state – self-harming at a dangerous level, unable to take care of herself, maintain work, or sustain healthy relationships. Despite my limited experience at that time, we embarked on a challenging journey together. Over the years, I witnessed an incredible transformation in her life. She went from being highly unstable to becoming happily married with two children, owning a home, and living a content, stable life. The progress was so significant that I received postcards from her for many years after our sessions ended, and I was even invited to her wedding. This dramatic shift was a powerful testament to the impact of trauma therapy, even when I was still developing my skills.

This experience taught me that despite the overwhelming challenges trauma presents, profound healing and transformation are possible. It also reinforced my belief that many of us live feeling isolated and misunderstood, thinking everyone else has it figured out while we feel “crazy.” Historically, especially women, but people in general, have been labeled as crazy and institutionalized, stripping them of autonomy and dignity.

In trauma therapy, I’ve learned that every symptom and reaction makes sense in the context of what someone has experienced. There’s nothing inherently “crazy” about these responses; they are highly organized adaptations to trauma. I’ve seen people who have endured horrifying events at very young ages, and despite the deep scars left by these experiences, they exhibit extraordinary resilience.

The work I’ve done with trauma survivors has instilled in me a profound respect for the human spirit and capacity for healing. Whether it’s through my own experiences or those of my clients, I’ve come to believe that there isn’t anything we can’t get through. This doesn’t mean trauma doesn’t break us or leave lasting impacts, but I truly believe in the possibility of healing at every level.

This belief shapes my perspective on the world. Even when many of my clients feel hopeless about global issues, I don’t share that hopelessness. I don’t know what the future holds, but I have a deep-seated belief that there is always a way through. If we choose to pursue it and seek it, healing and recovery are always possible.

Is there anything else about your work that you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?

What I’d like to further address is what I said about the nature of psychotherapy, at least Western psychotherapy. I don’t know what’s true in other cultures, but even though the roots of psychotherapy came out of places like Germany and Freud, the model of psychotherapy we operate from is fundamentally oriented towards pathology.

No matter how holistic or strength-based we try to be, which is something I grew up in professionally, focusing on people’s strengths, it’s still very much oriented towards what’s wrong, not what’s right. In every given moment, no matter what’s happened, you’re still here. You’re still talking, you’re still breathing, you are still digesting (usually). There are probably thousands, if not millions, of things that are right right now within you and around you.

This doesn’t diminish the intensity or impact of what you or I have gone through. However, our orientation and focus on our problems are a part of the problem itself. When we’re injured or traumatized, our system is wired to survive, to focus on danger, to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The more traumatized we are, the more this happens. So, if I ask you to come in weekly and talk about your problems, what are we doing? We might be deepening the grooves of those issues rather than enhancing your ability to reorganize and find resources.

In somatic psychotherapy, I might ask you to close your eyes, take some breaths, and notice sensations, emotions, movements, and your senses. But inside a lot of us, especially if there’s a lot unprocessed, this is not a comfortable place. It can be quite overwhelming. However, we can look around us, orient with our eyes and ears, and connect to what’s right. I can hear birds chirping, see sunlight through the trees, feel the life force of spring. By connecting to these positive aspects, it begins to change our internal experience, giving us more capacity to renegotiate and meet intense thresholds with difficult material that needs our attention.

There’s a paradigm shift happening among some practitioners, especially those embedded in the field of somatic trauma psychotherapy. Influential teachers in my life have always believed there is an innate health and healing untouched by trauma within us. This can lean into a spiritual belief, but it also acknowledges the complete resilience of human beings, no matter what we’ve lived through.

I’m increasingly trying to lean into this approach, even though all my clients still come to me with what’s wrong. How can we begin to change the nature of what we’re doing so that we feel better much faster? The goal is not to have you in therapy for decades but to help you access what’s already there, to get through what needs rebalancing. I’m not sure that focusing on problems and past traumas is the most effective pathway to healing. I believe that learning to feel and see what is working and living and breathing and well, helps connect us to the greater fabric of life and its balance and absolutely supports us in finding our way through the darkness.

To learn more about Justine and her work, you can visit www.embodiedpsychotherapy.com

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