Book Review – Winter 2016

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Sieff, D. (2014). Understanding and healing emotional trauma: Conversations with pioneering clinicians and researchers. New York: Routledge, 247 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0415720847 ISBN-10: 0415720842

Understanding and healing emotional trauma: Conversations with pioneering clinicians and researchers is a compilation of interviews conducted by Daniela Sieff, PhD, a biological anthropologist with interest in psychological dynamics relating to trauma. Sieff explains that in order to heal from emotional trauma, one must identify the impact of these experiences on a client’s daily life. At this point, new and healthier ways of relating to the “wounds” left behind can be explored to help clients experience more fulfilling, authentic, and meaningful lives. Sieff suggests that the wisdom embodied in the detailed interviews will help provide perspective to the experience of trauma, which may aid in the healing process for a broad readership. The book is tailored to an audience that has personally experienced and struggled with emotional trauma, mental health professionals who specialize in treating emotional trauma, and parents, teachers, or child care workers who encounter children with histories of emotional trauma.

The first three parts of the book discuss different perspectives on emotional trauma including psychodynamic, neurobiological, and evolutionary theories. The ten interviewees aim to provide insight into a holistic understanding of the effects of trauma to illuminate areas for change and recovery.  The concluding section (part 4) consists of Sieff’s integration of the information from the ten interviews she conducted.

Chapters 1 through 4 explore the psychodynamic perspectives and psychological dynamics that influence how individuals relate to themselves and others. Psychotherapists contributing to Part 1 include Donald Kalsched, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst in private practice in New Mexico; Bruce Lloyd, a biologist by origin and psychotherapist in the United Kingdom who is influenced by interpersonal, psychodynamic, existential and humanistic perspectives; Tina Stromsted, PhD, MFT, BC-DMT, a somatic psychotherapist, board-certified dance/movement therapist and Jungian psychoanalyst in private practice; and Marion Woodman, LLD, DHL, PhD, a Jungian analyst. They draw on professional and personal experience, case studies, myths, poetry, and fairy tales to demonstrate how unconscious forces influenced by emotional trauma manifest in daily life, and importantly, the process through which psychotherapy promotes healing. Individually, they address questions on topics including the unconscious conflicts that emerge as a result of emotional trauma, shame as an inevitable consequence of emotional trauma, historical trauma, the relationship between emotional trauma and addiction, mind-body systems, and recovery.

Chapters 5 through 7 examine the effects of emotional trauma on biological systems and their expression in our lives. Therapist-academics contributing to Part 2 include Ellert Nijenhuis, PhD, a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with profoundly dissociated patients; Allan Schore, PhD, a practicing psychotherapist and interdisciplinary theoretician on affect regulation; and Daniel Siegel, MD, a child psychiatrist and researcher in the field of attachment and a proponent of the role of mindfulness in healing early trauma, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine. Again, drawing on professional experience and case studies, as well as literature related to attachment theory, developmental psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, and endocrinology, these interviews address the neurobiological underpinnings of emotional trauma and recovery. The interviews address neurobiological processes underlying dissociation, biological mechanisms that transmit the effects of historical trauma, brain structures implicated in emotional trauma, and the impact of early attachment relationships on shaping the brain, nervous and hormonal systems.

Chapters 8 through 10 illustrate how human evolution has shaped the dynamics of emotional trauma, and how these dynamics manifest today. Academics contributing to Part 3 include James Chisholm, PhD, a developmental psychologist and evolutionary anthropologist, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Australia; Sarah Blaffer Drawing on studies of hunter-gatherers, Western societies, and non-human primates and other mammals, as well as modern evolutionary theory, attachment theory, and developmental psychology, these interviews illuminate how the world of our distant ancestors left imprints on our minds and bodies. Discussions focus on the evolutionary value of emotions, the continuum of normal to pathological emotional states, sensitivity of infants to caregivers, developmental trajectories of attachment relationships and emotional trauma, evolutionary predispositions toward emotions of shame and self-blame, and the evolutionary perspective on alleviating suffering. Collectively these interviews address trauma in the wider context of our evolved humanity.

The final section, Part 4, integrates the information gleaned from the ten interviews to address why particular types of childhood experience are traumatic and leave lasting imprints on our lives, how emotional trauma creates dynamics that leave us prone to further suffering, and why it is difficult to change trauma dynamics and initiate a positive cycle of change. Collectively, this integrated understanding of trauma can begin to dismantle trauma dynamics and offer “guidance, support, and inspiration” to facilitate the process of lasting and meaningful change.

In this compelling compilation of interviews, Sieff masterfully bridges the gap between clinical practice, theory, and research, providing common ground to inform how trauma affects our lived experiences and how to begin healing. As a biological anthropologist, Sieff offers an intriguing and unique approach to the evolving field of trauma, a subject that requires interdisciplinary thinking. Bringing together leading practitioners, researchers, and scholars from all over the world, this collection of diverse perspectives on trauma offers an in-depth, comprehensive, and holistic view of the effects of emotional trauma on our brain, mind, and body. The thought-provoking, yet accessible content communicates how distinct professional disciplines in the field of trauma may have many connecting threads. Whether you are an expert in the trauma field or are personally struggling with the aftermath of trauma, this book will provide refreshing new material and expand your scientific and emotional understanding of trauma.


Christine Valdez, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor in the psychology department at California State University, Monterey Bay. She received her graduate training with a focus on trauma psychology at Northern Illinois University, and completed her pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship in the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Clinical Psychology Training Program. At UCSF, she was based at the San Francisco General Hospital/UCSF Trauma Recovery Center, providing empirically supported treatments for victims of crime. Her areas of clinical expertise are in treating interpersonal violence, and her research interests focus on understanding factors that contribute to posttraumatic sequelae and recovery from trauma.