How to create reimagined Scenes That Remove trauma

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From the previous two sessions, we now have the target feelings that we wish to replace, and the new responses that we will replace them with.

In this session, we will co-create a new scene based upon the old but refashioned completely in the client’s favour. The new version of the scene will produce the new, desired feelings.

By the end of this session, the client will have a “first draft” scene. They will not directly experience this scene imaginally just yet. That will happen next time. They will simply design the scene that would produce the desired feelings.

This is a process of reverse engineering. We know the feelings we want to generate, so we create a scene to do that.

When co-creating a scene, it will not look like a script from a screenplay. It doesn’t need to be so detailed. Rather, you will go through the new scene beat by beat. I’ll show an example of this at the end of this article.

The minimal role of the therapist

Although I describe this process as co-creation, in practice, the role of the therapist is minimal. The creation is rightly done by the client. The therapist merely facilitates the process.

It can be tempting for the therapist to have wonderful ideas and suggest them to the client. Resist that temptation and stay hands off. Your ideas aren’t required and will likely get in the way. Just let the client build it beat by beat. Your client absolutely knows what they need.

I learned the importance of this by at times having (ahem) “better ideas” than my client. At these times I’ve been convinced that I “know exactly what needs to happen” in the scene.

Sharing these “better ideas” immediately reveal them to be worse ideas. So I’ve learned to stop doing that. Invariably, the idea in my head turns out to be nowhere as good as what the client comes up with.

Sometimes clients may get stuck in the building of these scenes. The job of the therapist is to keep exploring. We try to connect the client to what they might need at that beat of the scene so they get the feelings they want.

Three Parts Of Every Scene

A question that often arises is: what parts of the old scene do we reimagine? All of it, or just some of it?

I’ll break it down so we can see which parts to keep, and which to change.

There are 3 parts to any scene:

A) Before the triggering event when all is well
B) The triggering event that made the safe unsafe
C) Everything after that

Example: Bullying

Let me give an example that relates to bullying.

A) Before the triggering event when all is well

Sam is sat in the corner of the playground happily munching on a sandwich and reading a book.

B) The triggering event that made the safe unsafe

This is the moment when the world is turned upside down. I often refer to this as the autonomic spark. It is the moment that the nervous system is triggered.

In this example, the bully and his two friends arrive, and the bully grabs Sam by the hair.

Notice how all was fine until the bully arrived and targeted Sam. This is the moment (and it really is a moment) of autonomic spark.

C) Everything after that

Now the ordeal begins where the bully attacks and humiliates Sam.

When generating a new version of the scene, we keep A and B, and reimagine C completely in the client’s favour.

There is a good reason for this. What we are looking for is to create a new response to the old trigger.

In life today, when the present resembles the traumatic incident, the nervous system responds today as it did then.

The aim of the reconsolidation work is to ensure that the same subtle cues produce new feelings and responses, not the ones which now get in the client’s way.

In order to generate new responses to the old autonomic spark, we keep that autonomic spark even in the new scene. Then we can build a new set of responses to the same stimulus.

The client may at first decide to reimagine the entire scene away. In therapy, Sam may say: “In my new scene the bully never comes and I just enjoy my sandwich in peace.”

But that doesn’t activate the old brain pathway, and so won’t create a new response to the old autonomic spark.

To have a new response, the reimagined scene will keep A & B.

Once the trigger occurs, the rest of the scene is reimagined in the client’s favour. It plays out exactly how the client needs it to, and so generates new responses to the traumatic incident.

In the reimaginal work, only C is reimagined.

Another Example: VIOLENT ROBBERY

Let’s look at another traumatic scene and break it down into these three parts:

A) Before the triggering event when all is well
B) The triggering event that made the safe unsafe
C) Everything after that

A) Before the triggering event when all is well

Jack is listening to his favourite band on his earphones while on his daily walk.

B) The triggering event that made the safe unsafe

Suddenly, he is grabbed from behind and a stranger holds a knife to him and demands his wallet and his phone.

C) Everything after that

Jack hands over his valuables. The stranger threatens him with the knife once more and runs off leaving Jack feeling shaken and upset.

When it comes to reimagining this scene, unpleasant as it is, we keep parts A and B.

The part we reimagine is everything after that.

Again, this is because we need a new response to the same old cues.

Think of Jack’s life after this traumatising event. He is now too scared to go on walks. He no longer listens to his favourite band as he connects it to the trauma.

When he does go out, which is rare, he is on constant hyper-alert.

