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About Jan Winhall

MSW, PIFOT

I started my career as a social worker/psychotherapist 40 years ago. I listened with non-pathologizing ears and heard shocking stories of sexual torture, and responses that confused me.

Women were cutting themselves, burning their bodies, sucking on bars of soap, having compulsive sex with strangers, bingeing and purging huge quantities of food, and abusing drugs and alcohol. As I listened I learned that somehow these self-harming behaviors were “helping” them to escape intolerable emotional states. They were shifting their mood from flooding anxiety to numbing deadness, or vice versa.

Because these behaviors were so helpful they were compulsively repeated and often became addictions.

Addiction is eating us up. While it used to lick around the edges, it is now flourishing in the belly of our culture. And it’s on the rise in most countries. What does that mean? What are we showing ourselves in such painful and damaging ways? 

These questions and more need so desperately to be addressed. While the language that we use to speak about addiction can sound hyperbolic, the destruction speaks for itself. Every day, people are dying on the streets from fentanyl overdoses in greater numbers than ever before. As clinicians we find ourselves encountering clients struggling with compulsive, self-harming, addictive behaviors in increasing numbers, and yet, we don’t always feel competent to help.

Traditional ways of understanding and treating the problem are not particularly effective. Many people find it hard to even truly comprehend someone continuing to damage themselves and those around them, when all the facts point to the need to stop.

We search for ways to appeal to the addicted person…mostly through cognitive means, yet the results show that, at least at this point, we are fighting a losing battle.

Paradigm Shifting

Treating Trauma and Addiction with the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model - book coverMy book Treating Addiction with The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model: A Bottom Up Approach is the result of rethinking the Felt Sense Experience Model that I wrote about in Emerging Practice in Focusing- Oriented Psychotherapy, 2014. I have integrated the Polyvagal lens Theory to create a more sophisticated way of understanding emotional regulation, where addictive behaviour is an embodied response to emotional dysregulation.

We have forgotten that we live in our bodies.

Our current pathologizing model of addiction doesn’t appreciate the “helpful, adaptive” nature of addictive behaviors. Its hierarchical “top down” approach inadvertently shames the “patient.”

These behaviors do not come from sickness; they come from a natural bodily response to threat and a wired in method of survival.

If we accept that safety is, first and foremost, a prerequisite for healing, then we begin to shift our lens of understanding our clients. Rather than having an ever-growing list of diagnostic categories, we can simplify the process by assessing peoples’ capacity to self-regulate and co-regulate their physiological state with others.

I invite you to move into and explore this emotion regulation paradigm with all its implications. This is a profound change from a pathological model to a strength-based model from which to base our understanding the problem.

Jan Winhall, M.S.W.  P.I.F.O.T. is an author, teacher and seasoned trauma and addiction psychotherapist. She is an Educational Partner and Course Developer with the Polyvagal Institute where she offers a training program based on her book Treating Trauma and Addiction with the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model, Routledge 2021. Completion of four levels leads students to become Felt Sense Polyvagal Model Facilitators. Her new book, 20 Embodied Practices for Healing Trauma and Addiction with the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model (publishing with Norton) will be available in March 2025. She is an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Toronto and a Certifying Co-Ordinator with the International Focusing Institute. Jan is Co-Director of the Borden Street Clinic where she supervises graduate students. She enjoys teaching all over the world.

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