Imagine eliminating the anguish of experiencing a traumatic event – or dealing with dyslexia, anxiety or pain management – without speaking a word about the trauma, or the issue itself.
Randy Yohe spoke with Christie Eastman, manager at the Cabell Huntington Hospital Counseling Center, who is on a mission to train West Virginia mental health professionals in a technique to better treat trauma.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yohe: You’re training West Virginia therapists and mental health providers in a better way to treat trauma. What is trauma?
Eastman: Trauma is not what happens to a person from the outside. It’s the way that the brain encodes the experience. And so something that is experienced as a trauma changes the brain and makes an imprint on the part of the brain that is always scanning to differentiate between what is safe and what is unsafe. The data that the brain encodes from that experience is encoded as data that the brain scans as unsafe into the future.
Yohe: How prevalent is this trauma, and who are you targeting? What issues can you deal with to help?
Eastman: To some extent, if we live long enough, all of us have experienced something that has resulted in trauma in the brain. Therefore all of us can benefit from therapy. When we talk about trauma and the treatment of trauma, we’re talking about things that significantly impact a person’s life, such as a traumatic incident that we would all recognize – a terrible car accident or witnessing a shooting or sexual trauma, like a rape, or combat trauma. It could be another experience in which a person felt very threatened or where someone else was potentially at great harm to themselves, or even death where the person witnessing the experience or that event, felt helpless and unable to, to prevent that from happening.
Yohe: We hear that “talking it out” offers trauma relief. Your approach is called Accelerated Resolution Therapy, or ART. What’s the difference between the two?
Eastman: There are other therapies, talk therapies where people rehash, either verbally or sometimes in writing, the incidences that led to their traumatic experience. Ours is different in that the person recalls the event in their mind silently under eye movements, that the therapist directs with their hand or with a light bar or some other instrument. The eye movements help the brain process very rapidly. They’re also very calming, and the person is recalling the events in their mind, not verbally, so that’s a big difference. And what people report and what we experienced as therapists, is that the individual doesn’t have to be re-traumatized, or get tremendously upset or have to verbally recall those difficult moments in their life. And the therapist doesn’t have to witness all of those details. Usually, that part of the therapy process only takes between in one session, you know, 30 seconds to maybe 10 minutes, and then that phase of the therapy session is already completed without the person having to speak about, or write about the event.
Yohe: That special aspect of ART is when clients replace negative images with positive ones, then they don’t need to talk about the details of the trauma. Explain why.
Eastman: Because all of the psychological processing and change is happening in the brain. As I said earlier, a trauma is how the brain encodes an experience. Any of these therapies that are developed to heal trauma are about rewiring the brain from that unsafe state, to a safe state. The brain doesn’t get reset to not any longer have vigilance over things that we need vigilance for. We just remove the hyper vigilance, which is that constant sense of being on alert or responding in an exaggerated way to a neutral stimulus.
How it works is as the person early in the ART session visualizes the defect difficult memory, the eye movements are used so that they’re silently recalling that and we break it up so that the person is alternately recalling the difficult experience and then calming their body and then going back in to seeing the difficult experience and then calming the body and all this is guided by the therapist. Once they’ve seen that difficult memory one time, then the memory begins to change as the therapist continues to guide the individual through the protocol. Then we come to a point where the individual is voluntarily choosing what they want to replace the images with.
Although this may sound kind of strange and unlikely, research has demonstrated for quite a long time that every time we recall a memory, it becomes malleable. Even though we’re not really aware of it, we’re kind of changing our memories every time we recall them. That neural network in the brain that’s now open, that person gets to put in that neural network what they would rather have there. So often it’s replaced with a really happy memory, or instead of being a victim, they weren’t a victim, and they were powerful, and they were able to do the things that they wish could have happened, so that the whole thing could have been prevented. Or if it’s something that they can’t, and don’t really want to erase like the death of a loved one, or, or maybe a buddy in combat, they may just simply replace that memory with with one of the happiest moments that they had with that person, or just another really good memory from their life.
Even though the person is very alert and awake and sometimes extremely alert, they say at the end of the session, “I feel a lot of mental clarity.” While they’re under the eye movements, their brains are in a kind of a theta wave state, so that it becomes a little bit of a dreamlike experience. And the brain loves metaphors, and as people we dream in metaphors. So replacing those images can be with anything, including something that’s not even reality based. The whole purpose is to reset the brain from traumatized to no longer living with those distressing images and sensations and emotions.
Yohe: There seems to be a myriad of issues that ART can help relieve, right?
Eastman: There’s a lot. Anxiety, depression, phobias. ART can help people resolve panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress. It’s used for addictions, for performance anxiety. For athletes or people that are preparing for a very significant test, family issues, victimization of many kinds, poor self image, relationship issues, grief, job related issues, pain management, memory enhancement, and even dyslexia anxiety.
People whose dyslexia for instance, is really based from what was going on during that period of time when they were learning to read and something was going on in their life, maybe in their family life, where they were held back or where they were teased or bullied by their peers, therefore their ability to learn to read was disrupted. There are people that have lived with dyslexia for a long time who can be cured. People come for therapy and can be cured in as quick as one to five sessions, which is absolutely remarkable.
Something that is a bit new, that I’m discovering and working with here at Mountain Health Network and with the neurology department of Marshall Health, is working with people with neuromuscular disorders to help with pain, and with some of the other symptoms that come from living with chronic, traumatizing effects of living with such illnesses as ALS.
Yohe: You want to put out a hue and cry for West Virginia therapists to learn to use ART. Well, here’s your opportunity.
Eastman: My fellow therapists that are in the trenches with people who suffer so much, this is a therapy that will help you do what you’re in the field to do, which is actually heal. To heal the terrible experiences that people live with that affects their lives so much. These people that you care so much about, and that you go to work to help every day. We’re in a crisis right now, as you know, there are so few of us out there.
One of the reasons that our training will be so important for you and your practice is that rather than turning people away, because you’re not able to accommodate all the needs, you can help people rapidly so that you can continue to accommodate new people who are in need of therapy. Instead of feeling heavily laden by how long it takes and how hard it is for your clients, you can experience, session after session, the buoyancy of the joy of this model and seeing the remarkable delight and excitement in the lives of your clients as they see their lives change right before you.
To those that live with trauma and other things that change their lives, I encourage you to keep the faith, know that your life is worth living, and that you can be healed from things that perhaps you wonder if you will be living with for life. Although there are not a lot of ART trained therapists in West Virginia right now, there are some of them, and it’s growing. Because this works so rapidly, it’s worth looking on the ART website for ART therapists, even if you need to travel, because you may be able to resolve something in as quickly as one session. But there is absolutely hope.
I meet with folks every day, that’s what I wake up in the morning to do. And I know that there are people like me all over the state, who are eager to be a support to you and all over the country. Don’t live with your suffering. Find help for it now.
To get information on ART training and treatment, contact Christie Eastman at Cabell Huntington Hospital’s Counseling Center; Christie.Eastman@chhi.org; CabellCounselingCenter@chhi.org (304-526-2634), or go to artworksnow.com.