Month: June 2014

Adventure Therapy


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Think about a time when you took a risk, stepped out of your comfort zone, challenged yourself!

Scary right?

How did it feel when you succeeded in spite of your fear?

Did it feel good?

I bet you felt proud!

And you know what? If you reflect on that experience long enough and with a level of insight you will notice the skills you learnt or enhanced and the ways in which you coped and managed your anxiety.

Now think about a world where you never feel safe or secure.  A world full of fear and distrust. This is the life of the traumatised child. An existence where safety is stolen and experience leaves templates of mistrust.

Imagine a situation whereby the traumatised child can experience success and a sense of accomplishment in the context of relationships that demonstrate “in the moment” trust. Adventure based therapy like kayaking, ropes courses, wilderness adventure programs and the like can afford traumatised young people this opportunity.

The magic in adventure based therapy is in weaving together into one activity the following developmental and healing opportunities. Participants are faced with activities that challenge and extend them at a skill level, but are absolutely achievable.  What’s more many of these activities involve fear, risk taking and induce anxiety, but are provided in a way that they can be scaffolded for success and achievement. So in a direct experiential way the individual participant has to draw on their competencies, explore problems and difficulties to develop solutions and fundamentally achieve and succeed in the face of trauma. All of this is done in the context of a relationship that implicitly enforces trust and as a result of individual success provides a positive experience of helpful, supportive and trusting relationships.

I observed a kayaking adventure therapy session with a group of adolescent boys at Cal Farley’s. These young men were preparing for an open water kayaking trip the following week and were practicing the skills of rescue post capsizing.

Fascinating in this observation was watching these young men anxiously anticipate the notion of flipping their kayak and deliberately capsizing themselves. Staff engaged in a lot of cognitive discussion based reassurance, what was awesome was that this was done as they kayaked up and down the length of the pond, back and forth, repetitively paddling and talking. This allowed for somatosensory regulation of anxiety, or quietening down of the dysregulation caused by the anxiety, so that the discussion based reassurance and coaching could be heard and internalised by the young men.

Then in pairs – either paired with an intervention therapist, or in peer pairings with one more skilled peer as mentor for the other, these guys practiced capsizing their boats and rescuing each other. There was ample time provided to allow them to work up to and get themselves emotionally and cognitively ready to tip their kayaks, including repeat demonstrations from intervention staff and more competent peers, paddling laps and step by step instructions and reassurance.

Eventually one by one, these young men tipped their kayaks and capsized themselves, were successfully rescued and able to get back into their kayaks from in the water in the middle of the pond and fist pumped the air with the experience of success.

These lads were able to experience in the moment moderate levels of fear and anxiety activation paired with somatosensory regulation and the experience of relational trust all of which culminated in the experience of success. What was really nice was the processing or discussions that took place together about the experience and the learning for the young men after their initial success – talking about what it was like, how it felt, what they learnt about themselves, about their relationship with their partner – some really nice “talk based” therapeutic work attached to a really cool direct experiential learning opportunity.

Dr Perry talks about the importance of repetition to strengthen the new neural pathways and connections that are made with these experiences and you know repetition was not an issue after that first capsize and recovery – these guys just kept doing it over and over and over again.  I could see the increase in confidence right there in the moment by moment repeat of the activity.

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Rhythmic Riding

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Mindfulness connection

Rhythmic Riding is an equine based therapeutic approach that is one part of the Trauma Focussed Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP) established by Tim & Bettina Jobe from Natural Lifemanship.  In short “TF-EAP utilizes the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive, bilateral movement inherent in riding a horse to increase and reorganize the connections in the brain, thereby increasing the brain’s ability for emotion and impulse control. The horse is able to provide the rhythm required to effectively heal the traumatized brain until the client is able to independently provide that rhythm. In effect, clients passively learn to self-regulate through the use of the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive movement of the horse.” Spirit Reins Website.

Music is often incorporated into the mounted work allowing the horse and rider to move in time to and with the rhythm of the music, again requiring and providing a medium to scaffold regulation and connection between the rider and horse.

I had the opportunity to watch a Rhythmic Riding session at Cal Farley’s.  The session observed was with a group of adolescent girls who had been engaged in TF-EAP work for the whole school year.  As the session I observed was the last for this group for the school year, the focus of the group was less on riding to the rhythm but rather the creation of a mindful connection between rider and horse.

