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  • Writer's pictureKim Westfall, Founder

Neurofeedback Unlocks Healing for Survivors of Sex Trafficking

Hi Friends,

We are ready to receive close to 100 survivors at the first Sanctuary this year! As we get closer to hosting survivors on-site, we wanted to give you an inside look at some of the ways our expert team unlocks transformation. You may remember that we hosted a powerful pilot retreat back in November for 9 survivors. It was an incredible taste of what is to come! A survivor came to us and said, “I’ve been to many retreats, but this is one of the best I’ve ever attended. I found deep healing in a whole new way that I didn’t expect.” Wow!

We are humbled to be pioneering new ways to help survivors experience total restoration! One of our innovations is using neuroscience alongside evidence-based psychotherapy. We sat down with our International Program Director, Dr. Vanessa Snyder, to learn more about how it works. Take a look at our conversation below.

Uncaged: Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today, Dr. Snyder. A lot of people have been asking us: what actually happens when you meet with a survivor who has just been freed from a trafficking situation. Can you give us an overview of the process?

Dr. Snyder: Well, of course it varies widely depending on the individual and the situation. Broadly, we spend the first meeting and 4-6 weeks in triage. We need to understand the survivors’ unique situation and experience. We spend those weeks assessing their medical needs, spiritual needs, emotional needs, physical needs -- basically all possible areas where a survivor might need support and healing. Then, we craft an individual plan just for that survivor.

Uncaged: There are so many different elements of healing to consider! Can you tell us a little bit about how neuroscience fits into those first few weeks?

Dr. Snyder: The model we’re incorporating uses something called neurofeedback, specifically brain mapping, and it’s one of the ways we understand the unique needs each survivor has. Basically, we use a visualization of brain waves to understand which parts of the brain are most active and what kinds of brain activity is going on there. These “maps” can give us clues into the neurological experience of a survivor.

Uncaged: Could you tell us a little more about what you might look for?

Dr. Snyder: Of course. Some studies show that brains that have experienced chronic trauma function differently than brains that have not endured chronic trauma. One example is that we know certain areas of the brain are in charge of processing emotions like fear and anxiety. When these parts of the brain are in overdrive, it’s not uncommon for other parts of the brain, especially ones associated with decision-making and high-level thinking, to not function as well. The human brain that experiences trauma will also show different patterns of brain waves than typical brains. This is one way to see the neurological effects of trauma.

Uncaged: It’s incredible and tragic to think that trauma can leave that deep of an impression on a survivor’s physical body. That even their brain would change and function differently.

Dr. Snyder: Absolutely, but it’s also very hopeful and impressive. It tells us that survivors have adapted to...survive. The brain is an amazing organ, and what we see after treatment and over time on the brain map is the brain’s ability to respond adaptively over time. Not only did the brain do what it needed to survive, it also adapts to recover from trauma.

Uncaged: Thank you for reframing it that way - it brings so much hope! Tell us a little bit about how you and the team are using brain therapies for the Sanctuary model.

Dr. Snyder: Well of course everything we do with survivors to process the trauma of trafficking is designed to help the brain rewire. But we also know that a lot of our survivors have lived with trauma their whole lives. Their brains have never even learned how to function in an environment without trauma. For these survivors, we will use neurofeedback to actually teach or retrain the brain to function in a safe, stable situation.

Uncaged: That’s such an important insight - the reality that some survivors have only ever known trauma. Could you explain how neurofeedback helps the brain learn to operate without trauma?

Dr. Snyder: Sure. Of course, it’s often tailored to the survivor as well. The general idea is that we have the survivor sit in a comfortable environment, and then we monitor her brain activity with sensors. When the brain behaves in a “positive” or “normal” way, we immediately give positive feedback signals to the brain itself via those sensors. What this does is encourage the brain to continue behaving in the ways that get rewarded. This is how we show the brain a new path for functioning that it may never have created before.

Uncaged: So it’s essentially training the brain to behave differently.

Dr. Snyder: That’s close. An even more accurate way of saying it would be that neurofeedback shows the brain a new way of behaving that it may never have seen before - almost like opening a door to a new room. Remember, most trafficking survivors have lived with trauma their whole lives. Their brain may never have learned how to operate without trauma. We’re teaching the brain how to do that so it has the option to function without a trauma response. Our other work with survivors, like group counseling, equine-assisted therapy, and art therapy, will actually teach survivors how to direct their brains to recognize that they’re safe.

Uncaged: Got it. What you’re doing is highlighting the importance of a holistic approach. If we’re hearing you right, neurofeedback works best when it’s happening a lot of other healing work.

Dr. Snyder: Absolutely. That’s why what’s going to happen at the Sanctuary is so important. It’s one of the only models that combines every facet of a survivors’ journey and equips them to heal. I really cannot wait to get our doors open, because we’re ready and we are going to see a massive impact.

Uncaged: Amen! We cannot wait for these Covid-19 travel bans to lift in Europe. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with our fellow freedom fighters?

Dr. Snyder: Only that our retreat in November showed me what a good experience these survivors are going to have. It was even more restorative for the 9 women who attended than I ever imagined. You need to know that we are truly pioneering a model that’s desperately needed in the anti-trafficking world.

Uncaged: Those are powerful words. We are so grateful to have you on our team. Let’s see this vision of healing break forth!

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