Rebekah Gregory and her 5-year-old son were cheering on a friend at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 when a bomb exploded three feet away. The boy, protected by his mother’s body, suffered only minor injuries. But Gregory’s legs were shattered.
Gregory underwent 68 surgeries over the next several years and spent more than two months in the hospital. Doctors tried to save her left leg, but after many unsuccessful surgeries, were forced to amputate. Yet Gregory’s struggles were just beginning. She was haunted by sights and sounds of the bombing, nightmares and flashbacks.
“I had tried traditional styles of therapy and while I was learning to cope and manage my symptoms, I wasn’t healing from them,” she said. “That’s when I tried Accelerated Resolution Therapy and finally found relief from PTSD.”
Gregory was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, which is estimated to affect 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men over their lifetimes. PTSD can be caused by any traumatic event, such as a car accident, combat, a serious illness, or witnessing or being the victim of a crime. June is PTSD Awareness Month and June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day.
This year, PTSD Awareness Month carries special significance for those whose lives have been touched by the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health problems for many people. Those who lost a loved one to the virus, those who have been seriously ill and over-taxed healthcare workers are among those who might be dealing with COVID-related PTSD, said Julie Stender, LICSW, a therapist and Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) practitioner in Minnesota. Stender has a message of hope for those dealing with PTSD.
“People are often unaware that PTSD can be treated or healed,” said Stender. “They aren’t sure what the treatment approaches are, fear that they will have to relive the traumatic experience. But PTSD can absolutely be treated.”
Stender compares PTSD to a large box clogging up machinery in a factory. In most cases, the brain easily processes the events, thoughts and feelings that a person encounters. But, in the case of PTSD, an event is so extraordinarily troubling that it shuts down the brain’s factory.
Symptoms of PTSD vary, but flashbacks — in which strong memories come flooding back– and nightmares are common, Stender says. Triggers, or things that remind a person of the traumatic event, can cause a heart palpitations, panic attacks or a shaky feeling. People with PTSD often avoid anything that resembles the troubling event; for example, they might avoid driving on a highway where they once had an accident. Some people with PTSD shut down emotionally and become avoidant, Stender says. Others are irritable and prone to angry outbursts. “How PTSD manifests itself is as unique as the people who have it and the events that cause it,” Stender says.
Stender uses Accelerated Resolution Therapy, or ART, to treat PTSD. This evidence-based therapy uses a series of eye movements to provoke bilateral stimulation of the brain. The therapist then talks the client through the troubling memory and helps them come up with a new ending to the story. In most cases, clients report a complete or near-complete reduction of PTSD symptoms after just four sessions of ART.
“I always tell my clients, ‘Keep the memory, lose the pain,’” said Stender, who has used ART to help everything from first responders traumatized on the job to those dealing with PTSD after being attacked by a dog. “The goal is to help people be able to see their story, process their story, break it down to more manageable chunks,” she said.
For Gregory, just a few sessions of ART led to a dramatic reduction in PTSD symptoms. “The part that really resonated with me is that you’re rewriting the narrative of your worst experiences,” she said. “I can talk about my experiences in a different way now because the trauma isn’t there.”
Through her foundation, Rebekah’s Angels, Gregory is helping children and families discover ways of recovering from trauma. “I want to use our experiences to make it clear that people can heal,” she said.