VIDEO: Helping Traumatized Clients Understand their Automatic Responses

Richard Schwartz Explains Why Panicked Trauma Responses are Also Defensive Ones

It’s easy for trauma survivors to get frustrated with their unconscious responses. Nobody wants a rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, or cold sweats, says Richard Schwartz, author of Internal Family Systems Therapy. But by understanding that these are defensive responses as opposed to simply “negative” ones, he says, trauma survivors are in a better position to control them.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy is well-suited to treating trauma, Richard says. According to an IFS approach, panic is actually a person’s first line of defense against trauma. It’s essentially an inner part that’s trying to protect another one that was damaged by an earlier traumatic event.

In this brief video clip, Richard explains how trauma survivors can have a dialogue with the damaged inner parts—the “Exiles”—by first consulting their inner “Protectors.” First, he asks the client to go inside and identify the Protector. Whether it’s characterized as a wall-like defense or a ring of flames, the client has taken the first step in a dialogue about how and when their triggered responses operate, and whether they’re even necessary at all.


Richard Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, PhD, is co-author, with Michael Nichols, of Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts–many extreme–within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.



Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.