Alternative Trauma Therapies


ptsd imagesI have just attended a really interesting 2-day conference on the understanding of and treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) given by Dr. Bessell Van Der Kolk, a recognised leader in the field.

Dr. Van Der Kolk  provided some thought-provoking ideas on the latest therapies for PTSD and why they were more useful than traditional therapies. He’s what I learned.

Researchers are now taking pictures of so-called “normal brains” and comparing them to the brains of people who have been diagnosed with PTSD. The pictures show that when the person with PTSD is asked to remember his trauma, brain activity in the frontal lobes – our executive functioning centre – is markedly different and the executive functioning centre even goes “off-line”. This means that processing everyday activities and conversations just isn’t happening properly thus making traditional talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Interpersonal Therapies and other “talking” therapies are less than useful for people suffering from PTSD.

Dr. Van Der Kolk provided many images of traumatised brains, explained the theory of trauma and explained 3 alternative therapies for people with PTSD.

The first is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. For those that don’t know, EMDR is an “information processing therapy”, that enables the patient to attend momentarily to past memories, present triggers or anticipated future experiences while simultaneously focussing on a set of external stimuli – usually the therapists fingers waving back and forwards in front of the patients face. During the therapy the patient generally experiences the emergence of insight, changes in memories or makes new associations with the memories. Sounds like nonsense? Well they have been doing random controlled trialls to study it’s efficacy and researchers are finding it works – but no one knows how. Apparently it accesses parts of the brain associated with more primitive emotional processing rather than executive functions. Whatever it does it is supposed to work.

The second alternative therapy that was discussed was “tapping” specific acupuncture points while the patient is in a highly aroused (emotional) state. The patient does the “tapping” to himself during the therapy session and this is supposed to help calm the patient with PTSD and restore more normal brain function.

Finally, the last therapy I learned about was Neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is direct training of brain function, by which the brain learns to function more efficiently. The brain is observed in action from moment to moment by the therapist and the information is shown back to the patient. Through the special Neurofeedback equipment the brain is rewarded for changing its own activity to more appropriate patterns. This is a gradual learning process and it applies to any aspect of brain function that we can measure.

All of these new and alternative therapies are being studied extensively as no one really knows why they are so effective – but it’s good to see that we are moving towards some new and interesting alternatives to taking drugs and talking psychotherapies. These new therapies are also enhancing our existing therapies so we won’t be throwing away the drugs and traditional talking psychotherapies anytime soon.

So that’s my short and simple summary of the conference I attended this week. I’d be interested to hear from anyone with further knowledge or experience in the area of alternative therapies for PTSD as well as your comments on what you think of alternative therapies.

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  1. For long term trauma, especially ongoing developmental trauma look into Bruce Perry’s work on the Neurosequential approach. Sounds complicated but when you get it it makes a lot of sense and is very effective.

  2. Alternative therapies are very interesting & offer great hope to humanity as “conventional” medicine has become very limited in its ability heal.


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