Psychotherapy EMDR Can Ease Effects of Trauma, Stress in Parents

Therapy recommended for Sanfilippo parents under ongoing stress

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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A short, intense course of eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy, called EMDR, can help to lessen symptoms of trauma and stress in parents of children with Sanfilippo syndrome, according to a small clinical trial.

“Based on the large effect sizes and persistence of the effects found for EMDR in our trial we feel that this treatment should be offered to parents, especially in the presence of ongoing traumatic events,” the researchers said.

The study, “Effectiveness of time-limited eye movement desensitization reprocessing therapy for parents of children with a rare life-limiting illness: a randomized clinical trial,” was published in the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases.

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Parents of Sanfilippo children are at risk for PTSD

Parenting a child with a progressive and life-limiting illness is often stressful, and can be actively traumatic. Parents of children with conditions like Sanfilippo are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition characterized by unusually intense emotional responses that persist long after a stressful event is over.

EMDR is a standard modality for treating PTSD. It involves talking through the traumatic event(s) with a trained professional while simultaneously focusing on a distracting visual or tactile stimulus. This can help ease symptoms by changing how memories are stored in the brain, making associated emotions less intense and easier to cope with.

Typically, EMDR sessions are given once per week over the course of several months — but for parents of children with conditions like Sanfilippo, who often need to juggle their own schedules as well as their child’s care, such regular appointments are often logistically difficult.

In a case study published last year, scientists in the Netherlands reported that a shorter, more intense EMDR intervention — four 90-minute sessions over the course of two half-days — helped to ease symptoms of PTSD for two parents of children with Sanfilippo syndrome. In the new study, the researchers conducted a small clinical trial to assess the effectiveness of this intervention.

“This is the first randomized clinical trial that investigates the feasibility and effectiveness of time-limited EMDR for traumatized parents of children with a progressive, life-limiting illness,” the researchers wrote.

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The study enrolled 14 parents of children diagnosed with Sanfilippo. All of the parents either had a diagnosis of PTSD, or had post-traumatic mental health complaints that were substantial enough to cause distress, but did not qualify for a formal PTSD diagnosis (“subclinical” PTSD).

Half of the parents underwent the short, intense EMDR intervention. The other half, serving as controls, were put on a wait list. The participants completed a number of standardized measures of trauma and stress before the intervention, immediately after its completion, and three months afterwards.

The study’s main goal was to assess the effect of the intervention on PTSD symptom severity, as measured with the PTSD Check List for DSM-5. Results showed that scores decreased significantly following the intervention, indicating less severe symptoms compared to controls on the wait list.

The EMDR group also had significantly less severe scores on other measures of psychological burden, parental distress, and stress, and benefits were generally maintained at three months post-intervention.

“We show that time-limited EMDR is feasible and effective in reducing the severity of PTSD symptoms, comorbid psychological symptoms, distress and parenting stress,” the researchers concluded. “These results are striking when taking into account the ongoing stressful events related to the progressive, life-limiting nature of [Sanfilippo syndrome].”

Though this study focused on Sanfilippo, “we assume that this treatment may also be beneficial for parents of children with other neurodegenerative life-limiting illnesses,” the researchers wrote.

The team called for healthcare providers to monitor for PTSD in parents of Sanfilippo children, and to offer the EMDR intervention when warranted. They noted that caring for the parent’s mental health is also important for ensuring the health and well-being of the child.