Each participant had their own horse with whom they had been working the whole year, hence I was observing well established rider/horse relationships.  In the spirit of a mindful connection with the animal, the girls rode bareback and the session commenced with a mounted meditation to regulate and ground participants.   Then cue music and the riders and horses were left to regulate and re-organise neural brain networks via the riding or horseback activity. Participants chose to either ride to the rhythm, lie across, over or back on their horse, or even attempt to stand on the back of the horse.  Clinical and Equine Intervention staff observe, comment and process experiences with participants as regulatory and relational successes and difficulties between horse and rider emerge.

Now as I said, this group had been active for a full school year – so the girls, in most cases, had established enough self regulatory capacity that the rhythm provided by the horse merely provided a value add.  This was not the case for all participants however.  Fascinating for me was the experience of being witness to one young woman who arrived to the group clearly dysregulated – slamming the car door, storming past those of us milling about and stomping into the yard to collect her horse.  Naturally the process of getting her horse was complicated by her emotional presentation, her horse on seeing and sensing her turned and moved away from her.

Despite eventually haltering her horse and mounting him bareback, it was obvious the connection between the two was tenuous, the horses ears were often back, his eyes looked a little wild and big and his rider was really struggling to control him.  The mental health clinician in the group reflected to this young woman what she was observing, however this girl’s dysregulation was such that she wasn’t in the thinking and hearing part of her brain – instead she explained the relationship with the horse away as the result of her not liking or being able to ride as well bareback.

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The trusted connection

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Riding with Rhythm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The session was a real struggle for this lass, while the other participants were riding in time to the rhythm, clearly demonstrating their self regulation and ability to connect with and trust their horse, she just couldn’t get the connection. In fact watching on I could just tell that the horse was waiting for the right moment to assist her off his back.

That moment came not long after the session commenced.  Instead of focussing on herself and taking care of her own emotions, the participant, watching what others were doing and becoming increasingly frustrated at her inability to manage herself and her ride, decided to try and throw her leg over so as to ride the horse side on.  Sensing the movement in balance, the horse took quick action and dispensed of her from his back.  From there the session quickly took a turn for worse and despite the attempts of very skilled clinical and equine support staff, she was unable to remount the horse or develop insight into her emotional state and it’s impact on the situation at hand.

In hindsight, which is always 20-20, maybe on arrival staff could have suggested that today wasn’t the day to participate, but then who knows, it could have gone the other way, she could have got on the back of that majestic animal and the rhythm and movement of the horse could have been enough to start to regulate her and afford her success in the experience.  It’s a tough call and it just highlighted to me the absolute importance of the attuned relationship that knows and gets the young person so as to be better placed to make that call.  Unfortunately for this young woman that key relationship wasn’t present that day.

While this is a reflection of a challenging Rhythmic Riding session – it was clear to me the value of such activity and from my experience on horseback previously discussed I can see how this activity provides the necessary patterned, repetitive and rhythmic activity for enhanced regulation.

 

 

 

 

Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch: A Shirttail to Hang Onto!

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I had the absolute privilege of spending the week of 19th – 23rd of May in Amarillo Texas on Ranch at Cal Farley’s residential treatment centre.  It is hard to know where to start when describing Cal Farley’s and my experience there. One blog is not going to even remotely capture the breadth of what the service offers.  First and foremost I have to acknowledge the absolute generosity of the Cal Farley’s team from their Chief Operating Officer, Clinicians, Training team, House Parents and well basically everyone on the property. My visit was catered for most generously and my schedule was very busy – largely because there was just SO much to see and in the spirit of my Fellowship,  I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Cal Farley’s is a one of a kind service, of this I’m pretty confident.  It is one of America’s largest privately-funded child and family service providers specializing in both residential and community-based services at no cost to the families of children in their care.

Yes you read me right, NO COST!

The founder of the Ranch, Cal Farley was quite a visionary for his time and in 1961, he established the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Foundation. Contributions from the Ranch’s friends and supporters provide approximately 30 – 40% of the funds required to meet total annual operating expenditures. Through the foresight of Cal Farley and his Board of Directors, the remaining funds required to operate are available through the Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch Foundation.

