Removing fear from memories

Barbara Rothbaum

 

Helping transform Grady and the lives of its patients 

An afternoon in the ER

Removing fear from memories

Helping battered women

The party took a turn for the worse when a man asked Sherry, in words no man had ever said to the 22-year-old, if she wanted what he wanted.

Of course she said no, maybe even laughed nervously. But two hours later, when she got out of her car at her apartment complex, there he was. The knife at her throat was terrifying, and even more so was the way his face twisted in rage as he hurled obscene names at her.

Afterwards, surprised to be alive, she managed to call her best friend. When the friend saw Sherry—stunned, bloodied, clothes torn, her arm broken—she drove her to the Grady Hospital emergency room. Sherry was there for hours, with clinicians x-raying and setting her arm, cleaning cuts and abrasions, and performing a pelvic exam. Somewhere in the mix of doctors and police, a researcher asked her about what had happened and what she was thinking. Sherry would see the researcher a week later and again a week after that, as part of an Emory study to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a first of its kind study funded by the NIH and the Emory Center for Injury Control.

“We believe it’s important to help trauma victims process what happened before that first night’s sleep, when memories are consolidated,” says the study’s principal investigator, Barbara Rothbaum (above), who directs the Emory Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program and is one of the nation’s leading experts on PTSD.

The therapist listens and points out unhelpful thoughts (“I didn’t fight hard enough”) and helps replace them with more helpful, therapeutic ones (“I did what I needed to save my life”) that the traumatized person then incorporates into his or her memory of the event. Later, the counselor helps the person identify new fears—talking to strangers, going out at night—and sort out what is realistically safe.

Since the study began in January 2009, Rothbaum and four mental health counselors have screened thousands of rape, assault, and other trauma victims at Grady’s emergency department and entered those at highest risk for PTSD in the ongoing study. Results won’t be available for another year, but feedback from patients suggests that the treatment is helping ease some of the negative emotional impact and fear from the trauma memory.

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