Moving Away from the Pain
Traumatic Stress Recovery Center Helps People Live with the Past
Dr. Frank Gallo says trauma can paralyze people by causing them to constantly re-experience those negative thoughts and images, as if the event is happening again.
The pain of a traumatic experience, says Dr. Frank Gallo, often extends far beyond the event itself.
“People re-experience those events as if they’re happening again, with intrusive thoughts or images,” he told BusinessWest. “So they engage in avoidance behaviors — avoiding conversations about events or places that remind them of the traumatic event.
“After traumas, people can experience emotional numbness, anger outbursts, irritability, and frustration,” he added. “Usually these types of behaviors start to cause impairment across major areas of life; they can start to leak into the areas of family, friends, Internet relationships, recreation, health. People start to engage in behaviors just to lower the volume of that painful stuff. They stop living life in all these areas that are so important to them because they’re so busy just managing and coping and getting away from the pain.”
Those experiences are personal for Gallo, a former police officer who saw how workplace stress and trauma can affect people in high-risk jobs. To that end, he led a uniformed-services program at Brattleboro Retreat, a behavioral-health facility in Vermont. “It was a program dedicated exclusively to providing trauma and addiction recovery services for uniformed professionals — police, fire, corrections, military, paramedics, EMTs.”
Partly because he tired of the long commute — at the time, he was also teaching at Western New England University — Gallo decided to develop a similar program in the Pioneer Valley, so he established the Traumatic Stress Recovery Center in Springfield, a program of the Center for Human Development.
But this time, he’s not working only with emergency workers, but with anyone who has experienced some kind of trauma in their life, from physical or sexual abuse to a violent accident or loss of a loved one.
“In my years working at the Retreat, one thing we realized was that traumatic events don’t just affect uniformed service professionals, but the entire adult population. Most people, in their lifetime, will experience one or more traumatic events. So we’re working with the general adult population as well as the uniformed population, and then creating comprehensive after-care plans for people to step down and continue their recovery from traumas.”
Part of that process involved training therapists who specialize in trauma recovery. “Finding a good therapist match for the treatment we’re providing was difficult, so developing a center focused only on doing trauma work was needed,” Gallo said. “So I came here to CHD with the idea of developing a traumatic stress recovery center. The administrators here really liked the idea and wanted to offer this specialty service.”
Living with the Pain
The center opened its doors on Birnie Avenue on Sept. 30 with a number of programs available to both emergency personnel and the public, with more being developed down the road, Gallo said.
The intensive outpatient treatment program, for example, is available weekdays, four hours a day, and features group-focused treatment to help patients recover from trauma, as well as one-on-one work with a therapist to craft a specialized treatment plan.
“People can get stuck in their traumas. People may feel numb inside, or they no longer feel safe,” he said, saying people are familiar with the concept of being swept off one’s feet in love, but an emotional trauma can make them feel knocked off their feet. “We get people reconnected with their bodies. We get them grounded, so they feel like they’re not easily knocked off their feet by trauma-related thoughts and feelings.”
A concept called ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy, is at the heart of all the center’s programs. It helps individuals learn to be present with their trauma and open up to their experience, but choose to focus on what’s important to them.
One 10-week therapy group focuses on the idea of mindfulness, or what Gallo calls “healthy living through being present.” Mindfulness, he said, is essentially paying attention to each experience and thought without judgment, being aware of thoughts and feelings without getting swept up in them, and being awake to the positive things life has to offer each moment.
“We get people engaging in life, with what matters to them, while they carry their traumas with them,” he explained. “These are stories they hold, and it’s part of their experience, but it’s not the whole of who they are. We get people living life beyond the trauma.”
After all, he said, the goal isn’t to deny the trauma, but simply to assimilate the memory and its impact into a life of healthy, mindful choices.
“What people see is that the volume of that stuff goes down all by itself,” he added. “We help people develop new relationships with those trauma-related thoughts, memories, and emotions, and that frees them up to engage in ways that matter to them, even as they carry their trauma with them.”
As a continuation of his work in Brattleboro, Gallo has also instituted a specialized treatment program for first responders, including police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, military personnel and veterans, EMTs and paramedics, and trauma nurses and doctors.
Beyond trauma recovery, though, the center has begun working with emergency personnel on preventing programs to develop resiliency skills so they quickly recover from traumatic events in their work environments.
“They’re at much higher risk, so we’re trying to do some skill building and prevention work,” he explained. “We want to give them a skill set they can take throughout their career. My goal, in terms of community outreach, is to create a continuity of healthcare, and to give them the essential skill sets to do their jobs well and be able to bounce back more easily from exposure to trauma.”
The Traumatic Stress Recovery Center is also working to institute a series of services promoting ‘whole-person care,’ including yoga, aikido, acupuncture, and biofeedback, to give clients additional tools to boost their emotional health.
“We recognize that there are other types of programs we can offer to help in the recovery process,” Gallo said. “These are adjunctive groups people can participate in so that, once they finish treatment, they can continue in that recovery process.”
Gallo was quick to note that the center shouldn’t be the only entity in the region providing trauma-related services. He’s working with other organizations to develop their own trauma-resiliency training programs, and has also launched a teaching program for Ph.D.-level psychology students.
“Pychology interns have an opportunity to do practicum experiences here — professional development in becoming psychologists,” he explained. “We also have a research-based program where, in all our programs, we collect data on treatment progress — how well people are doing, and how well they’re doing once they leave here.”
This information, he said, will help the center understand what some of the trends are and where patients are struggling the most — data that could be used to expand or change the center’s services in the future.
Gallo’s career experiences, both as a police officer and a psychologist, have lent him a keen understanding of how emotional trauma affects lives, and he said his latest chapter is a way to give back to the community.
“I know what it’s like. You know the saying — ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt.’ I know what it’s like to be in those situations,” he told BusinessWest. “These experiences can be so overwhelming for people; traumatic events can have such an impact on people’s lives. After retiring from the police department, I wanted to have an opportunity to give back — not just for uniformed services and first responders, but for the general population, people struggling wherever they are. I asked, ‘how can I do something meaningful for them?’ That’s why I’m doing this.
“We want people to see us as a resource,” Gallo continued. “Nobody does what we’re doing; we’re really unique in this way. I’m really excited about that. I’m excited to have an opportunity to lead a program and have a great staff of clinicians who really understand what people are struggling with and are excited about the opportunity to give back.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org