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Cal Farley Statue

Cal Farley’s operates like a small town – in fact it’s almost big enough to be a small town.  It hosts a chapel, fire station, it’s own bank and post office services, has it’s own independent school district, complete with administration, including their own superintendent, elementary, middle, and high school.  An activity centre, gym, pool, football field, indoor horse riding arena, rodeo stadium, athletics field, stores and the communal dining hall.  Many of the staff live on site at the Ranch, which in addition to the staff homes, hosts 28 residential homes each of which caters up to 12 children and young people.  At capacity Cal Farley’s can have up to 260 children and young people at a time.  Residential homes are staffed by 2 sets of house parents, the lead house parents and relief house parents. The residential homes as you can see from the photos are all designed similarly and provide a very homely feel.

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Example of Cal Farley BR home

 

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Kitchen/Dining

 

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Living Room

 

BR girls bedroom

Bedroom

Neurodevelopmentally informed interventions/activities included (and I will probably leave some out):

  • Individual Therapy
  • Neurofeedback
  • Play Therapy
  • Art Therapy
  • AAT – largely equine based including colt and filly training and Rhythmic Riding
  • EMDR
  • Adventure Therapies – Ropes Courses, Kayaking, Trail Rides, Challenge course
  • Rocket Club
  • Computer Lab
  • Woodwork Studio
  • Robot and other electronics programs
  • Rodeo skills
  • Drumming
  • Archery
  • Gardening/Agriculture
  • Agriculture workshop – where they built a trailer for example so that they could transport their livestock to agricultural shows.
  • Mentoring of younger children by older children
  • Capacity for vocational training and part time employment

All of this is embedded in a community where relationships serve as the key to success.  As I wandered around Cal Farley’s I had to remind myself that this was a service for children and young people who had mental health, emotional and behavioural problems, because often what I saw and experienced seemed just like any ordinary community.  The importance of relationships whereby the kids were positively supported, contained and nurtured by multiple adults in their daily experiences was evident in the way the children and young people conducted themselves in the community. I’m not saying that there were no challenges, as there were, but on the whole the adults in this community do a wonderful job of creating a relationally rich environment filled with amazing activities, “interventions” and opportunities.

If you work in the child and welfare sector and you ever find yourself in Amarillo Texas – look Cal Farley’s up and see if you can visit – it’s nothing short of impressive and it’s folk are just downright good people who are absolutely and only in this for the best outcomes for kids.

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Kayaking Adventure Therapy Session

 

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Practicing capsizing and rescue and the experience thereof.

 

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Robot built in rocket/robotics/electronics/ computing lab

 

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Pre therapy jigsaw pieces – goals and wishes

 

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Therapy Closure Jigsaw Pieces – outcomes

The Impact of Fear: My Firsthand Experience.

It has been a while since my last entry and I apologise for that.  The last 3 weeks have been so very busy and I became a little unwell (nothing too serious – just allergies) so that’s put me a little behind on the documentation of reflections. I can’t help but wonder however if some of the delay in getting another story out, was because I’m a stickler for chronology and really wanted to talk about & reflect on an experience I had in Albuquerque, the night before heading to Cal Farley’s in Texas.  The difficulty being that I was auditory witness to what sounded like a horrible domestic violence incident in my hotel that left me nothing short of scared if I’m to be honest.  I think it’s taken me time to process and think about that experience and how to reflect upon and turn it into something I have learnt from, but can also help others to learn from.images-3

In all the training and staffings I have done as part of my NMT certification with the ChildTrauma Academy I have a pretty good understanding of Dr Perry’s notion of the arousal continuum and the impact of increasing levels of stress and fear on the way in which our brain operates.  I even use examples of my own stressful situations to illustrate the arousal continuum when I teach and train.

Arousal continuum, Chelle what are you talking about? In short, there is a universal human phenomenon whereby activation of the stress response system or the experience of stress or threat, moves us along a continuum of arousal from calm to alert to alarm to fearful to terrified.  Now as Dr Perry often says, in today’s world it’s quite rare to achieve a state of calm and for most of us we operate on a day to day basis in the mental state of alert.  At each different state of arousal and because all of our functioning is brain mediated, there is a different part of the brain that is most active.

