Laura Brown

Soothing the Traumatized Heart: Music, the Polyvagal Model of Trauma, and Healing of Complex Trauma 

Persons who are subjected to repeated, unavoidable trauma, neglect, and disruptions to attachment during their earliest years are likely to develop what is now referred to as Complex Trauma. Different from classic PTSD, Complex Trauma affects all aspects of a person’s interpersonal functioning as well as their relationships with themselves, and their existential and spiritual paths. Many people with Complex Trauma have adapted neurologically to the inescapable pain of their younger years by freezing and shutting down, going into what is known as the “dorsal-vagal” pattern of response. But to no one’s surprise, one of the paths out of this shut-down, frozen, and sometimes collapsed place is through music — in particular, through vocal music. This presentation will introduce the audience to the construct of Complex Trauma, and then take a turn into my personal experiences as a singer as they have affected my capacity to resonate with the unconscious of traumatized people. I will explore how the integration of singing into psychotherapy can open a pathway for individuals with attachment wounds to move out of their frozen dorsal-vagal states, tolerate and soothe themselves as they enter Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activation, and finally move into earned secure attachment, the open-hearted state of the ventral vagal. I will share my “hearts broken and healing” playlist with the audience, and invite them to sing along as the music plays. 

Laura Brown: I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio where I first became active in movements for social justice that have shaped the direction of my life’s work. Choosing a career in psychology over one as a vocalist, I received a B.A cum laude in 1972 from Case Western Reserve University, and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1977. I completed a predoctoral internship in Clinical Psychology at the Seattle Veteran’s Administration Medical Center.  

I have served on the faculties of Southern Illinois University, the University of Washington, and the Washington School of Professional Psychology, and have taught and lectured through the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Taiwan and Israel. In the early 1980s I hosted one of the first radio call-in shows by a psychologist.  

Everything that I do is motivated by the drive to create social justice, whether it’s the way that I practice psychotherapy or the manner in which I teach. This principle of infusing social justice into everything that I do is visible and known to everyone who interacts with me, and is a focus of the training clinic

that I founded. I make the construct of “Tikkun Olam”, the Hebrew term for healing the world, central to my work, teaching my trainees that psychotherapy is Tikkun Olam, one hour and one life at a time. Thus, I try to inspire by example, and by continuously asking the question, “what is the one small thing that we can do to empower another person.”  

The bulk of my scholarly work has been in the fields of feminist therapy theory, trauma treatment, lesbian and gay issues, assessment and diagnosis, ethics and standards of care in psychotherapy, and cultural competence. I have authored or edited fourteen professional books including the award-winning Subversive Dialogues: Theory in Feminist Therapy as well as more than 150 other professional publications, and have been featured in six psychotherapy training videos.  

A Fellow of ten American Psychological Association divisions, the Association for Psychological Science and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, I was awarded the Diplomate in Clinical Psychology in 1986 by the American Board of Professional Psychology and am a Distin-  

guished Practitioner and Member of the National Academies of Practice in Psychology.

I have served on the editorial boards of numerous journals, and currently am a consulting editor for Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Trauma Psychology, Ethics and Behavior, and Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. I am Clinical Professor in the Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington.  I am a former President of APA Divisions 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues), and 56 (Trauma Psychology) and of the Washington State Psychological Association.  

I founded, and until June 2015, directed, the Fremont Community Therapy Project, a low-fee psychotherapy training clinic in Seattle.  

In the Fall of 2000, I was the on-site psychologist for the reality show Survivor: The Australian Outback.  

In 2003 I took up the study of Aikido, in which I hold the rank of Shodan, or black belt, which I earned at the age of 64. I now integrate aikido’s principles of open-hearted connection and peaceful resolution of conflict into my understanding of the therapy process. 

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