Early in Anka Vujanovic’s career, she was inspired by the hope and strength of trauma survivors and humbled by their ability to overcome intense pain and suffering.
Today, she is turning inspiration into action. Vujanovic, associate professor of psychology at UH, co-directs the Trauma and Anxiety Clinic of Houston (TrACH) with Matthew Gallagher, associate professor of psychology. Launched in 2016, the UH-based specialty mental health treatment clinic provides a place for underserved communities to receive specialized, evidence-based mental health services in addition to serving as a research and education center.
“Many of our clients are from low-income, high-crime areas in Houston, and they present with complex histories and circumstances,” Vujanovic shared. “A good proportion of our clients are survivors of childhood abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. They may be struggling with post-traumatic stress, depression or anxiety, and many have current or past histories of substance abuse.”
The clinic also serves UH students referred by the Counseling and Psychology Services Center (CAPS) and UH Health. They are seeking help for test anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized stress about juggling school, work and finances.
“Education and awareness are the first steps,” said Tannah Chase, UH postdoctoral fellow and assistant director of TrACH. “We always start out educating people about anxiety and emotions, how emotions work and how to work the relationship between thoughts and emotions and behaviors.”
Chase focuses on teaching patients healthy coping skills. She said breathing techniques, mindfulness and being non-judgmental of the present moment are ways to keep from getting wrapped up ruminating about the past and anticipating what hasn’t yet happened.
“Often people view anxiety as a stigmatized concept; if you have anxiety, something’s wrong with you,” Chase added. “But anxiety is actually a very normal human process built into our system and has a lot of benefits for us. It’s what keeps us alive and should not be suppressed or avoided. If you struggle with anxiety, you’re not alone.”