Repatterning the Nervous System: Our Talk With Jake Ernst

"Trauma-informed care is not an identity or an approach to trauma treatment but instead requires a new ethic of care - one that doesn’t blame people for their shortcomings but instead asks us to view our pain with love and compassion."

Jake Ernst is a psychotherapist, social worker, and writer. He works with young people who are experiencing big thoughts or feelings, experiencing difficult family dynamics, or simply looking to develop more skills to handle the harder parts of life. Specifically, he draws on various trauma-focused, attachment-centered, play-based, cognitive, and dialectical behavioral modalities in his practices. Jake is also the Clinical Director of Straight Up Health in Toronto, ON. It is a practice that offers teens and young adults access to approachable, empowering mental health care. Make sure to check out his Instagram page where he shares methods and tips to overcome trauma and mental health. SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came into this work?

JE: My name is Jake Ernst and I’m a writer, social worker, and psychotherapist. I came into the helping profession with a desire to address the gaps that exist in how we provide care for people who have experienced complex relational trauma and attachment ruptures. I also came into the helping profession from a place of wanting to drive change and to help folks understand the mechanics of trauma and trauma-informed practice.

SWY: What inspired you to go into the psychotherapy and social work field?

JE: I believe relationships are fundamental to feeling well and I seek to provide care through a therapeutic, caring relationship. We all need relationships in order to feel well and I feel as though psychotherapy and social work can be a way for us to experience new, corrective, or restorative relationships.

SWY: You are the Clinical Director of Straight Up Health - Can you tell us more about your practice and the services that you offer?

JE: I work with young people ages 12 to 25 and their families. I help young people learn skills for coping with challenging social or emotional situations and help families learn new patterns of communication. I offer individual and family services which means I meet with young people individually or with families together. All of my services center the relationship as the most important factor impacting our wellness and so my work is relational and connective. As well, I provide clinical direction for our youth-centric clinic called Straight Up Health. You can learn more about the clinic and our team at

SWY: Can you tell us more about the effects of childhood abuse and trauma on one’s mental health?

JE: Trauma changes and repatterns our nervous system. It moves us away from needing or trusting connection or relying on relationships for safety and moves us towards a pattern of needing protection. Trauma, and therefore childhood abuse, might cause us to change our understanding of the world -- specifically our experience or our perception of safety within it. Trauma compromises our ability to feel safe which is why safety and relationships are fundamental components of treating complex relational trauma. When we don’t feel safe in the world, our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours change accordingly. Sometimes our thoughts and feelings help cue us into our need for safety and belonging by producing negative automatic thoughts or by producing somatic, physiological responses in our bodies.

SWY: What do think are the benefits that come of therapy for those that have experienced abuse and trauma?

JE: Therapy for abuse and trauma works to repattern the nervous system. This can look like providing new skills or exploring new tools. This can also look like re-establishing safety or working towards finding safer (or safest) methods of working through the pain and suffering. Therapy works because it provides space for a corrective emotional experience through a well-attuned and safer relationship.

SWY: What does trauma-informed mean to you and what do you think are the benefits that come of practicing with a trauma-informed lens?

JE: Trauma-informed care is about reframing the traditional therapy question of “what’s wrong with you?” to an inquiry about “what’s happened (or happening) and “what didn’t happen (or isn’t happening) for you?” Trauma-informed care is about reframing our current understanding of care to one that acknowledges our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours not as problems to be fixed but as responses that develop in service of our survival or as a way of keeping us alive. Trauma-informed care is therefore not an identity or an approach to trauma treatment but instead requires a new ethic of care - one that doesn’t blame people for their shortcomings but instead asks us to view our pain with love and compassion.

SWY: What are some methods that you use with individuals who have experienced abuse and trauma to help them find their worth and recognize their strengths?

JE: Self-compassion is a tool that can help us repattern our relationship with ourselves and others. Instead of blaming ourselves, a practice of self-compassion allows us to gently approach our pain and hold it with a level of care we might not be used to. I teach self-compassion and self-acceptance because they both can help us soothe ourselves during our toughest moments. Self-compassion and radical acceptance also helps us recognize and identify our strengths while allowing us to hold the perceived weaknesses, shortcomings, or shameful parts with love and compassion. I also use psychoeducation as a tool for helping people understand the mechanics of what’s going on. I teach people about their brain using neuroscience principles and I teach people about their stress and survival responses using polyvagal and trauma-informed principles. Giving people more information about their brain and their bodies helps them gain a new perspective or relate to their experiences in a new way.

We would like to thank Jake for taking the time to explain to us the importance of understanding and reframing trauma-informed care, as well as for giving us ways that we can learn to overcome our trauma with compassion. To learn more about Jake and the practices that he offers, check out Straight Up Health as well as his Instagram page for more information.