Jack needs new autonomic responses to these cues. His nervous system can then return to responding usefully in the here and now, rather than from past trauma.

Jack’s new scene still contains the part where he is enjoying his walk and listening to his favourite band. It still contains the moment he is set upon. What changes is everything after that so he gets exactly the feelings and responses he identified in his previous therapy session.

Our job is to guide the client to create the new scene that will reconsolidate the old trauma response.

Building The Reimagining Without Shame

In the new scene, the version of the client that suffered the traumatic event does not have to do anything different. What they did was successful after all, as they survived it.

Their response, and the response of their nervous system, succeeded. Their job was to ensure the organism stayed alive. And it did.

Also, it is very likely that another response was simply not possible or sensible in that moment.

Think of a child in the midst of a traumatic event, for instance. The aim of any reimagining is not to have that child, as it was, to respond differently.

We are not revisiting the past but reimagining a copy of the scene, but with new present-day resources.

As such, it is no longer that child’s job. The version of the client from the original scene now has their current self with them. Their current self can ensure they have any other resources, support, safety or help that is needed.

Their response in reality was the correct one, as shown by the fact that they are still here.

But in this copy, with all of these additional resources, there is the opportunity for the client to get the feelings they need. In this copy, it can be different. Different responses are possible within this safe, resourced copy.

In this reimagined scene, the client need not be limited by how it was in the original. They can now reimagine the scene however they need so it generates the desired feelings.

It need not even be naturalistic. All that matters is that the nervous system believes it. Clients can grow in size, develop super strength, get super powers, call on allies, or call on their own current self. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter, so long as the new desired feelings are generated.

This is an important point. Revisiting the original scene as the original scene could deepen or generate shame. It needs to be made clear that this is not a revisiting. Instead, it is a do-over with a copy of the old scene. In this copy, anything is possible.

This time, their current self can act as the “God” of the scene. Everything in the scene is like plasticine and can be changed at will.

Their younger self does not hold responsibility for making the scene different, even if in this copy new responses are now possible.

Instead, the current self holds that task. The current self plays with the plasticine of the whole scene so their younger self gets exactly what they need.

If it results in the younger self doing different things in the scene, this is the gift of the new resources available within this copy. The current self is in charge of the scene. It is able to make new things possible and ensure it feels safe for these new things to happen.

What do you need to happen next?

The core question that the therapist offers to this process of reimagining is: “what do you need to happen next?”

This question will be repeated many times as you guide the client to create the new version of the scene.

Let’s look at Jack’s traumatic event. It may begin like this:

Therapist: So we’ll start this new scene as it originally was. So you are walking. And you are listening to your favourite music. Then suddenly this guy grabs you. In order to get these new feelings that you want to emerge with, what do you need to happen next?

This begins the process.

Keep the list of desired feelings available for the client to see and refer to. After all, they are now creating a scene with the explicit aim of generating those feelings.

From time to time, have the client check in with the list as the new scene is being created. Then you can ask that core question again:

Th: So in order to get these feelings, what do you need to happen next?

Being Interactional

In any scene that begins to play out, check out how others in the scene are responding.

For example, in this example of a client confronting her violent father:

T: So what do you need to happen now?

C: I tell him to cut it out. I tell him this is hurting me to see this and that I want it to stop!

T: Wow. Yes. So you tell him to cut it out. It’s hurting you and you want it to stop.

C: Yes.

T: And when you say that, is there a response from him? If there is, what do you need that to be? What do you need to happen next?

C: Well I’d need him to actually hear that.

T: Right. You need to be heard.

C: Yes.

T: So if he was to hear you at that moment like you need, how would you know he was hearing you?

C: Well, he’d kind of come to his senses. Like it would bring him out of himself.

T: And what lets you know that he’s come to his senses in the way you need him to. What do you notice?

C: Well it’s like a light bulb moment and you can just see he’s not angry Dad anymore.

T: I see. So you can see he’s not angry Dad anymore. You’ve told him what you need and how this is affecting you, and he has come to his senses.

C: Yes. He’s come to his senses. He’s back to normal again.

T: And so what do you need to happen next?

C: I need him to own it. I need him to make sure it stops.

T: So what would you need him to say so that you knew for sure that this was going to stop?

This is only part of the scene building in this case. But notice the emphasis on meeting needs.

In this short exchange the therapist has asked:

  • what do you need to happen now/next?
  • what response from Dad do you need?
  • if he was to hear you like you need, how would you know?
  • what would you need him to say so you knew for sure that this was going to stop?

