Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) is a type of therapy using the newest brain science to give people the tools they need to begin easing some of the most destructive symptoms of PTSD and traumatic memories. Here, Basia Najarro Skudrzyk shares how this innovative therapy is revolutionizing the approach to trauma.
When we have a traumatic experience, the most common human response is to try and put it behind us, to not think about it and move on. While that may seem to be the best path, the way that the brain processes and stores memories means that those traumatic memories are put carefully away, perfectly preserved. But they don’t stay in the boxes where we try to lock them away. Our brain makes sense of the world by finding connections between what we are experiencing now and what we have experienced in the past. So, a sound, a smell, a word, a tone of voice that is familiar makes brain connections and the old dangerous memory pops up like it just happened yesterday and brings with it the perfectly preserved situation that we tried to put behind us.
Even when we are not consciously being reminded by a triggering sense, like a sound, the brain tries to process and control dangerous experiences. But sleep, which should be healing, becomes a minefield where traumatic memories can run loose.
This is what happens when we are not able to safely process traumatic memories. Accelerated Resolution Therapy is one new type of rapid-response psychotherapy that assists the brain to take a traumatic memory apart, process it into pieces and store it away safely. Consider if we had to store a bomb in a police evidence locker. The safe thing to do would be to take it apart and store the pieces separately, rather than putting it intact and with the trigger still attached into a box and storing it away.
When we have a new experience, our brain processes the experience with a trick we do with our eyes. We do it automatically, without thinking about it. Our eyes move to the right or the left or look up at the ceiling while we store a new memory. When we try to remember something, our eyes do that same trick, moving up and to the left or right. This is ingrained in us, so we are usually not aware of it. We can usually recognize when someone we are looking at is trying to remember something by the way their eyes move. You can catch yourself doing this. Try to think of the lyrics of a song you loved in high school. But pay attention to where your eyes automatically move while you’re thinking.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy uses the ideas of taking a traumatic memory and safely storing it in pieces using our natural eye movements and the ways the brain stores memories. It is most effective in reducing some of the triggering sense events, with reducing the fight-or-flight response of dangerous memories, and with reducing some of the consequences of traumatic experiences, such as sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.
This therapy is most effective when it can be used quickly and before the mind has time to store those memories away in their perfect box, then build walls to try and contain them. A rapid response to a traumatic event, even something as simple as talking it over with other people, allows the brain to begin to separate an experience into pieces, bring it out into the light. It’s always painful to look something in the face that we would rather bury under a ton of rocks, but when we face this, it can no longer hide like a booby-trap and sabotage us. In some cultures, giving something a name gives it power. For traumatic memories, giving them a hiding place in our minds gives them power. The sooner we can drag that box into the light, open the lid and dump out the contents, and take that bomb into pieces, the better the response.
Several studies have evaluated the effectiveness of ART at reducing the depression, sleep problems, and hyper-vigilant response of combat-induced PTSD. The College of Nursing at USF has done extensive, national research in the effectiveness of this therapy, and it has been recognized as effective for the symptoms of combat-induced PTSD. This recognition means the VA, military medicine, and the civilian medical insurance sector are all offering or covering the therapy.
The client is always in control of the entire ART session, with the therapist guiding the process. Although some traumatic experiences such as rape, combat experiences, or loss of a loved one can be very painful to think about or visualize, the therapy rapidly moves clients beyond the place where they are stuck in these experiences toward growth and positive changes.