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Unique therapy Deployed to Heal Westgate Survivors

Health & Science - By ALLY JAMAH | October 25th 2013 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300
Ameet Aggarwal conducting a gestalt therapy session for psychologically and emotionally traumatised survivors of the Westgate attack.

By ALLY JAMAH

A good number of people who suffered unbearable psychological trauma from the horrific attack on Westgate Mall are receiving much needed healing, thanks to various therapies available in Nairobi.

One unique method being used is a form of psychotherapy known as gestalt therapy, which helps people process difficult emotions and quickly return to emotional wellbeing.

Although they were fortunate enough not to lose their precious lives during the brutal attacks that involved indiscriminate killings using machine guns and grenades, many of the Westgate survivors were deeply scarred with psychological wounds that left them indeep paralysis, fears, and paranoia.

Naturopathic doctor Ameet Aggarwal is one of the many therapists who practices psychotherapy in Nairobi and specialises in gestalt therapy. Thanks to some unique gestalt therapy group sessions being run by Ameet, many teachers affected by the Westgate trauma are steadily regaining a hold on themselves and releasing the negative emotional states they had sunk into. The Canadian-trained specialist is also one of the few naturopathic doctors in Kenya, integrating medical science with holistic therapies.

One of the Westgate survivors revealed that it had become difficult for her to even leave her home after surviving the terrible attack. She was constantly seized with intense fear that she might lose her life if she goes out to do her normal activities such as shopping or going to work.

"I was totally paralysed with fear. I just thought that criminals and bad guys are all over the place waiting for the chance to kill me. The world felt so unsafe. I just wanted to stay inside my house behind locked doors," she says, insisting on keeping her identity undisclosed to the public for reasons of personal privacy and security.

Another victim reported having endless nightmares that kept playing back and forth in his mind, “like a horror film”. He had miraculously escaped the mall, hours after the killers had struck.

"I even feared going to bed since it was no longer a place of comfort and rest. It has turned into a torture chamber because of the sleeplessness and the scary dreams and thoughts. But thank God I feel much better now, the therapy seems to have worked," he says.

Combining homeopathy, naturopathic medicine and gestalt therapy, Ameet has so far treated more than 50 people affected by Westgate. He says there are many good therapists in Nairobi practicing other methods of psychotherapy like emotional freedom technique (popularly known as EFT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) and counselling which are all effective ways to resolve traumatic experiences that leave behind destructive emotional and psychological states.

He encourages organizations to hold group sessions for their staff because events such as the westgate terrorist attack affects many people’s lives and alters their behaviour and relationships within the organization.

"It was wonderful to see the changes in people's faces as they sighed with relief or smiled as some of the anxiety peeled away from their minds during one of the gestalt therapy group exercises at a school. One person who hadn't slept for weeks told me later that he actually finally slept through the night that same day!" he says happily.

The gestalt therapy specialist and naturopathic doctor explains that resolving or releasing emotions completely after traumatic events is critical so that they don't alter one's behaviours negatively or create physical symptoms, including insomnia, fatigue, back pain, migraines and other diseases.

He indicates that stress and traumatic experiences are stored in one's brain as emotional memory and cause the brain to stimulate the adrenal glands, which are your stress coping organs. Your adrenal glands produce adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to cope with stress and regulate other functions in your body.

"If these emotional memories are not resolved, they continue to stress your mind and therefore stress your adrenal glands for prolonged periods of time. This results in hormonal imbalances which negatively affect certain brain chemicals, which is why people often experience anxiety, depression and insomnia after trauma," he says

He adds: "By releasing emotions through gestalt psychotherapy you give a break to your adrenal glands. This break allows them to restore hormone levels back to normal and improves your mental as well as physical health.

Using gestalt therapy for groups to process emotions, Ameet does certain experiential exercises to help release trauma and anxiety in people. For example, certain teachers who were affected by the westgate incident were made to pair up and share the shock they went through due to the terrible attack. After each person had shared their story, their partner gave them feedback about how it felt to listen to their story. Ameet would then use gestalt therapy to help people process the various emotions that were coming up during these exercises.

"When each partner had a chance to share their experiences and has listened to similar experiences from others, their faces change with relaxation and relief as they feel more validated with their emotions," he says.

Ameet explains that a lot of people affected by the Westgate incident are going through painful and destructive feelings, including guilt, urge to hide from society, selfish, hateful thoughts and paranoia. But when they experience other people going through similar feelings, they feel a bit relieved.

Another exercise he gets some survivors to try is to experiment saying "It's safe or okay to breathe again", "It's safe or okay to feel this way from time to time"... He guided everyone to try different sentences depending on their emotional state and encouraged them to allow their feelings and breathing to transform without judging themselves.

"I look forward to helping more victims of the Westgate attack to recover from the psychological trauma they suffered and assist them in rebuilding their emotional and psychological wellbeing using group sessions and gestalt therapy," he concludes.

Ameet is the author of the upcoming book “Easy Steps to Emotional Wellbeing” (available from www.amazon.com and www.drameet.com in November), which helps people heal emotionally and empower themselves naturally. He treats various health problems, including chronic pain and emotional issues and facilitates coaching and team building workshops for organizations using gestalt therapy.

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