A Smile after the Storm

On the Front Lines

Caroline Sakai
Magazine Issue
November/December 2010
A Smile after the Storm

In 2006, I conducted a study of Energy Psychology treatments with 50 Rwandan orphans. The outcomes, recently reported in The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, vastly exceed those of any previous peer-reviewed study of a PTSD treatment in terms of speed, degree of effectiveness, and percentage of subjects who were helped. The following is a description of the experience of one of the study’s participants, a 15-year-old girl who was 3 at the time of the 1994 genocide:

She’d been hiding with her family and other villagers inside the local church. The church was stormed by men with machetes, who started a massacre. The girl’s father told her and other children to run and to not look back for any reason. She obeyed and was running as fast as she could, but then she heard her father ‘screaming like a crazy man.’ She remembered what her father had said, but his screams were so compelling that she did turn back and, in horror, watched as a group of men with machetes murdered him.

A day didn’t pass in the ensuing 12 years without her experiencing flashbacks to that scene. Her sleep was plagued by nightmares tracing to the memory. In her treatment session, I asked her to bring the flashbacks to mind and to imitate me as I tapped on a selected set of acupuncture points while she told the story of the flashbacks. After a few minutes, her heart-wrenching sobbing and depressed affect suddenly transformed into smiles. When I asked her what happened, she reported having accessed fond memories. For the first time, she could remember her father and family playing together. She said that until then, she had no childhood memories from before the genocide.

We might have stopped there, but I instead directed her back to what happened in the church. The interpreter shot me a look, as if to ask, ‘Why are you bringing it back up again when she was doing fine?’ But I was going for a complete treatment. The girl started crying again. She told of seeing other people being killed. She reflected that she was alive because of her father’s quick thinking, distracting the men’s attention while telling the children to run.

The girl cried again when she reexperienced the horrors she witnessed while hiding outside with another young child–the two of them were to be the only survivors from their entire village. Again, the tapping allowed her to have the memory without having to relive the terror of the experience.

After about 15 or 20 minutes addressing one scene after another, the girl smiled and began to talk about her family. Her mother didn’t allow the children to eat sweet fruits because they weren’t good for their teeth. But her father would sneak them home in his pockets and, when her mother wasn’t looking, he’d give them to the children. She was laughing wholeheartedly as she relayed this, and the translator and I were laughing with her.

We then went on to work through a number of additional scenes. Finally, when she was asked, ‘What comes up now as you remember what happened at the church,’ she reflected, without tears, that she could still remember what happened, but that it was no longer vivid like it was still happening. It had now faded into the distance, like something from long ago. Then she started to talk about other fond memories. Her depressed countenance and posture were no longer evident.

Over the following days, she described how, for the first time, she had no flashbacks or nightmares, and was able to sleep well. She looked cheerful and told me how elated she was about having happy memories about her family. Her test scores had gone from well above the PTSD cutoff to well below it after this single treatment session, and remained there on the follow-up assessment a year later.