Origins and Development of Lifespan Integration

By Peggy Pace

Lifespan Integration (LI) evolved out of my interactions with clients in my private practice in the 1980’s and 1990’s. After determining that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other officially approved counseling techniques were somewhat ineffective, I began a search to find techniques which would more effectively heal my clients from their histories of childhood trauma. During the 1990’s developments in neuroscience showed us that we needed to work with the entire body-mind. New therapies were developed to take advantage of these new insights, and I incorporated some of these into my work. I had been using dreamwork and Jungian Active Imagination with my clients all along, because these techniques gave me insights into the unconscious aspects of my clients’ fears and insecurities. As I learned and practiced new body-mind therapies, I began to better understand how trauma was held within my clients. Watching my clients as they engaged in imaginal dialogues with various parts of themselves during their counseling sessions, I became increasingly aware of the high level of fragmentation existing within their self-systems.

I wanted to find a way to integrate the split selves of my clients into a coherent whole. I began to research the psychological literature to find how to do this. As I searched what had been written by psychologists and psychiatrists, I found considerable discussion of dissociation and fragmentation, but little was written about how to integrate dissociated part-selves into the whole self-system. Part-selves were thought to be neural networks which operated somewhat independently. Current practice at that time suggested engaging the various part-selves in dialogues with one another. I suspected that encouraging dialogue between these part-selves would only serve to reinforce the separations between neural networks. I wanted to know more about what caused these networks to be disconnected from one another, and how I could help my clients to knit their various selves into a coherent whole. Throughout the 1990’s I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince my clients that their traumatic histories were in the past and need not impact their current functioning. Meantime I continued to attend psychological seminars and to read about the most recent developments in neuroscience.

In 2002 one of my clients became extremely activated while revisiting a traumatic memory from her childhood. Remembering whatever she was remembering had pushed her so far outside her window of tolerance that she split off and became stuck in the memory. Sitting across from me in my office was a highly educated 40 years old woman. When I asked her how old she was, she answered in a child’s voice, “six”. I realized that, at that moment, the only part of her I could access was six years old. I had seen this phenomenon before with other clients and knew it would take some time for her to recover and regain connection to her cognitive capacities. I decided to try something new to see if I could bring her more quickly back to her normal state.

I wondered how I could convince a very frightened six-years-old girl, who didn’t know or trust me, that she was safe now. I decided to see if I could get her to show herself how she had grown up. I asked her to remember being seven years old. She quickly indicated that she remembered being seven. I didn’t ask her what she remembered about being seven. Instead, as soon as she could remember being seven, I asked her to remember being eight, then nine, then ten, and each year one by one until she was back to her current age of forty. This took less than five minutes and amazingly restored my forty years old client to her professional and functional self. She was able to leave my office and continue with her day, operating as a fully functional adult.

From that point on I began leading most of my clients through their individual Timelines. I would ask them to begin with a specific traumatic memory, and I would lead them repeatedly, year by year, from the memory to present time. I found that using memory cues, as opposed to numerical ages, allowed clients to more easily drop into the correct time frame while remaining connected to their right brain hemispheres and bodily sensations. Very soon it was obvious to me that bringing clients repeatedly through their lists of memory cues was doing much more than proving to them that they had survived their traumatic memories. By their own reports my clients’ life stories took on different themes each time I led them through their life narrative, even though I was reading the exact same memory cues on each repetition. As a result of these ‘trips’ through time, clients’ perspectives changed. Clients returned for their weekly appointments describing how they suddenly felt calmer, more secure, and less likely to overreact. They knew more clearly what they wanted from their counseling sessions and from their lives. They were less triggered by events which had always previously triggered them. These were lasting changes which continued to improve over time.

I knew that something major was going on. As I continued to read the neuroscience literature which had emerged in the 1990’s, I learned that neural integration occurs during child development, from about age two through age five via the co-construction of the autobiographical narrative, usually between parent and child. I learned that the human body-mind is a self-organizing system which continues to reorganize itself throughout the lifetime. As I studied more of the neuroscience from the 1990’s, I realized that by staying attuned to my clients while bringing them through repetitions of their chronological Timelines, they were able to integrate material which, due to early trauma and lack of support, had stayed within them, disconnected from who they knew themselves to be, often for decades. I realized that what I had discovered had the potential to revolutionize the field of psychotherapy.

