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 heartbreaking 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the faces are even closer to us than that, walking down the street: a woman that recoils from touch, a child that has withdrawn into himself, a man with incoherent bursts of anger.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 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 alternatives. 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.”
Local Trauma Therapy Options
by Darla Nagel
Numerous approaches exist for treating trauma, and experienced therapists can tailor their methods to meet an individual’s needs. Here are some therapeutic options and practitioners.
Cognitive behavioral and humanistic psychotherapy shows clients how to identify and challenge harmful thoughts and to replace them with a more realistic, healthy perspective. Clients gain insight into the past and recognize the purpose their behavior served. Clients process feelings and take an active role in therapy. Change happens when an individual takes responsibility to create thinking that supports ways to feel better.
According to licensed professional counselor Nancy Warnars, “Family of origin and the media can have a profound effect on a person’s inner being. Letting go of the negativity is critical to co-create new pathways toward hope, peace and love for the life clients have a choice to envision. It is a process to work through trauma but one that will reap benefits that will provide a new outlook and a new path forward.”
Outcomes of therapy include making choices that support personal goals and reporting feeling less anxious. This management of behaviors and thoughts provides relief from past trauma.
Nancy Warnars can be reached at Absolute Choices Therapy by calling 248-845-0513 or visiting AbsoluteChoicesTherapy.com.
Hypnosis in the clinical setting is one of the ways of accessing the subconscious mind, where trauma is stored. When an experience occurs, the memory is stored in the subconscious mind along with the emotions and moods existing at that time. Some of these memories are so wrapped up in emotion that they become frozen in time.
For example, if a person was extremely frightened by something, the experience is frozen in time, and the person continues to respond in certain present-day situations as he or she did at the time the excessive fear was created. Negative responses may be so strong that it may be necessary to “de-hypnotize” someone to realize that here in the present moment, he or she is safe and that circumstances are different and better now. Hypnosis can release the intensity of the emotional charge and give coping tools.
Certified hypnotherapist and hypnosis instructor Cheryl Beshada says, “The first person that I worked with who had PTSD was a World War II veteran. He had survivor’s guilt and was having great difficulty coping with daily life. He did extremely well with hypnotherapy and then continued to work on other issues as well.”
Reach Cheryl Beshada at Clinical Hypnosis Institute in Warren by calling 586-899-9009 or visiting ClinicalHypnosisInstitute.com.
Hypnotherapy is a deep place of learning what is most needed or wanted and an unlearning of what is no longer needed in a person’s life. Clinical hypnotherapy can be tailored to work effectively for each unique person and case of trauma, as opposed to bending the client around hypnosis. It is an age-old technique.
Licensed professional counselor and certified hypnotherapist Randall Kaszynski says, “I am working in the umbrella area of increasing confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, and I have had success with taking captive fears and phobias as well as decreasing or eliminating the emotional charge of past trauma.”
Hypnotherapy can help people adjust to current life circumstances, such as working in new career environments, letting go of old habits, approaching new relationships with confidence and progressing through a grief journey. All of these issues have a direct connection to past trauma in a person’s life. Combining the influence of hypnotherapy with a person’s untapped potential, the therapist and client work together to bring welcomed change into life. Hypnotherapy, as a more solution-focused therapy, can quickly bring about the changes desired in a client’s life.
Reach Randall Kaszynski at Sound Mind Counseling in Clarkston by calling 810-269-7557 or visiting SoundMindCounseling.net.
Yoga therapy can help people learn effective ways to reverse pain and discomfort and self-activate their own sense of comfort, restfulness, strength and composure through breathing, meditation and, if appropriate, adaptive movement. Yoga therapy focuses on self-management of responses to trauma events and the stress and anxiety they assert upon people.
Certified yoga therapist and experienced registered yoga teacher Veronica Zador says, “In yoga therapy we acknowledge that trauma experiences can be equally overwhelming and undermining. We are overwhelmed by the capacity of the experiences and our memories. We are undermined by their ability to challenge, even rob us, of our ability to develop our potential to develop meaningful experiences that might bring us a sense of happiness, joy, trust and well-being.”
More and more people are trying to cope with stressors not only recently occurring in life but also resulting from genuine past traumatic events that have been untended to, perhaps since childhood. A person meeting with a yoga therapist receives instruction in techniques that have been shown to help reverse the pain and the effects of trauma using the way people breathe, think and move.
Veronica Zador can be reached at International Institute of Yoga Therapy, 248-840-9444 or by visiting iiYogaTherapy.com.
Darla Nagel is a Michigan-based editor/writer for Natural Awakenings.
For even more treatment options visit: MHLAS.com/ptsd-options