June 2024 Vika Gallich, PhD

June 2024 Vika Gallich, PhD

What led you to become a psychologist?

I’ve always felt a pull between two contrasting forces: structure and intuition, rigidity and fluidity, business and psychology. My career journey began as a project accountant. With an AA degree in accounting as my foundation, I pursued an undergraduate degree in Integral Studies with a minor in psychology, deepening my interest in this field. While working as a project accountant, I earned my Master’s in Integral Psychology at the California Institute for Human Science (CIHS), where I gained insights into the holistic mind-body connection.

What is your educational background?

Following the completion of my master’s degree, which blended Eastern and Western therapies with modern therapeutic practices, I decided to transition careers. I then pursued my PhD in Clinical Psychology, with a specialization in Health Psychology, at CIHS.

What got you interested in pain psychology and what was your experience with, or training in, health and pain psychology?

To this day, my journey in pain and health psychology is deeply intertwined with my encounter with health challenges: uncertainty, chronic pain, stress, isolation, and despair. I’ve felt a spectrum of emotions after being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) while completing my master’s degree. Despite the psychological toll of living with this condition, I was surprised to never receive a referral to see a psychologist. This experience motivated me to pursue a doctorate in health psychology, with a focus on helping clients with pain and other health-related conditions. As part of my personal healing and professional development, I sought the guidance of both a pain psychologist and a health psychologist during my degree program.

My psychology practicum began with working with clients with substance use disorder and trauma, allowing me to start training in EMDR through EMDRIA. I furthered my training with Mark Grant, M.A., focusing on using EMDR to treat chronic pain and integrating hypnosis with EMDR for trauma and medically unexplained pain. I later completed advanced EMDR training and obtained consultation certification through EMDRIA. I completed a practicum at Alvarado Parkway Institute (API), Behavioral Health System, where I provided inpatient and outpatient therapy and conducted psychological testing for diagnosis and personality clarification to adults experiencing acute symptomology. During one of my rotations at API, I facilitated psychoeducation and process groups focusing on health and wellness, mindfulness-based stress reduction, self-care, and pain management. I then gained further experience working as a Clinical Support Counselor at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center (Acadia Healthcare). There, I facilitated weekly psychotherapy, process, and psychoeducation groups for patients dealing with bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, and co-occurring disorders at both inpatient and outpatient centers for adolescents and adults.

I completed my predoctoral training at Mindhealth, Inc. (CAPIC), a chronic pain and trauma clinic. My focus was on treating workers’ compensation patients, chronic pain patients, elderly individuals, and first responders. I provided treatment for trauma, substance use disorders, brain injuries, chronic pain syndrome, migraines, autoimmune disease, and general mental health. Additionally, I performed psychological evaluations, pre-surgical assessments, chronic pain syndrome evaluations, neuropsychological screening consultations, and forensic assessments for adults. Under Dr. Parke’s supervision, I received further training in hypnosis and had opportunities to offer a range of interventions such as pain neuroscience education, cognitive behavioral therapy for pain, mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy, and biofeedback. Additionally, I also implement both hypnosis and EMDR in the treatment of chronic pain syndrome, allowing me to deepen my skills as a pain psychologist.

I am currently completing my post-doctoral training at Bellator Psychological and Consultants in San Diego under the supervision of Dr. Alan Acre, who specializes in PTSD, substance use, and general mental health, and Dr. George Dabdoub, who specializes in PTSD, chronic pain, and has served as a Regional Director for a pain management practice. At Bellator, I conduct fitness-for-duty psychological evaluations and provide individual and group therapy to both military personnel and the general population dealing with trauma-related issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, brain injuries, and chronic pain. Navigating my daily chronic pain has equipped me with wisdom and empathy, guiding my approach to helping others facing similar challenges. Recognizing the body-mind connection, I operate from the understanding that integrating nutritional interventions can help improve certain chronic pain and mental health conditions. To further my expertise, I have obtained certification in Nutrition and Mental Health through Harvard Medical School’s MGH Psychiatry Academy.

I regularly participate in ongoing training focused on chronic pain, trauma, occupational behavioral therapy, and eating disorders through various organizations, including the American Association of Pain Psychology (AAPP), Stanford Division of Pain Medicine, WorkComp Central, Western Occupational Environmental Medical Association, and the University of San Diego. I’m grateful for opportunities offered by AAPP for training in pain psychology and peer-to-peer consultation, where I can consult on cases and gain insights from other professionals in the field.

How did you select your pain-related dissertation project?

