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Pioneers in bringing a promising PTSD treatment to survivors of domestic violence, Jill Schwarz and her grad students hope to spread it statewide

Violence against women can happen in just a moment, but the impact can last a lifetime. Post-traumatic stress sets in, locking the imagery and horror of the act into memory — repeating it in a vivid loop every time an associated person, feeling, or event triggers the play button.

Even after getting help, people “can feel stuck in that moment,” says Associate Professor of Counseling Jill Schwarz. Unless it is the right help. Schwarz recently partnered with Womanspace, a nonprofit agency in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, that provides shelter and counseling for victims of sexual and domestic violence, to study a treatment approach that had previously provided significant and rapid relief to soldiers with PTSD. Womanspace asked Schwarz and her students to analyze whether the treatment could be equally effective for women who have survived battles of a very different sort.

The tool — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — is an eight-phase therapeutic approach to disrupting the negative beliefs that take root in response to traumatic memories. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation of the brain through visual, auditory, or tactile methods, such as a horizontal light bar. Clients are asked to trace the lights with their eyes while focusing on a traumatic memory and a negative self-belief.

EMDR helps break habitual reactions to traumatic memory. “Clients hold the target memory in mind and process it while stimulating the left and right hemispheres of the brain,” says Susan Victor, Womanspace’s director of counseling. This process is repeated until the client can bring the memory to mind without distress and an alternate positive self-belief is put in its place. The brain reprocesses I am worthless, for example, into I am strong because I survived this. At the end of EMDR, clients have reprocessed the traumatic memory so that it no longer has the same impact.

Schwarz proposed a mixed methods study – one that measured the results of the therapy in qualitative and quantitative ways. “We did the assessments and then we interviewed these women and their counselors,” Schwarz says. “That’s where we got the meaning behind the numbers.” Both sets of results were remarkable. Quantitatively, the study measured levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD in 41 participants before and after eight sessions of EMDR therapy. Anxiety levels dropped by 38 percent, depression by 46 percent, and PTSD by 37 percent. “To see the large-effect sizes on everything we measured was huge,” Schwarz says. “That doesn’t happen often.”

Dana Baber, one of Schwarz’s graduate students and a co-author of the study, helped with the quantitative part of the study. Baber brought a degree in economics, a previous career in investment banking, and her own traumatic experience to the task. Having been just blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11, Baber had gone through EMDR treatment herself. “EMDR was one of the most powerful ways that I found wellness,” she says. The quantitative results reflected her own experience of the treatment. “I was most impressed by the massive clinically and statistically significant changes,” says Baber. “In our study, half the women with PTSD at the start fell beneath the clinical threshold after treatment and were no longer diagnosable.”

Based on client interviews, the qualitative results backed those percentages with the profound impact the treatment had on the survivors’ lives. “One of the most powerful moments of the study for me was talking to a woman who, for 22 years, was not able to shower on her own because she had been assaulted in the shower,” Schwarz says. “She had to have a family member sit right outside the door.” Like most of the women, she had already been in counseling; in her case, on and off, for two decades. Yet after three sessions of EMDR, she was showering independently. “I sat face to face with her as she sobbed, telling me this. This is something numbers on the assessments can’t tell you,” Schwarz says.

In interviews, clients commented that they found EMDR more tolerable than other treatments because they did not have to verbally recount the trauma over and over again. “It doesn’t feel as abusive to the soul,” one participant said.

Katherine Dorfman, a graduate counseling student and a Marine, went through client-interview transcripts to search for resounding themes. The project spoke to her because of friends in the military who suffer from PTSD. “Because of the therapy, [women in the study] could finally put on clothes, leave their houses, and to go to the mall with their best friend. Or be present as a mother,” says Dorfman, a study co-author.  “The therapy brought them back to who they were, to a place where they could function.”

Schwarz is now working with the Reshmi and Mahmood Siddique Foundation and the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence to rollout EMDR training throughout New Jersey and she is hoping to take it national from there.

“We want treatment to be as empowering, effective, efficient, and accessible as possible,” Schwarz says. “We are talking about having outcomes in weeks that weren’t happening in years. We are talking about benefits for insurance companies, government agencies, and survivors getting better faster and finally being released from the effects of trauma.”

Interested in EMDR? Visit emdr.com to learn more about this modality, find an EMDR trained counselor in your area, and locate the schedule for upcoming trainings for clinicians.

If you would like to seek support for issues related to sexual or domestic violence, please visit Womanspace or call their 24/7 crisis response line at 609-394-9000.

For additional information about the research methodology and results, you can read the published article: Schwarz, J. E., Baber, D., Barter, A., & Dorfman, K. (2019). A mixed methods evaluation of EMDR for treating female survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Journal of Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation. doi:10.1080/21501378.2018.1561146 or contact Dr. Jill Schwarz at schwarz@tcnj.edu.

— Claire Conway for TCNJ Magazine

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