New therapy method being studied for PTSD patients

| COPH Office of Research, Featured News, Monday Letter, Our Research

A type of grief experts call prolonged and complicated causes some  10 million Americans to suffer, experts say. But a fairly new type of therapy is believed to offer help for many of them.

Often felt by seniors who have lost their longtime spouse, this grief is characterized by an ongoing, daily yearning for the one they lost — feeling emotionally numb and having difficulty moving on with life.

“There’s a trauma aspect to the grief,” said Dr. Kevin Kip, USF [College of Public Health] professor, epidemiologist and biostatistician says. And prolonged, complicated grief is a significant cause of depression, anxiety, suicide and poor physical health in older adults. 

Distinguished USF Health Professor Kevin Kip, PhD, FAFA, is a leading researcher on the use of ART. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

“It’s a longing for the person, an empty purpose to life. These people are haunted by the death and are continually ruminating about it. In that way, it’s a lot like post -traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].”

Kip and his USF Health College of Nursing colleague, Dr. Cindy Tofthagen, PhD, ARNP, AOCNP, FAANP, are embarking on a two-year study looking at a type of psychotherapy—called accelerated resolution therapy (ART) — that has proven effective with sexual assault victims and military personnel suffering with PTSD. 

The study, funded with a $275,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging, will examine the usefulness of ART in treating 50 senior citizens who have lost an immediate family member in hospice care within the last 12 to 18 months. The seniors must be suffering with prolonged, complicated grief, as determined by a qualified clinician.

(Photo courtesy of iStock)

Trauma symptoms include agitation, irritability, flashbacks, mistrust, anxiety, social isolation, loss of interest, insomnia and emotional detachment.

ART International considers post-traumatic stress a symptom and not a disorder. Post-traumatic stress and other traumas can be caused by exposure to war, natural disasters, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, accidents, death and other distressing situations that leave lasting memories which can interfere with life as usual.

Unlike traditional talk therapies used to treat conventional grief, ART focuses on two things: desensitizing the patient to the signs of physical distress — a fast heartbeat, nausea, etcetera — that emerge when thoughts of the death arise and re-imagining the past with the loved one in a more positive way.

The desensitization is achieved by asking the patient to first recognize and label the uncomfortable physical feelings, and then to follow the clinician’s hand as it moves left to right.

“This simple act is stress-reducing and helps the patient become desensitized to those unsettling physical sensations,” Kip says. “And they will change the feelings the memories bring by imagining it in imagining it in a positive way.”

Excerpt reposted with permission. Story by Central Florida Health News. Read the full story here.

Related media:
USF Health researchers team up to study effectiveness of novel therapy for prolonged grief