I wanted to personally experience this new type of therapy. I explained to my friend and colleague, Cathy Thorpe, what I had been doing, and gave her the experience of LI by doing a session with her. Cathy began using this new way of working with her clients, and we exchanged LI sessions with each other. We found that we could make short statements during the Timeline repetitions or between repetitions, such as “It wasn’t your fault” or “It’s over now”, and that this information would be integrated during the following repetitions.

I felt a responsibility to share this powerful new way of working with a broader audience. I thought that a book giving detailed information about this new method would be sufficient to explain to therapists how to implement this new way of working. I completed the first edition of “Lifespan Integration: Connecting Ego States through Time” in 2003. This was several years before self-publishing was readily available, so I had the book photo-copied and bound with a plastic spiral binding. I sold the book to therapists through my website, and it was sold in the bookshops of a few conferences where I spoke briefly about LI. Therapists who read the Lifespan Integration book or heard me talk about it at conferences were intrigued, and asked me to teach them how to use LI with their clients. Because the best way to learn how to use LI is through actually experiencing it, I developed a two-day training program which included practicums. In 2004, with Cathy Thorpe helping as my first facilitator, we offered the first Lifespan Integration training.

During the first years after I discovered Lifespan Integration, Cathy Thorpe and I, along with a small group of therapists whom we had trained, used repetitions of the LI Timeline to target and heal the psychological distress resultant from past traumatic events. We were targeting traumas, but it soon became evident to us that more was happening than the healing of trauma alone. Clients who had never stood up for themselves were suddenly becoming assertive. Clients reported feeling more solid and secure within themselves. It seemed that the neural integration which occurred through repetitions of the TL, in addition to helping clients move past their childhood traumas, also contributed to a more solid self-structure.

Attachment studies show a strong correlation between one’s ability to form attachments and the coherence of one’s life narrative. We observed that clients of securely attached, attuned LI therapists became more securely attached after a series of LI sessions – not more attached to the therapist, but rather more secure in general. Using the terminology of attachment, we saw that clients moved from being anxiously or avoidantly attached toward an earned secure attachment status. We began using simple repetitions of clients’ Timelines, beginning at one day old, not to clear trauma, but rather to establish a more solid neural self-structure. This “Baseline protocol” was established as a way of moving toward a more secure foundation simply from repetitions of the client’s Timeline cues within an attuned relationship.

All traumas are remembered by the body, including the trauma of being born, but it is rare to have explicit memory of events which occurred before age two. I wondered if it would be possible to heal traumas which occurred before explicit memory was encoded. I began to experiment with beginning the Timeline at birth. I used general statements to describe birth, then the stages of development, and then segued into the explicit memories listed on the client’s memory cue list. When I worked this way, clients could easily imagine being born, learning to crawl, stand and walk, etc. I found this was effective at activating clients’ implicit (body) memories. Expanding the Timeline back to birth in this new way allowed for the healing of not only birth trauma, but also early illnesses and necessary surgeries requiring hospitalizations and separations from attachment figures. I was pleasantly surprised to find that by describing, as accurately as possible, the brief narrative of an early trauma, it was possible to gently activate that trauma. This activation of the neural networks holding the past trauma, combined with repetitions of the client’s Timeline from that event all the way to the present, allowed the client’s self-system to integrate new information, and to reorganize how the implicitly remembered past trauma is held in the neural system. Cathy Thorpe adapted the LI protocols for use with children and their families and was getting excellent results healing children who had experienced birth trauma, children who were adopted, children with attachment disorders, and more.

Over time more protocols were developed. LI therapists experimented with beginning the Timeline at different points across the lifespan, including beginning at conception, at various stages of gestation, and at early stages of development. Protocols were developed for healing attachment wounds and childhood losses such as divorce or death of a parent. By varying the number of memory cues read per repetition, and by varying the speed at which the cues were read, therapists were able to maintain most clients within their windows of tolerance (WOT’s). Clients with a tendency to drift were asked to keep their eyes open or to hold and sniff something with a strong aroma. With experience therapists became familiar with the principles of LI and were able to deviate from the written scripts, adapting the LI protocols to better serve each individual client.

