Just a man casually carrying a swan through a London park…
Not what you would usually expect to see when you are out for your weekly run, but there it was: a man walking in front of me with a large swan cradled in his arms! The swan was completely calm when I came across them. Then suddenly, with what appeared to be no provocation at all, it started flapping wildly and trying to get away. The man struggled for a few moments and then managed to get the swan under control and was able to carry it calmly again.
Watching this got me thinking: those of us who have suffered with trauma are a bit like this man carrying his heavy and unwieldy swan. The traumatic memories are always with us; we carry them wherever we go. And every now and then, sometimes without warning or obvious trigger, those memories start ‘flapping about’ uncontrollably; we experience intrusive thoughts and memories, flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares. Eventually we get the ‘swan’ back under control and continue our journey encumbered with its heavy weight.
Imagine if we could take the swan to the lake where it belongs, put it down and set it free. We’d be able to visit when we wanted, to see it swimming there. The rest of time, we can walk freely, that huge weight lifted, the exhausting effort to keep it under control no longer required.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects about 15 million adults during a given year. You can develop PTSD after experiencing a frightening or life-threatening event or series of events. This could include a road accident, violent personal assault, serious health problems, or childbirth experiences. PTSD is frequently experienced by people who have served in the armed forces or emergency services. Some people develop PTSD immediately after experiencing a disturbing event, but for others it occurs weeks, months or even years later.
How does PTSD develop?
The way our brains process memory is very complex. Our everyday memories are stored in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Here, memories are catalogued and made sense of; turned into a cohesive event that you can recall at will. For example, I am sure if I asked you to, you could easily recall the sequence of events of your last birthday, even if you had not thought about it until right now.
The process for storing memories of a traumatic, frightening or distressing event, however, is different. Emotional memories, particularly fear-related ones, are stored in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls our fight-or-flight system. This system has evolved to protect us from danger, by ensuring we recognise and respond quickly to threats. It works by releasing adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, raising our heart-rate and breathing and sending glucose to our muscles so we can easily flee danger or fight off an attacker. During a traumatic event, the fight-or-flight mechanism takes over. The memories are stored in a place where they can be accessed immediately if anything similar happens to us again. The amygdala is over-activated, while the hippocampus is suppressed, and as a result, our memory becomes jumbled.
Later on, if we encounter things that remind us of the traumatic event, like a sound or smell that was present when it happened, our amygdala will retrieve that memory and respond strongly. It will signal that we are in danger and automatically activate our fight-or-flight system. This can be subconscious, often we are not even aware of what the trigger is. Normally when the amygdala senses a possible threat, the hippocampus will then activate. It will use context from past memories to determine whether or not we are really in danger. But because the hippocampus wasn’t functioning properly during the traumatic experience, the context of the memory wasn’t stored. There is no feedback system to tell the amygdala that this situation is different and we are not currently in danger. Since the memory is retrieved without context, such as where or when the experience happened, it can even feel like the traumatic experience is happening again.
Symptoms of PTSD
This is why people who suffer with PTSD commonly experience a range of distressing symptoms, one of the most typical being re-experiencing. As described above, this is when a person involuntarily and vividly relives the traumatic event, in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, or repetitive and distressing images or sensations. They may have physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling.
It is also common for people with PTSD to have panic attacks, be very anxious or find it difficult to relax. They may be constantly alert to threats or be easily startled; or feel continually ‘on edge’, irritable, or prone to angry outbursts.
Another common symptom of PTSD is dissociation, a feeling of being cut off from reality. You may feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories, or surroundings. It can affect your sense of identity and your perception of time; you may forget things or have gaps in your memory.
Often, PTSD sufferers have sleeping problems, find it hard to concentrate or have physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches. PTSD can affect work and personal relationships; and can sometimes be a contributing factor in drug and alcohol use, self-harm or depression.
Some people cope by avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, staying away from certain people or places that remind them of the trauma, or they avoid talking about their experience. Others attempt to manage their emotions by trying not to feel anything at all, which can lead to them becoming isolated and withdrawn. They might give up pursuing activities they used to enjoy, which can contribute to depression.
Some sufferers have constant negative thoughts about their experiences. Maybe they wonder why the event happened to them, or ask themselves why they didn’t see it coming, or do more to stop it happening. These sorts of thought can prevent them from coming to terms with what happened, and can result in feelings of guilt or shame.
Treating PTSD with Rewind Therapy
The Rewind technique has been specially developed to treat PTSD effectively and quickly, by stopping the involuntary recall of traumatic memories. Using Rewind, we can reprocess these memories, transferring them from the amygdala to the hippocampus. It enables us to put our ‘memory swan’ back into the lake where it belongs. Imagine the freedom of filing those traumatic memories away where they no longer trouble us, but can be accessed voluntarily if we want to think about them!
The process typically takes 1-2 sessions, during which the therapist uses relaxation and guided imagery to reduce or even completely remove trauma symptoms. As well as being significantly quicker, the Rewind is different to other therapies because you do not have to talk about the details of the traumatic incident to your therapist. Dr David Muss, who developed the technique, therefore calls it “closure without disclosure”. This non-disclosure element of the therapy has many advantages. It minimises the chances of you being re-traumatised while having the therapy; and there is no need to reveal the details of distressing or painful events to a stranger. There is no fear of disclosing sensitive or confidential information, which may be an issue for someone in the military or police for example. There is also less chance of the therapist developing compassion fatigue.
How does Rewind therapy work?
When you undergo Rewind therapy, the specially trained therapist will help you to relax, and encourage you to think of a time when you feel safe and happy. You will then be guided through a visualization of being in a private cinema where you watch a ‘film’ of your traumatic event. Because you are watching remotely and seeing the events on a screen, you are protected from the emotions of it. You do not need to describe any of the events to your therapist. The therapist may then ask you to ‘step into’ your film, or to press the rewind button and reverse it very quickly.
This process helps you to disconnect the memories from the fight-or-flight reactions; instead, you are reprogramming your brain to associate them with feelings of safety and relaxation. The Rewind effectively transfers these memories to your hippocampus, to be stored along with your other, non-threatening memories. Because you control the narrative during your session, and run the events from start to finish, your brain is able to make sense of what happened and put it into context. As a result, you will no longer experience involuntary recall, or have unwanted memories triggered by cues in your environment.
The Rewind can work equally well to treat one-off traumatic experiences such as a car crash, or more complex multiple traumas. People who have been treated with the Rewind have reported very positive outcomes after only one or two sessions. Clients tell me they have been amazed by the results. They no longer suffer with intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, flashbacks or nightmares. They are able to talk comfortably about their trauma, and they can function normally again, living their lives free of fear.
First published in Hypnotherapy Directory 1 November 2021