Accelerating Your Trauma Recovery with Eye Movement Therapy

October 01, 2021 in Stress and Coping
by Stephanie Lindeman, M.A.

You just finished a performance assessment with your boss, and she gave you a glowing review with dozens of positive comments. Yet somehow, that one piece of negative feedback is just nagging at you, and truthfully, it’s all you’re remembering as you walk away. Some may call you a pessimist or an over-achiever, but actually, you’re quite normal! Our brains are hard-wired to remember emotionally charged events for the purpose of our survival, especially negative emotions. You probably don’t remember what you ate for breakfast, but you’re more likely to remember that gruesome car accident you drove by on your way home from work, and maybe you drive a little more cautiously on your route home the next day. Your brain is just trying to keep you alive!

This is all well and good until a really negative or traumatic event occurs. When this happens, your brain and body want to avoid it again at all possible costs, so your body will release additional stress hormones (noradrenaline) so that the memory will really “stick” (in scientific terms, the memory gets over-consolidated). As a result of this process, that “sticky” memory will resurface when triggered by even the slightest contextual cues, such as a smell or a color. This frequent triggering will ultimately result in a state of hypervigilance and avoidance of the cues linked to the memory.

Many mental health disorders have a negative and sometimes traumatic memory at their core, such as phobias, panic disorder, depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These disorders can be treated through standard practices such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but what if we could address the core memory driving the mental health disorder all together? Believe it or not, this is already being done across the world by taking advantage of a natural process called memory reconsolidation.

Memory reconsolidation is the process of re-storing a memory once it’s been recalled. During the process of re-storing the memory, the memory is also “unlocked,” like a pdf file so that changes can be made, specifically updates. This is a good thing because this is how we learn; turns out that person who looked nice is not to be trusted, the candy I loved as a kid is no longer as appealing to me, etc. My brain updated the memories of the person and the candy to reflect the new information gathered from the present day. Due to the fact that memories are constantly being tweaked and updated, a memory is only as accurate as the last time it was updated.

So back to therapy -- in short, we can update the memory of an event where the facts of it remain, but the emotional pain and suffering associated with the memory does not get included in the update. It’s edited out, so that you can still recall the memory and the facts of what occurred, but the fear or pain does not come with it. This has allowed a car accident survivor peace on the anniversary of the accident so that she can actually talk about the family members who did not survive, this has allowed veterans peace from nightmares where they witnessed the loss of their comrades, and it has allowed those with severe arachnophobia to hold spiders. This won’t necessarily change how you feel about the facts -- no one is going to expect you to like spiders after this work if you have a spider phobia, but when you remove the intense pain, you may be able to have a better handle on the situation and on your reaction.

There are several different kinds of therapy that target the memory reconsolidation process, and the good news is that there are therapists here at TBCRP who practice them! Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) is an experiential, eye-movement based therapy that can help you find relief from traumatic memories in as little as one to five sessions. You remain awake for the entire session, and unlike other trauma therapies, you actually do not need to verbalize the negative or traumatic memory. Your therapist will guide you through the emotions associated with the memory and use the eye movements to facilitate an update to the memory where you leave out the emotional pain and keep the facts.

To learn more about ART, feel free to explore this TedTalk, the ART website, or contact us for more information.

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