Build the specifics

Also, notice the emphasis on specificity. In this scene, the client expresses a need to be heard. Help them connect to what that would look like if that need is met.

“If he was to hear you as you need, how would you know?”

This kind of question can be used for any need. For instance, a client who needs to feel strong and confident:

“So if you were strong and confident in this scene right now, what would you be noticing about yourself?”

The following kind of questions all help to make the scene specific:

  • how would you know?
  • what would you notice?
  • what would it look like?
  • what would you/they be doing?
  • what would you notice yourself/them saying?

Sometimes the client will be in a scene and say something like “I need a hug”. Make it specific. Ask: “Who would you like the hug from?”

As the client gets their needs met in this re-creation, you can check in with how it feels.

T: And what do you need to happen next?

C: I think I just need to be hugged.

T: Yeah. You need to be hugged. Who do you need to be hugged by when you get that hug?

C: Erm. I think maybe Grandma.

T: So you’d like to be hugged by Grandma.

C: Yes.

T: And does that feel good to be hugged by Grandma?

C: Yes it feels really safe?

T: Yes. It feels safe being hugged like that by Grandma.

C: Yes.

T: What do you notice about how Grandma hugs you that makes it feel so safe?

Again, this exchange is about

  • what they need to happen next,
  • how they would know it is happening, and
  • generating specificity.

When The Naturalistic Does Not Feel Believable

I mentioned earlier how scenes don’t need to be naturalistic. All that matters is that they are believable.

A client can gain the ability to fly like Superman, or be able to literally shrink the scary person to the size of a thumb – and it feels totally believable.

Yet a naturalistic event can occur that the client rejects completely. They may need a hug from Mum. But receiving it does not feel believable at all.

Before the process starts, I invite clients to choose who is in the scene. It may well have been their own parents in the original scene. But it needn’t be.

Some clients like to swap them out.

For instance, when little, Veronica suffers a violent assault from an older gang while out playing. She was thrown to the floor and dragged and kicked.

When she runs home in tears, her mother provides no comfort in the wake of the attack. Instead, she beats Veronica for the rip in her dress from when she was dragged along the floor.

In the new scene, Veronica desperately needs that hug still, but she simply cannot imagine her mother offering it. If she went ahead with it anyhow, she would only reject it. It would kill the believability of the scene and would not produce the desired feelings. Remember, producing the desired feelings is the point.

So, at the start of the session, I ask Veronica who she would like to be in the scene. Does she need it to be her own parents as it originally was, or would she like to have imaginal parents instead?

The therapist can never know the answer. Asking the question is enough. The client knows what they need so feel free to lean on that expertise.

In this case, Veronica chose to swap out her own mother with the kind of mother she needed. As such, she was able to run home and get the love and care she needed from a mother figure that she could believe in.

Recapping The Flow Of The Story

As the client shares what they need, the therapist makes a note of each beat of the story. I typically do this with asterisks as bullet points (see the example later).

From time to time, I’ll recap the story from the beginning. This gives the client some time to follow the flow. It makes it easier for them to take that following step of knowing what they need to happen next. It only takes a moment, but is very useful to do from time to time.

Completing the Scene

There will come a point where the scene looks like it may be complete. There is an element of using your instinct here. Like when watching TV or going to the theatre, it just feels like the job of that scene is done.

Often, there are markers such as a culmination hug, or the client continues with the day happily.

Still, it’s only a therapist guess, so gently check it out.

When you notice that the scene may be completed, you can ask if it feels complete or is there more that needs to happen in order to make it complete.

T: And what do you need to happen next?

C: I think we all just hug. It feels nice. We are all together again.

T: Yes, that sounds lovely. And does this scene feel complete to you, or is there anything more that needs to happen for you?

C: Yes, I just start to play. I’m a kid again and I’m able to just be a kid.

T: Right. And do you need to play for a bit in the scene or is that the end?

C: (smiling) No that’s the end.

Full Worked Example

I will now show an illustration of the beats of such a re-created scene. It shows an example of what we end up with at the end of the session.

In this case, in the original scene, it is Donna’s 9th birthday and she has dressed up expecting to be taken to a birthday treat that her mother has promised her.

Donna is very excited, yet it turns out to be a lie designed to build Donna’s hopes up. Instead, Donna’s mother mocks her and has her spend the day cleaning the basement at the home of her recently deceased Grandma, who Donna adored.

When Donna cries, her mother beats her and tells her she doesn’t deserve a birthday treat. Donna spends the rest of her birthday in the basement.