It took me eight months to receive a referral to a Rheumatologist, and by the time I saw one, I was diagnosed with severe RA. Unable to work, struggling to walk, and finding it difficult to take care of my basic needs, I felt overwhelmed by pain and despair. With a longstanding interest in nutrition, I desperately sought ways to help myself. Following my intuition, I began researching nutritional interventions for RA and integrated lifestyle changes. I saw how my pain and mental health began to improve with implementing an anti-inflammatory diet that focused on whole plant-based foods. My CRP levels started to decrease, and my overall functioning began to improve. This experience made me realize that healing involved addressing all lifestyle factors. It was this realization that sparked the inspiration for my dissertation.

My research explored the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet on chronic pain and mental health in individuals with RA, using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. It was the first study of its kind. The following group experiential themes were identified (a) Anti-inflammatory diet empowers and aids recovery; (b) Lifestyle adaptation for health management; and (c) The power of mental health in recovery. Additionally, seven subthemes were identified and explored (a) Diet as a significant tool in managing RA symptoms; (b) Medication a necessary, but not sole, solution; (c) Restoration of physical function and activity; (d) Diet as a way of regaining control; (e) Social life, dietary change a challenging but empowering lifestyle shift; (f) Meal planning and preparation are key; and (g) Positive mindset crucial for health recovery.

What are your professional goals in pain psychology?

My goals include pursuing ongoing training and positions in pain and health psychology. In the future, I hope to gain experience in oncology and further assist individuals with eating disorders. Ultimately, I aspire to establish my private practice specializing in treating individuals with chronic pain, PTSD, and health conditions.

What kinds of contributions do you hope to make in the field?

As part of my humanitarian efforts in the field of pain and nutritional psychology, I serve as a contributor to The Center of Nutritional Psychology where I curate the Diet and Chronic Pain Nutritional Psychology Research Library. Additionally, I contribute to the Nutritional Psychology course with the latest research findings. Currently, I am in the process of transforming my dissertation into an article, intending to submit it to a Health Psychology journal for publication. I hope to present my dissertation work as a poster at the APA conference next year. Moving forward, my objectives are to continue learning, expanding my knowledge, and conducting presentations on how nutritional interventions can positively impact mental health and pain management. I also have a keen interest in conducting further research and publishing articles related to chronic pain.

Who have been some of your biggest mentors or role models in pain psychology?

Dr. John Parke has been a significant mentor for me in the field of pain psychology. During my pre-doctoral internship at Mindhealth, working under his supervision provided me with a strong understanding of the neuroscience and biopsychosocial aspects of pain. Integrating Eriksonian principles with evidence-based practices, his mentorship laid a solid foundation for my professional growth. He also introduced me to Dr. Howard Schubine’s work on Mind Body Syndrome. I am grateful for the training opportunities with Mark Grant, MA, in implementing EMDR and hypnosis for chronic pain treatment. Mark’s trauma-informed approach, emphasizing the interconnectedness of somatic, neuro-affective, and functional aspects, deepened my understanding of medically unexplained pain and its developmental origins. His method aligns with Porges’ concept of ‘deep physiology,’ shedding light on the role of trauma and brain function in chronic pain maintenance. Additionally, I admire Dr. Stephen Porges’ work and have attended his seminars on the Polyvagal perspective on chronic pain and addictive treatment, as well as the integration of the Safe and Sound Protocol within EMDR.

How do you anticipate the future development of pain psychology? What is needed to accomplish that?

I think the convergence of nutritional psychiatry and gut microbiome research presents a promising frontier in the advancement of pain psychology. By understanding and leveraging the complex interactions between diet, gut health, and psychological well-being, pain psychologists can provide psychoeducation on the importance of diet in managing pain, mental health, and supporting gut health. Recent research underscores the importance of the gut-brain axis in influencing pain perception and mental health, particularly through inflammation modulation. Chronic inflammation is implicated in various pain conditions, and depression is increasingly recognized as an inflammatory disorder. A healthy gut microbiome can regulate the body’s inflammatory response, potentially alleviating pain and enhancing mental well-being. This insight paves the way for nutritional interventions aimed at promoting gut health as a strategy for pain management.

Pain psychologists play a vital role in addressing both the psychological factors contributing to pain maintenance and the brain’s changes. I envision psychologists collaborating with dietitians, functional medical doctors, and patients, translating dietary guidance into manageable steps, and psychologically preparing patients to make lasting changes to their dietary habits, which can be challenging for many. To achieve this, education and training in this area of focus are crucial for both pain psychologists and patients. Clinicians can enhance their practice by gaining insights into the role of the gut microbiome in pain and incorporating principles of Nutritional Psychiatry. As always, there is a continuous need to expand pain psychology training courses at universities and offer mentorship/internship opportunities to clinicians interested in this field.