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A psychotherapist and nun helping people overcome trauma

Sr. Theresien Bartoňová, a psychotherapist religious sister, describes her search for an appropriate tool to alleviate trauma symptoms, and reveals how caring for victims of a destructive tornado in Moravia helped pave the way for treating the wounded of the war in Ukraine.

By Sr Theresien Bartoňová

I belong to the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Saint Charles Borromeo. We are a very active congregation, but, at the same time, the contemplative aspect is fundamental for us. Our mission is to be close to those who suffer. Our first sisters cared for plague victims on the streets of Nancy in France, after the Thirty Years’ War.

Being a nurse, I worked for several years in our hospital in Prague, in different wards. It was there that my desire to better understand the inner and psychological dynamics of a person grew. Some patients would tell me their stories, their suffering, and sometimes their relatives also felt the need for this sharing. I realised that listening helps alleviate suffering and that I needed adequate tools to help those who confided their pain to me.

I began to study theology and at the same time became interested in the subject of inner wounds. My thesis in theology was dedicated to the interdisciplinary topic of the importance of acceptance and of personal healing for spiritual growth. My thesis supervisor, herself a psychologist, gave me an important impetus to continue studying psychology.

I moved to Rome and enrolled in the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. When I returned to Prague, I started working as a psychotherapist, receiving many patients with complex trauma. Some of them had been sexually abused, a form of trauma which requires delicate and demanding work. I tried to study as much as I could so as to understand how to better help these people, and I was searching for more and more effective approaches.

It was in this context that I became acquainted with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy.

This technique helps patients heal from their suffering through the processing of traumatic memories that are stuck in their neural networks, causing numerous symptoms. The EMDR method has various types of treatment that can be applied according to the patient’s problem, which can stem from two types of trauma: relational trauma suffered in childhood and trauma caused by life-threatening circumstances (disasters, traffic accidents, earthquakes, wars, etc.).

In addition to the different practices, there are also tools that can be used immediately after a traumatic event to help people stabilise their nervous system and process intrusive symptoms.

For example, one year ago in the Czech Republic there was a tornado that devastated five villages in Moravia. The EMDR Association (Český institut pro psychotraumatologii a EMDR), founded in 2020, to which I belong, got in touch with our Italian colleagues. During that disaster, the chairperson of EMDR Italy, Dr Isabel Fernandez, was of great support to us. She gave us the tools to approach the people and help them face the situation.

With my colleague Zuzana Čepelíková, president of our association, we went to Moravia to work with people in the field. During that time, we also contacted Dr Ignazio Jarero, an EMDR colleague from Mexico, who developed specific methods for group therapy that are very useful in disaster contexts, where it is difficult to follow patients individually and group sessions are often necessary.

This experience prepared us for the Ukrainian emergency. A week after the outbreak of war, Zuzana Čepelíková organised some online courses for our colleagues in Ukraine, psychologists and psychiatrists, with the cooperation of the Ukrainian EMDR Association and the great support of EMDR Europe and Dr Jarero. Since then, we have held numerous courses for over 1,500 Ukrainian colleagues who have been able to provide practical help in the field.

In June, during an international EMDR conference held in Valencia, I was able to meet with and collect testimonies from some Ukrainian colleagues.

In particular, one of them, who works in a military hospital, told me that the use of the EMDR method also has a positive effect on the physical healing of wounded soldiers, because by helping them to process the trauma they have suffered and relax their nervous system, it makes them more receptive to medical treatment. During this terrible and difficult time, we have also experienced reciprocal closeness, solidarity and tenderness.

It was a beautiful experience on the human level because we saw that, if we have to face tragic realities, we are capable of helping each other.

Solidarity can make flowers of goodness and beauty grow even in the most painful situations we go through.

Source: Vatican News