In 2008 Cathy Thorpe discovered another powerful way to utilize the LI Timeline. One day, when working with a client with whom she had worked for quite some time, Cathy was inspired to try something new. The problem the client had been struggling with was largely due to a particular belief she had always held about herself. Cathy knew that this belief was most likely an introject from the client’s early childhood. Partly out of frustration Cathy asked her client to focus on this belief while Cathy repeatedly led her through her TL cues beginning at one day old. As is typical with LI, the theme of the life narrative shifted slightly with each repetition. In this case the first repetitions of the Timeline narrative brought up memories from the client’s past where this belief had been true. As Cathy continued leading her client through repetitions of her TL cues, the client’s life narrative shifted and brought up memories of times when the belief was not true. Repetitions of the LI Timeline always allow the self-system to sort around whatever target has been activated. Up until this time, LI protocols had begun with either explicit or implicit memories. By beginning with a self-referencing belief rather than with a past memory, the client’s self-system sorted for ‘data’ relating to this belief. With each repetition more current information was automatically integrated into the client’s self-system, eventually leading to the spontaneous emergence of memories where the belief was not true. At the end of the one-hour session this client, for the first time ever, understood that the belief was true sometimes, but was definitely not universally true.

All LI protocols rely on the integrating function of repetitions of the Timeline, and thus every LI session involves leading clients through multiple repetitions of their life narratives. When working with clients with histories of complex trauma, therapists walk a fine line. It is necessary to lead clients through their traumatic life narratives, activating enough neural networks to bring about integration, yet do this while maintaining clients within their windows of tolerance (WOTs). Journeys through the life narrative always bring up both explicit and implicit (body) memories – more memories than just those written on the cue list. When too many memories are activated, clients sometimes dissociate into a fight, flight, or freeze response. If this happens, healing and integration do not occur, or worse – the client could possibly leave the therapy session in an activated state without the therapist’s awareness. Beginning in 2016, Anandi Janner Steffan developed a detailed method for using LI with complexly traumatized clients. She defined three levels of structural dissociation in clients based on their behavior and symptoms, and she designed a form for mapping the assessment and the plan for treatment. Anandi emphasized the role that feedback loops play during the repetitions of the LI Timeline and developed a systematic way to facilitate subcortical regulation in clients with histories of complex trauma. She created some new variations for the protocol formerly called “LI Baseline with Introject” and some new techniques to use with the LI Baseline protocol to maintain clients within their WOTs.

The growth of Lifespan Integration over the past two decades has been a collaborative effort. Many brilliant and dedicated clinicians, after their initial LI training, immediately understood LI’s potential and offered to join me in my quest to bring awareness of the healing power of LI to other therapists and to the general public. It has been my good fortune to work with a growing group of LI clinicians and instructors, all of whom have made significant contributions to the growth and development of LI. Collectively we have published articles, written books, and supervised research projects. We have made videos showing how LI transforms our clients, and we have presented Lifespan Integration at psychological conferences. Ever since 2003 it has been my great pleasure to work together as a team with this growing group. Our goal, as stated in the Mission Statement on the Lifespan Integration website, is to bring awareness of Lifespan Integration’s potential to heal to more therapists worldwide, and to mentor capable therapists toward becoming supervisors, facilitators, and instructors of Lifespan Integration.

The first Lifespan Integration training was held in 2004 in the US. In 2005 Lifespan Integration was taught in several US states as well as in Spain and in Sweden. As therapists learned and experienced LI, demand for trainings grew quickly. We have gone from passing out a few pages of handouts at the original LI trainings, to printing manuals for each level of training. As of January 2021, therapists in the US, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, The United Kingdom, and Russia have been trained in Lifespan Integration. We now have thirteen LI instructors teaching in several different languages. Over the past fifteen years, as LI has grown, the original Lifespan Integration book has been revised several times, most recently in 2017. The 2017 edition of the Lifespan Integration book is currently available on Amazon in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. The French version: “Pratiquer l’ICV – 2e éd. – L’Intégration du Cycle de la Vie” was translated by Dr. Catherine Clement and Joanna Smith. The Spanish version: “Integración del Ciclo Vital” was translated by Yolanda Calvo and Andrea Martens. Other books about Lifespan Integration include “The Success and Strategies of Lifespan Integration: An overview and client stories” by Catherine Thorpe, and “Applications cliniques de l’ICV” edited by Joanna Smith.