So when we are in a state of calm or alert this is when we have access to our cortex – the thinking and problem solving part of our brain.  We can recall information, manipulate thoughts and come up with solutions.  Moving up the arousal continuum to a state of alarm, fear and then terror sequentially reduces the access we have to our cortex.  Essentially the more stressed or afraid we become the less access we have to our thinking brain and our ability to problem solve and think clearly. Dan Seigel describes this here in his hand brain model https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD-lfP1FBFk when he talks about rising emotions leading us to flip our lids.

Unfortunately on the evening of the 17th of May, I was staying in Albuquerque, where after tucking up in bed, excited about the week ahead of me I could hear very clearly the screams and pleas for help from a woman.  Coupling these terrifying screams were loud bangs, the sounds of things being thrown around, threatening yelling from a male voice and then the sound of skin hitting skin.  It was clear that somewhere very close to me a woman was being assaulted and needed assistance.

Now if I were in my own country and feeling less isolated I may have had a different response, but what happened that night was that I became overwhelmed with fear.  Here I was a woman, alone, in another country and not having immediate access to the things that make me feel safe – my husband or my family.  I could feel my heart racing and I found myself almost paralysed with fear.  I couldn’t move, didn’t want to move.  Initially I thought about the notion of calling 911, but the fear of being heard or drawing attention to myself was so great and the possible threat to my own safety took hold.  Instead I found myself lying completely still, like a mouse not making a sound and jumping on Facebook messenger to connect with my safe base – my husband. Essentially in that moment I “flipped my lid”.

Not only did I have the first hand experience of the arousal continuum where I found myself unable to do anything but focus on what I needed to do for my own safety.  I couldn’t think, sort out solutions or even contemplate what I might need or be able to do to assist this poor woman being assaulted.  My cortex, the thinking part of my brain was shut down and the survival parts of my brain in full force – keeping me safe.  I didn’t sleep a wink that night, not even after the three hour ordeal settled, I was hypervigilantly on guard for additional threat.

The next morning, when I had resumed a baseline level of alert arousal and my cortex accessible again, I was struck by my experience of shame.  I didn’t let this consume me – reminding myself of neurobiology and the response I had as being natural, but nonetheless for a short period of time, with emerging access to my cortex, I felt bad for not having acted to protect that woman.  For those concerned, someone who wasn’t as scared was able to seek help for the woman and her abusive partner was arrested and taken away.

In the time that has passed since then however, I have spent a lot of time thinking about being a child in another room of the house, while those you love are being hurt and/or hurting each other.  I am a grown adult, I’ve had a really solid upbringing and I have relative security in my attachment and relationships, I had no personal connection to those individuals being violent and yet I still found myself terrified and immobilised by fear.  Imagine being a child, vulnerable, alone, scared and unable to do anything to help your loved one from being hurt.

I’ve heard all too often from parents, “the kids don’t know or see it”, “they are in another room”, “our fighting (aka domestic violence) doesn’t have an impact on them”.  I have always challenged these notions and beliefs of parents, knowing that this is nothing short of a fallacy.  Of course kids know and hear.  What concerns me more now though as I reflect on my experience in Albuquerque, is that when you can hear domestic violence and not see it, it might be just as, if not more scary than actually witnessing it.  When it is not in front of you and you “flip your lid”, your imagination about what is happening or what might happen can take hold, exacerbating your fear.

What’s more, if you have grown up in an environment of such violence and aggression between those you love, you are more likely to have an overactive stress response and hence be more alert to the cues of aggression and violence and more reactive to them.  The witnessing, be that visual or just auditory, will only serve to reinforce and exacerbate that overreactive stress response and possible resultant shame for not being able to help due to fear.

My experience has left me further adamant of the fact that hearing and not seeing domestic violence is absolutely in NO way less frightening or  damaging to children, than being visual witness to it!!

An Excuse for New Boots!

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The Sandhill Trail Ride with Acacia Riding Adventures: San Lorenzo Canyon New Mexico.

I’m always looking for a reason to add to my collection of cowboy boots. Now there’s more to this story and while this blog is really about neurodevelopmentally informed interventions and I’ll get there in this one, just let me set the scene a little.

