Relieving PTSD in Five One-Hour Sessions

Not everyone who suffers from PTSD is a veteran.

The following are excerpts from an article by Frank Bourke, PHD, in the December 2016 issue of EP Magazine. 

The events that occurred on September 11, 2001 shook the world to its roots. Hundreds of survivors of the attacks, the first responders who survived the horrors of that day and many family members, began to suffer from exposure to that extreme trauma. The resulting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms began to take a toll on their lives.To help deal with this flood of PTSD victims, a group of professionals were called in to help. Dr. Bourke was one of those professionals.

They encountered all of the classical symptoms of PTSD. Can you imagine what the nightmares were like for one of the women he treated? She had watched her best friend jump to her death from one of the towers. Minutes later she fled in terror, surrounded by dust and debris as the building began to collapse. In that moment she knew she was going to die.

Miraculously she survived. But in the months after the terrifying events, night after night, she would wake up just as her friend exploded on the street in front of her. Her heart would be racing and she would be drenched in sweat. Sometimes she would find herself moaning in terror,  desperate to start running, running anywhere to escape.

What most  people  don't understand is that in her nightmares the woman was reliving that horrible experience, unaware that she was dreaming. It flowed from her memory as if she were actually there again. It would take her hours to get over the terror and feelings of pain and guilt at the loss of her friend.

This is the nature of memories associated with PTSD. These nightmares and flashbacks, at the moment they are experienced, are just as real to the person as the original experience. In simple terms, they regularly relive the trauma as if it were happening for the first time. Dr. Bourke realized that whatever he did, it must stop the terror-filled nightmares and flashbacks if it was going to be really helpful. Most of the well-established therapeutic tools being used by his peers, such as “talking therapy” and drugs, were doing little to help.

He quickly discovered that a modified version of the phobia treatment he had learned years earlier had a dramatic effect. Using it, he was able to relieve the flashbacks and nightmares much quicker and more thoroughly than the 30 or so other therapists he was working with. In fact, while they were working with clients for weeks and months on end, Dr. Bourke found he could completely relieve the PTSD symptoms in five sessions or less.

Like many of the World Trade Center professional volunteers, Dr. Bourke stayed on for 10 months and treated over 250 PTSD survivors. By the end of the year, he was convinced that this technique could be an important treatment tool. Imagine being able to work with soldiers, first-responders, rape victims – people whose lives were altered by traumatic events – and cure their symptoms in as little as five sessions! No drugs. No long-term complicated therapy. This is it, he thought. He decided to bring what he considered to be “the largest advance in the treatment of PTSD” into the hands of therapists through scientific research and widespread recognition.

The technique takes a traumatic memory and alters it using several simple exercises like visualizing it as a black-and-white movie. This “revised” memory takes the place of the original memory. The technical name for the change is reconsolidation. Recent neurological research into reconsolidation proves that this altered memory is strong and lasting. Dr. Bourke’s team refined and named the technique the Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories Protocol.

Unfortunately, his goals were interrupted with a two-year-long bout of cancer, a problem that affected many survivors of and residents near the collapse of the twin towers. But once he was well enough, he launched the non-profit Research and Recognition Project. Dr. Bourke reached out to veterans, PTSD practitioners and researchers. He enlisted the aid of a number of therapists who were familiar with the NLP protocol and began to talk to research departments at colleges and universities.

From the veterans, he found that most PTSD sufferers are not able to explain the effects their traumatic experiences have had on them. They get angry with their inability to help themselves and often withdraw from any attempts to help them with available treatment options and agencies. From many of the PTSD therapists, he found that they were frustrated by ineffective therapeutic tools. They often ended up prescribing drugs to mask the symptoms so that clients would be less likely to hurt themselves or others.

Over a period of seven years, Dr. Bourke and his small team at the R and R Project struggled to get the financial support to begin the research. Clinical trials are necessary for the academic and therapeutic communities to accept a new treatment. He and his colleagues would write over $28 million of well-designed, university-sponsored studies that ended up being unfunded.

Finally things started to change. In 2014 a small grant from the State of New York set in motion a pre-pilot study of 30 veterans with a PTSD diagnosis. The goal was to eliminate the disturbing symptoms of PTSD in fewer than five sessions. Results of the study were so promising they were published in the Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health. Of the 26 veterans who completed the program, 25 scored below the VA’s diagnostic criteria for PTSD by the end of treatment and at two- and six-week follow-up the RTM Protocol completely eliminated all of their PTSD symptoms in five sessions or less. The following testimonials from veterans are typical of those who completed the process:

  • “I used to sit in the dark all day and go over and over the trauma. After treatment with the RTM Protocol, my wife says I am a lot happier. Another friend I have known for six years and see every Sunday says I look and sound so much happier. I feel more alive. No more day- mares and nightmares…and the nightmares I have had for the past 40 years have stopped."
  • “After three treatments I feel different. I have stopped carrying around the duffel bag of misery. I no longer have a recurring nightmare I have been having for the past 30 years. I feel more positive and feel like my future is in my hands in whichever direction I take. I’ve noticed if I put out good vibes and self-confidence, it is reciprocated. I’m not going to sit still and feel depressed anymore. I just got a new job and I attribute this to the work I did with the RTM Protocol.”
  •  “I notice a difference in myself. I was sitting around depressed and apathetic and angry about events in Iraq. Instead of having terrible flashbacks, I now think of the event as just a memory. I feel more enjoyment of life and am starting my own business. I have started a golf program… something I would have never done prior to the treatment.”

The early research on the RTM protocol is extremely promising. It shows that up to 96% of those who complete the treatment in the first three studies (96%, 94%, 96%), have improved so much that there they no longer test positive for the PTSD diagnosis. The nightmares disappear, the anger goes away, family and friends start telling them that they are fun to be around again.

According to Dr. Bourke, this therapeutic program is too important to remain unused. While the funding of the pre-pilot study in New York was an important beginning, much more work needs to be done. Projects are being developed at the University of New Mexico, Bradley University in Illinois and SUNY Upstate  Medical University in Syracuse to name just a few. But much more funding is needed if this protocol is to gain widespread recognition.

On March 25, 2015, New York State Senators John Bonacic, Tom O'Mara and Bill Larkin were joined by 30 other state senators to announce $800,000 in the state budget to fund the R and R Project's next study in New York. Dr. Bourke said it will take more of this kind of funding to complete the research and set the stage for programs to train clinicians on this remarkable advance to treating PTSD.

"Without this research," he said, "the RTM Protocol will never be allowed within the professional locations where they are so desperately needed and could do so much good."

That study is now complete and has been submitted for publication showing for the fourth time remission of PTSD diagnosis and symptoms for over 90% of the veterans treated.

Editor's Note: Following a presentation by Dr. Bourke's team in Boston, Veterans Affairs Secretary Harold Shulkin asked his deputy, Dr .David Kudlow, to set up a meeting June 5 at the VA's headquarters in Washington to explore in-house research and training. Dr. Bourke also is  scheduled to introduce/train the RTM Protocol to graduating psychiatric residents from Walter Reed Hospital on June 16.