I love magic feathers. I’m looking for them all the time. I collect them enthusiastically, and I sometimes incorporate them into my practice. I’m always looking for tricks, techniques, and short cuts that will help my clients keep themselves grounded, sleep better, control their rage and panic, and desensitize their traumatic memories. Hypnosis, eye movement, tapping, deep breathing, mindfulness---whether they’re harnessing dissociation, preventing dissociation, or modulating dissociation, these techniques are all helpful.
I buy devices for neurofeedback, biofeedback, cranial electrotherapy stimulation and even something called a Bio Acoustical Utilization Device. Whether they’re stimulating your brain, training your brain, or just confusing your brain, these devices are all helpful.
Then there’s the biological interventions—pharmaceuticals, neutraceuticals, medical marijuana, aromatherapy. Whether you sniff it, smoke it, or swallow it, these ingestibles are all helpful.
There’s a whole range of “therapeutic” experiences that aren’t traditional psychotherapy, but can be of enormous benefit: Service animals, equine therapy, art therapy, music therapy, outdoor adventures, peer support groups, yoga. Whether they put you in touch with animals, yourself, your body, others, or nature, these experiences are all helpful.
And then there’s a whole range of schools of psychotherapy: CBT, DBT, MI, humanistic, psychodynamic. All provide some guidance to treatment, all depend on a solid therapeutic relationship, and all of them are helpful.
And yet, as much as I love these magic feathers, there’s something I’ve learned:
There’s no magic feather.
Each one of these interventions are helpful. That is, they're enormously helpful for a few, somewhat beneficial for a lot. They're also useless to some, and unacceptable to others no matter how good they are. One person's magic is another person's useless or unacceptable.
Any one of these therapies might have a range of research supporting it, proving that it is an empirically validated technique; or any one of these might be an untested gem, so cutting edge that the research hasn’t caught up to it yet; or any one of these might be dependent almost entirely on placebo (which can be enormously helpful, by the way).
Research shines the light on which technique is going to be most helpful to most people. Research doesn’t shine the light on which technique is going to be the best fit for the person in my office. Research does suggest the most probable place to start. And research definitely informs my practice.
But there’s no magic feather.
And for the vast majority of my patients, overcoming trauma is a long, hard process. Cure really is possible for a few—typically, those with really good lives punctuated by one horrible event. For many others—for example, those with challenging childhoods, or multiple traumatic incidents across many years—change is possible, and sometimes tremendous change is possible, but it’s going to demand patience and hard work.
The vast majority of the work we do in therapy will be evidenced-based, though we might very well use a few magic feathers along the way. I collect as many as I can get my hands on. But as Dumbo learned while clutching his magic feather, he was really the one who learned how to fly all along.
And I don’t have a lot of faith in those who sell magic feathers. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”
Treating trauma demands extensive training and knowledge. Anyone who claims that overcoming trauma is fast, easy, and guaranteed is a charlatan.
So keep an open mind about magic feathers…you never know what might prove helpful. But keep an eye on the research (and on your pocketbook), especially when the claims are extraordinary.
And never forget that you are your own magic feather.
--Dr Jonathan Douglas