Freedom from Torture - Waking up from the nightmare of torture: techniques that can foster survivors’ recovery

Waking up from the nightmare of torture: techniques that can foster survivors’ recovery

Blog post by Fenik - Freedom from Torture Therapist

When Ibrahim wakes, bathed in sweat, his heart is pounding – and for a while, he is convinced to be back in a grimy prison cell and can vividly see his torturers, laughing as they prepare to beat him to a pulp.

Nightmares and flashbacks are common post-traumatic experiences among torture survivors like Ibrahim, turning every day (and night) into a psychological ordeal. Just leaving the front door, going food shopping, or taking the bus can bring on waves of extreme anxiety. Any sudden movement or noise can spark a memory and start a panic attack. Spending any time alone is not an option for people like Ibrahim. Even trying to relax and get some rest at the end of the day can be too daunting for fear of being tormented by night terrors.

This means that, although Ibrahim has found the physical safety he desperately wanted and deserved in the UK, he is still trapped in fear and can’t start the new life he wished for.

Thankfully, therapy support can help Ibrahim on his journey to full recovery.

In our therapy sessions, I use a few therapeutic techniques to help him regain control of his mind and start the long-term process of healing.

Suddenly his eyes will close, his breath will become shallow, and he has become dangerously detached from the world around him. His mind is once more replaying the horror.

  • Talking

Before coming to therapy, many torture survivors like Ibrahim have never fully told all the details about their experiences. It’s simply too painful. They’ve done everything possible to move on, and may not even understand why they are becoming overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings from the past. Confiding in a person they trust, like their therapist, helps to break this silence and stops trauma being suppressed

  • Breathing

Taking control of breathing is another remarkably effective way to bring relief. Whenever Ibrahim begins to feel panicky or anxious, I ask him to regulate his breathing. Taking long slow breaths, in and out, slowly brings him back to a state of calmness, relaxation and peace.

  • Grounding

Grounding is a way of bringing Ibrahim out of his state of absolute terror and into the healing calmness of the present moment. It brings him back to reality, where he is safe. Techniques include reaching out to touch his own knee or reaching out for a glass of water. In the grip of his night terrors, looking at a map or photo can remind him that he is now in the UK and safe.

  • EMDR

Another technique I use in therapy is called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), which is a powerful way to help Ibrahim return to a ‘safe space’ with his mind whenever he starts feeling distressed. I will ask him to picture a time and a place where he felt completely safe, detail by detail, and allow his feelings of peace and tranquility to wash over him. Ibrahim named his safe space the ‘Peaceful Garden’ at our London centre.

During EMDR therapy, I will ask Ibrahim to hold different aspects of his past traumatic experiences in mind and to use his eyes to track my hand as it moves back and forth across his field of vision. As this happens, for reasons connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and Ibrahim’s mind begins to process the memory and disturbing feelings, transforming the meaning of painful events on an emotional level.

Clients who conclude EMDR therapy successfully can feel empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed.

But there is one final, crucial element to successful therapy that’s as important as the ones I described above, and that is giving.

All of our therapy is free for torture survivors. This is because it's funded by our compassionate supporters. Giving is absolutely essential for us to survive as a charity and something we never take for granted. When our supporters give to us, they are helping torture survivors to free themselves from trauma and to live happier, more productive lives in the UK.

Therapy is a careful, thoughtful and sometimes slow process. But it’s worth it. People like Ibrahim can deal with their night terrors and take back their lives. They can wake up from the nightmare of torture and finally look to the future.

Ibrahim has seen the very worst of humanity. But together we can help him see the very best too. Please click the button below if you'd like to make a donation to support our work with people like Ibrahim.

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