No drugs, no pain, very low cost, and it can break treatment-resistant trauma in one-to-five sessions? If such a treatment exists, why don’t more people know about it?
I am not one of those people who believes that everyone’s addiction is rooted in trauma. According to SAMHSA’s 2021 National Survey On Drug Use and Health, only a little under half (44 percent) of people with substance use disorders (SUD) had any kind of co-occurring mental health disorder.
But trauma kicked off my addiction. I did not start drinking to excess until fairly late in life, immediately after a significant traumatic event. Since then, I have spent years searching for a trauma therapy that was both effective and affordable to those of us who can’t drop hundreds in cash on session after session. I personally always found conventional therapy ineffective anyway.
My own first experience, in February this year, was astounding.
Then I discovered accelerated resolution therapy (ART). Developed in 2008 by Laney Rosenzweig, LMFT, ART combines guided horizontal eye movements with a process of using images and sensations to revise emotional memories of traumatic events.
These specific eye movements, the theory goes, relax the brain so that its limbic, emotional side (the part that rightly tells you to avoid alligators!) can “talk to” the prefrontal cortex, the logical side. (Some think the eye movements’ resemblance to REM patterns in sleep may be significant.)
Once this is accomplished, the idea is that emotional memories can be recoded—enabling you to reimagine the event in a way that is no longer triggering. You remember the facts, but without the overwhelming emotional and physical response.
ART derived from eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and also borrows from Gestalt, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and brief psychodynamic therapy techniques.
My own first experience with ART, in February this year, was astounding.
I had been vomiting at least three times a day, experiencing panic attacks, and having nightmares and trouble sleeping—classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recent events at work had made me recall past traumas, and I was becoming violently ill every day at work.
I felt comfortable sharing my story with my ART therapist, but she did not ask me to go into the kind of detail that traditional therapists do. There was no dwelling on it and certainly no judgment, just facts. Then we got to work.
She asked me to follow her hand with my eyes, making horizontal movements which I found helped me to relax. Then she gradually guided me to imagine the original traumatic situation and to feel the sensations it generated.
I experienced a powerful feeling of tightness in my chest, like someone was pushing on my heart.
We had established in our initial discussion that we were both comfortable with Christian imagery (though this is certainly not necessary, and you could substitute any number of things). So she guided me in imagining angels pushing the pain out.
As we continued to work on these images—both the trauma images and the angels—my therapist creatively reacted to the sensations I described experiencing, helping me to adjust the imagery to address them. We continued with the eye movements throughout.
I began to feel relief from my symptoms. At the end of the session, we went through a closure exercise and I drank a bottle of water.
I felt better already, but what was shocking was what happened the next day at work.
The very activities that had caused violent nausea, vomiting and panic were now possible, I found, without these symptoms. I was suddenly able to get through the day without barfing in work meetings. This was incredible to me. How could it have happened?
Many people might—and with good reason—be skeptical about anecdotal claims of a therapy’s effectiveness. So let’s take a look at some studies.
“Images and sensations cause triggers, so if you erase them, you’ve done your work,” ART creator Laney Rosenzweig told Filter. “That’s why it’s so quick.”
After describing the communication between different sides of the brain that I outlined earlier, she added that this work with “clients’ inner earlier selves” is “simple and effective” because “the client’s brain does all the work.”
Many people might—and with good reason—be skeptical about anecdotal claims of a therapy’s effectiveness from individual patients and practitioners. So let’s take a look at some studies of ART.
A 2012 prospective cohort study involved 80 adult participants, mostly women, with PTSD symptoms. Their traumatic experience was either violence/crime or the loss of a loved one. Of the 79 percent of subjects who initially screened positive for PTSD, after an average of 3.8 ART sessions of ART, 81 percent screened negative two months later. There were no serious adverse events following the therapy, though some minor side effects were reported, such as headaches, lightheadedness and waking in the night.
A nonrandomized 2016 study involved 23 unhoused veterans and 94 veterans living in the community. Participants received an average of four sessions of ART. Researchers found “substantial” reduction in PTSD symptoms and “improved quality of life”—including at six-month followup.
