Emerging Therapies Offer Fresh Hope
by Ronica O’Hara
Refugee children with tear-stained faces, the frail elderly being wheeled away from floods or fires, the sobbing families of gunshot victims—the faces of trauma are seen in every heart-breaking newscast. And the faces are even closer to us than that, walking down the street: a woman that recoils from touch, a child that has withdrawn into himself, a man with incoherent bursts of anger.
The trauma of death, cruelty and destruction has always been part of the human experience. In the U.S., surveys show that as many as 60 to 70 percent of people report being traumatized by sexual assault, accidents, violence, war combat or other causes, and as many as one in 11 may be diagnosed in their lifetime with the more severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The encouraging news is that in the last few decades, a revolution has occurred in the recognition of how widespread trauma is and how deeply embedded it can be, not only in our behaviors but in our bodies. That, in turn, has led to effective and ever-evolving approaches to heal what’s been broken.
“Although trauma and PTSD are visible in the culture everywhere now, from films to popular literature and from legal to mental health fields, until 1980 the topic was virtually non-existent,” says San Francisco psychologist, PTSD researcher and author Harvey Schwartz, Ph.D., who has treated trauma clients in clinical practice for 35 years. “After it became a legitimate diagnosis in 1980, long-overdue research and development of clinical protocols occurred, and today, almost every tradition and subculture within the mental health field has its own model of how to treat trauma.”
Shaping the ongoing dialogue has been the research of Boston psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, whose 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, has occupied the top rung of the New York Times bestseller list for three years. In magnetic imaging studies, he found that when a person is thrust into a terrorizing incident, the cognitive functions in the brain’s temporal lobe shut down and activity shifts to the self-defense mode of the amygdala. When the person responds by fighting, fleeing or freezing, physiological reactions kick in, which armor the body and trap emotions and thinking in that fraught moment, distorting future perceptions and experiences. He argues that any true healing of trauma must include “bottom-up” modalities focusing on the body rather than only mental “top-down” insights. He also insists that no single treatment alone is likely enough and no combination of treatments will be the same for every person.
Christine Songco, a Los Angeles dental hygienist and wellness coach, used cognitive therapy, journaling and meditation to relieve the trauma of a grueling bout with cancer, but hearing loud and angry voices still made her panic. What ultimately proved healing was an hour-long session of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), in which she followed a therapist’s prompt to move her eyes back and forth while memories surfaced. “It got to the root of my fear and anxiety and the source of my trauma without hours of therapy talking sessions, but I do think the other work I did set the stage for EMDR to be effective for me,” she says.
Schwartz says that two major approaches to treating PTSD have emerged: cognitive and experiential. Cognitive, or “talk therapies”, supported by academic research and insurance companies, emphasize mentally processing painful memories to manage such symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks and explosive anger, often using anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. They can include such strategies as narrative recall, slowly increasing exposure to the traumatic material, mindfulness training and deep breathing exercises.
“Cognitive approaches help survivors learn how to become an expert of themselves so that they can respond to their trauma in a healthier way,” says psychologist Sabina Mauro, of Yardley, Pennsylvania, author of The Mindfulness Workbook for PTSD. This type of therapy can take months to years, and effectively treats about half of PTSD sufferers.
Experiential approaches, which have been researched less but have engendered substantial therapist enthusiasm, do a “deep dive” to work through traumatic patterning embedded in a person’s mind, body and psyche. “They help people restore not only their nervous systems, but their capacity for self-trust and self-forgiveness and their capacity for connection to their bodies and others,” says Schwartz.
These modalities mostly focus, at least at first, on physical sensations rather than intellectual comprehension. For example, Somatic Experiencing defuses deeply held fear-based contractions in the body by integrating those sensations with peaceful ones. EMDR, once an outlier but now practiced globally and endorsed by the World Health Organization, uses eye movements to lower the emotional charge of a traumatic memory. Internal Family Systems repairs a wounded psyche by relating a person’s deeply felt, damaged “child parts” to their essential goodness.
To re-inhabit parts of the body frozen in the past by trauma, patients may be encouraged to use somatic meditations, trauma-informed yoga, acupuncture, massage and martial arts, as well as art, music, dance and other forms of expression. Psychedelics, which if used carefully can open a trauma sufferer to a larger sense of purpose, may become a legal option in a few years. In a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved Phase 3 clinical trial on MDMA (previously called ecstasy), 67 percent of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD after three therapist-guided sessions.
Says Schwartz, “It can feel like a supermarket of options out there, so people need to read, become informed consumers and combine treatments at times. We have to think of the mind, the body and the spiritual as all needing attention and integration.”
Health writer Ronica O'Hara can be contacted at [email protected]