Bridging the disconnect between body and mind

Talking mind-body trauma care with Viann Nguyen-Feng

Viann Nguyen-Feng is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She serves as core faculty in the clinical counseling psychology master's program, and directs the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab.

What is mind-body trauma?

Often underrecognized, many traumas are complex and can involve both psychological traumas, as well as traumas of the body. We refer to these as mind-body traumas. They’re often deeply ingrained from one’s experiences, meaning that even though they happened in the past, these traumas can continue to be held as tensions in the present-day body.

Emotional abuse is one example of a mind-body trauma that is often detrimental to mental health. Some theories suggest that the pervasiveness of emotional abuse impacts one’s self-concept to the core. Race- and identity-based traumas are also long-lasting, embodied experiences, whose effects are compounded through continual acts of macro and microaggressions. Not limited to the time of each trauma itself, these systemic, interpersonal traumas may be noticeable at the cellular level in an individual, and even carried across generations.

What is the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab?

The Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab aims to bridge the disconnect between one’s body and mind, particularly in the context of trauma-informed psychotherapeutic care. We coined the term "mind-body trauma care" to speak to that focus. Mind-body trauma care can be interpreted in several ways. First, there is the idea of including the mind and body into trauma-informed care. Then, there is the idea of caring for mind-body traumas. Lastly, to holistically address our mind-body across various trauma types, we must think about inclusivity and community access to care.

What are some of the challenges that your research aims to address?

Viann Nguyen-Feng, seated, and smiling at the camera

Ultimately, my goal is to help increase access to effective, affordable care for people struggling with trauma. One step of the process is to increase visibility of these kinds of traumas and to create enough evidence supporting these innovative interventions to inform future research, practice, and policy. Increasing recognition of complex, embodied traumas would allow for better assessment and care, which can then refine legal definitions of trauma. A larger evidence base for these interventions would make them more acceptable to clinicians and insurance companies, making the treatments more accessible and affordable for patients.

Because current psychotherapies tend to focus on the victim-survivor’s ideas and thoughts more than what’s going on in the person’s body, they cannot fully consider cultural stressors. Embodied healing approaches can expand cultural inclusivity by allowing for alternative healing pathways outside of Westernized medicine talk therapy. I hope for a future in which there is global understanding on the necessity of inclusive mind-body trauma care.

How does your research integrate with your other areas of work?

I view my teaching, research, and service to be intertwined, as the threads of inclusivity and community engagement are a focus in each area. Further, as a private-practicing licensed psychologist with academic backgrounds in psychology and public health, I aim to bring a scientist-practitioner perspective to research. Although it might sound oxymoronic, I view myself as a process-oriented interventionist; each step of intervention research has the power to effect change somewhere within the collective. That is, I hope my work extends beyond academic exercise and fosters well-being and interpersonal connection within the community where I serve.

What's something important within your work that you feel people need to talk more about?

I think our society would benefit from each of us co-creating space to openly discuss the inner-workings and -beings of our bodies and minds.

About Viann Nguyen-Feng

Nguyen-Feng is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She serves as core faculty in the counseling/clinical psychology master's program, and directs the Mind-Body Trauma Care Lab, where her research focuses on the intersection of mental and physical health as well as mind-body integration, particularly in the context of trauma care. Nguyen-Feng has embarked on research about COVID-19 and the connection to mind and body trauma.

Her work has been featured in publications such as Psychology Today, and several APA journals, including the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Spirituality in Clinical Practice, Psychological Services, Psychology of Women Quarterly, and Psychology of Violence.