When she connects to the original scene she felt: scared, unloved, dismissed, ignored, cheap, like she didn’t matter, sad, helpless, terrified, shocked, confused, worthless, not good enough, unwanted, ashamed, frozen, stomach in knots.

Instead, she wants to feel: safe, loved, heard, taken account of, good enough, that she matters, happy, content, at ease, can make decisions, powerful, strong, clear, she knows exactly what to do, high self esteem, confident, proud, precious, wanted, I can use my voice, boundaried, I state my needs, my stomach feels relaxed and calm, my breathing takes easy slow deep breaths.

By the end of the session, these are the beats of the new scene that Donna has created:

  • Donna is excited and dressed up for the treat Mum promised her
  • She arrives at Grandma’s house and feels puzzled
  • Mum reveals that there’s no birthday treat and mocks Donna (the autonomic spark event – everything afterwards can be changed)
  • Donna outright refuses to go into the basement
  • Mum gets angrier but Donna stands upright and shouts “No! You can’t treat me like this anymore!”
  • Donna gives Mum a fierce stare that shrinks Mum to the size of a thimble
  • Mum is still angry but with a squeaky voice and Donna finds her funny
  • Her Grandma then appears in the scene and sides with Donna
  • Grandma is cross that Mum treated Donna this way and tells Mum off
  • Grandma puts thimble sized Mum in her purse “where she can’t cause any more trouble” and Donna giggles
  • Grandma hugs Donna and tells her that she is a lovely little girl who deserves a real birthday treat
  • Suddenly Grandma pulls back a curtain and all Donna’s friends are there and are cheering and singing happy birthday
  • There are balloons and presents and party food
  • Grandma asks Donna what would make it even better and Donna says she wants to blow out her birthday candles and make a wish
  • Donna wishes that Lesley Judd from the TV show Blue Peter was her Mum and suddenly Lesley Judd is there
  • Her new Mum tells Donna that she is a wonderful little girl and that she is so lucky that Donna wished for her
  • Her new mum hugs Donna and kisses her on the head.
  • The scene shifts to Donna being in her new bedroom and Lesley Judd, her new Mum, is tucking her in and reading her a bedtime story, and Donna snuggles in and falls asleep.

I check with Donna to make sure that this scene would give her all of the feelings she needs:

  • Safe
  • Loved
  • Heard
  • Taken account of
  • More than good enough
  • I matter
  • Happy
  • Content
  • At ease
  • Can make decisions
  • Powerful
  • Strong
  • Clear, I know just what to do
  • High self esteem
  • Confident
  • Proud
  • Precious
  • Wanted
  • I can use my voice
  • Boundaried
  • I state my needs
  • Stomach feels relaxed and calm
  • Breathing easy – slow, deep breaths

She confirms that she believes it will.

Summary

In this session, we are building the scene, but the client is not yet experiencing it explicitly. The full imaginal experience will happen next time.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of imaginal labour taking place here. Again, clients can sometimes report some changes just from this session.

Even though they have not undergone the full imaginal experience, some clients receive the repeated juxtaposition necessary to overwrite trauma.

Remember that the brain needs ACTIVATION + MISMATCH + REPEAT.

As they connect to how it was (activation) and mismatch with how they need it to be, there can sometimes be enough here to reconsolidate. But that is not the aim of this session and it need not be expected.

Here are 12 key takeaways to help you do this work in practice

  1. the job of the new scene is to reverse engineer the desired feelings from the previous session
  2. keep out of the way, their ideas are better than the therapist’s so lean exclusively on their wisdom
  3. the new scene will keep the autonomic spark event, and reimagine what follows
  4. the client’s current self is in charge of making changes to the scene
  5. it is not the job of the client’s younger self
  6. we are working with an imaginal copy where everything is plasticine and, here, it can be made safe to have different responses
  7. it doesn’t have to be naturalistic, it just has to be believable
  8. reality is often less believable, let the client swap people out if they’d prefer it
  9. the core question is: what do you need to happen next?
  10. scenes and stories are interactional, help the to and fro between people in the scene as each respond to the other
  11. specificity: help the client to flesh out what would be happening if an expressed need was being met
  12. the client decides when the scene is complete

Conclusion

Of course, the scene created in this session may still change. It is only a first draft. When the client tries it on for size, they may well want to tweak it in various ways.

But for now, we have gone from

1) the unpleasant feelings generated in the original scene (session 1)
2) the desired feelings they want to emerge with instead (session 2)
3) a scene designed specifically to meet their needs and so generate these new feelings (session 3)

In the next and final session, we then work with the client to facilitate the full imaginal experience.

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