- Written by Kevin E. Kip, Ph.D., FAHA Kevin E. Kip, Ph.D., FAHA
The days change when your spouse passes away. The grieving process following this loss doesn’t always move along on a prescribed timeline, as an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from “prolonged, complicated grief.”
This grief disproportionately affects older adults and is characterized by a persistent preoccupation with the deceased loved one.
When grief extends beyond a year, traditional methods of psychotherapy and group support may have limited benefit, and when tied to hospice care for the lost loved one, insurance benefits, such as Medicare, end after 12 months.
For these reasons, last spring, my colleague, Cindy S. Tofthagen, Ph.D., ARNP, AOCNP, FAANP, and I launched a two-year National Institutes of Health-funded study to examine the effectiveness of accelerated resolution therapy (ART) in treating individuals age 60 and older who are suffering from prolonged grief.
Developed by Laney Rosenzweig, MS, LMFT, in 2008, ART is an evidence-based psychotherapy that aims to resolve how traumatic and distressing memories and images are stored in the brain through a combination of relaxation and memory visualization.
The therapy’s distinct features include the use of horizontal eye movements and memory reconsolidation, which have been shown to provide effective relief from the strong physical and emotional reactions associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, anxiety, and depression in as few as one to five sessions, with the average being four sessions.
Unlike traditional “talk” therapies used to treat symptoms of grief, ART focuses on two things: desensitizing the patient to the signs of physical distress (a fast heartbeat, nausea, etc.) that emerge when thoughts of the death of the loved one arise — and reimagining the past with the loved one in a more positive way.
The therapy’s desensitization is achieved by asking the client to first recognize and focus on the uncomfortable physical feelings and sensations associated with recall of the death, while simultaneously tracking with eye movements of the clinician’s hand as it moves left to right.
This use of eye movements reduces the client’s current level of distress and the emergence of physical sensations when thinking about the death in the future.
The next step is to bring up the haunting memories, yet reframe them in a more positive manner.
During this process, a therapist might direct the client to recall positive memories of what life was like before the loved one was ill, as well as to imagine positive interactions with the lost loved one.
The goal of this activity is to add positive material to existing memories through memory reconsolidation.
The therapy’s proven effectiveness in treating symptoms of PTSD inspired restauranteur Chris T. Sullivan to form ART International (artherapyinternational.org), a nonprofit dedicated to making ART more widely available to individuals in need of professional mental help.
To expand the reach of this therapy, ART International has specifically looked to increase the number of clinicians certified in this treatment.
ART has never been formally studied as a therapy for complicated grief, but Dr. Tofthagen and I are encouraged by its promise. The therapy has the potential to be a cost-effective and time-saving solution for grief-stricken spouses.
Kevin E. Kip, Ph.D., is a tenured distinguished health professor, epidemiologist, and biostatistician with 18 years of experience on U.S. federal, Department of Defense, and industry-funded studies. He has been the leading researcher worldwide in the study of accelerated resolution therapy.