There I was in Denver – a little over a week of being in the States and well I hadn’t really packed for a cold snap.  In fact, despite what seemed to be seamless organisation in relation to my packing – I really didn’t consider or even think about researching the spring weather conditions for places like Denver, Banff and Calgary.  So after a 102/38 degree day in Wichita, I head to Denver – where it was a crisp 63/17 degrees and my footwear is pretty much a pair of canvas Toms and two pair of open toe summer sandals!  This coupled with a Facebook post from a dear colleague in Calgary showing their spring snowfall (looks like our winter on the ski slopes) resulted in a rapid move up the arousal continuum to a state of mild stress activation.  “Will it be like that when I get there in June ?” “I’ve only canvas and open toed shoes, hello frostbite…”  and then as I engaged some self regulation, calmed and regained access to my thinking brain, came the problem solving “…Hello Boots!” On that very same day I get an email from Cal Farley’s to let me know that I’d be doing a trail ride – on a horse.  It is meant to be and now the deal is sealed, new boots for me!

I haven’t ridden for over 23 years, so the idea of getting back on a horse caused me some apprehension, however in the last two weeks I’ve now had opportunity to do two trail rides, firstly with Sandhill in one of the most picturesque canyons, secondly at Cal Farley’s around the treatment centre campus.  I’d love to be able to tell you that it’s just like riding a bike and one of my observers suggested to me that it looked just like that – on the back of that animal although – that’s not how it felt.

The mere idea of getting back up on horseback was in and of itself anxiety provoking for me.  I’m not a lover of heights, and well I’ve put on a bit of weight since I was a kid riding and being a lover of animals was quite concerned about my horse having to bear my weight.  On both rides what was fantastic was the reassurance from experienced horse handlers that both of my horses were more than capable of carrying me and doing so safely.  The other thing that I loved about both Dacodah and David was their ability to scaffold a feeling of competence and in turn begin the process of co-regulation of my anxiety.  I couldn’t help but think about what this experience would be like for a child or young person so used to negative human interaction, to have both an animal and its handler working together in the most natural of ways and leaving you feeling nothing but important and what’s more, even with skill.

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Cal Farley’s Trail Ride

Once on the back of the horse, there was no going back on either occasion.  In fact on the first ride there may not have been any going forward either had the horse not clearly communicated to me that I was anxious and she was not enjoying that experience.  My horse kept looking at me and snorting almost with derision.  Initially this did nothing to quell my anxiety and left me thinking all sort of negative self talk about my weight and the horse’s experience of it.  Not unlike the float tank, it was interesting to notice the thought processes that emerged about myself and the importance of sorting that stuff out or at the very least challenging it, for the success of the experience.

Dacodah and David on both occasions reminded me that the horse, being a prey animal, have an overactive stress response system – not unlike the abused and traumatised kids we work with and that they are finely attuned to threat.  Sensing my anxiety both the horses had started to become a bit “on edge” really just feeding off my own anxiety.  So in order to calm them, I had to calm myself.  The horse like the frightened and traumatised child, at the heart of it, really wants a calm, regulated, nice, nurturing, rewarding rider who can take control and be respectful of them.  The more I was able to manage my anxiety and relax into the animal while at the same time retain a sense of confident control the more attuned the horse and I became, the more responsive they were to me and the more confident and skilled I felt.

I can only imagine living a life where you feel out of control all the time and then having an experience like this where you have capacity to control the success of your interaction.  Yeah sure we could argue that our kids have capacity to control the success of their interactions with us all the time, but the immediate feedback from the animal that is without judgement, mixed messages and completely non verbal is so very powerful.  If you don’t get yourself sorted and regulated then your horse is going to do what it needs to take care of itself. There’s not going to be responsivity, let alone the chance of working together.   I watched young people who got this and were able to, in the moment, do what they needed to do to have a successful and pleasant ride with their horse.  I also watched other young people struggle to manage themselves, then end up more dysregulated when their horse wouldn’t do what they wanted, making the horse even more non compliant and not interested in the process.  I could absolutely see the benefit for in the moment reflection and wondering about the experience with the kids and the power of experiential learning when observations and interactions could be reflected on and internalised.  Aside from the physical sensory experience of riding there is definitely something in this equine based work!!

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Not so new anymore

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San Lorenzo Canyon

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On the trail

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A Self Portrait on horseback

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Canyon Pictures

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More of the Canyon

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Pictures do not capture the beauty of this place

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Just like in the movies

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Views from a top San Lorenzo Canyon