The randomized controlled trial (RCT) is considered the gold standard of scientific research. The only RCT to date on ART was published in 2013. It involved 29 combat veterans who were treated with two-to-five sessions of ART over two weeks. Twenty-eight matched controls (other, similar combat veterans) could choose either two sessions of fitness assessment and planning with a certified health fitness trainer, or two sessions of career assessment and planning with a professional career counselor.
According to an overview paper on ART research:
“Although the study relied exclusively on self-report measures, subjects in the ART group achieved a 65% PTSD response rate, compared to 13% in the comparison group … and these results remained unchanged 3 months following completion of treatment. Furthermore, the dropout rate among subjects receiving ART was only 6%, which is significantly lower than that seen in traditional evidence-based treatments for PTSD.”
So evidence exists, and is so far very positive—although more high-quality studies are certainly needed, and (as ever) this form of therapy will not be suitable or effective for everyone.
Rosenzweig herself stresses that a certain amount of buy-in from patients is necessary, and I personally doubt that ART would work in the kind of coercive treatment situation so many of us with SUD have experienced. A client needs to be able to hold onto a thought, move their eyes comfortably, and be motivated to do the full ART protocol to feel better about their issue.
Rosenzweig also pointed out that with issues like SUD or eating disorders, cravings or behaviors may persist even if symptoms of trauma are resolved. This may be because those disorders are not entirely trauma-related, or because, she said, there is a “secondary gain,” or a reason for the person to hold onto the behavior. ART may be very helpful for those of us who have suffered trauma and found our substance use became problematic afterward, but nothing is a cure-all.
All of these factors could indicate huge potential for vulnerable populations who may not have the stability in their lives to commit to, or afford, regular therapy.
One advantage of ART that was immediately apparent to me was that I didn’t have to narrate my story for the therapist in granular detail. That’s fantastic news to those of us who find retelling of traumas to be traumatic in and of itself, or who are just sick of telling our stories.
The small number of sessions required is another plus for me. A session that deals with one traumatic event, as I found, can achieve closure by the end of the session. I have so far only undergone one, and have experienced lasting benefits—any further sessions can be weeks or months apart, or whatever you want.
This keeps costs low. It doesn’t strain your schedule like weekly talk therapy. And it doesn’t demand the effort and vulnerability of building a significant relationship with your therapist. You just need the basic level of trust to adhere to the eye movements and guided thought processes.
What’s more, the client does not have to work with the same therapist every time, or even twice. Therapists are trained according to scripts created by Rosenzweig, and simply match that process, though often with creative additional interventions tailored to a client’s needs.
One of the most exciting things to me about ART is that all of these factors could indicate huge potential for vulnerable populations who may not have the stability in their lives to commit to, or afford, regular therapy.
ART could also improve provider satisfaction, because no one likes watching their clients suffer session after session, and because providers are not subjected to vicarious trauma by hearing stories of violence, abuse and loss over and over again. It could reduce “compassion fatigue.”
As for me, I have quite a few more traumatic past experiences that I wish to address. So I’m going to schedule another session of ART as soon as possible. I know from my own experience that this can work.
I don’t pretend to be objective. Neither do I claim this is proven beyond any possible doubt or suitable for everyone. But it has transformed my life.
I suffered for years with ineffective therapies I could barely afford, tons of medications with intense side effects, substance use disorder and pain, and suffering for myself and my loved ones. So it breaks my heart to reflect that ART has been around since 2008 and I never knew about it until this year.
If you’re suffering and think you might want to try ART, make sure you do your research. Contact a few therapists who offer it. Find someone you feel comfortable with, and whom you can afford (mine charges less than any conventional therapist I know).
I had given up hope. I nearly died, several times, and my friends and family watched as I suffered through ineffective treatment, or none at all. I don’t pretend to be objective. Neither do I claim this is proven beyond any possible doubt or suitable for everyone. But it has transformed my life.