New Research Shows Novel Retreat-Based Model Effective for Treating Trauma-Exposed Women.

New Research Shows Novel Retreat-Based Model Effective for Treating Trauma-Exposed Women.

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A senior woman sits in a meditative yoga position in a garden outdoors.

Think of a stone falling into a pond. It happens in an instant, but the ripples on the water’s surface spread in the periphery long after the stone is submerged. Psychological trauma lingers similarly—quick action can initiate long-term challenges but new research also suggests the benefits of a holistic approach.

Psychological trauma is common—50% of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, most commonly by sexual abuse and/or physical violence in childhood and as an adult.

Traditional mental health treatment for trauma exposure generally includes three to six months of outpatient psychotherapy with a trauma specialist. Making it to every visit is crucial, though challenging—especially for working women, caregivers, and people living under duress.

In a first of its kind study, Georgetown University Medical Center and MedStar Health Research Institute recently examined the effectiveness of a holistic, retreat-based approach for trauma-exposed women. The study team also included community investigators Sherisa Dahlgren, LMFT and Monica Martinez, MS.

Compared with traditional treatment, our researchers found that participation in the trauma-informed Holistic Healing Arts Retreat program for five days of intensive therapeutic activities resulted in swifter and longer-lasting relief from:

  • Co-occurring depression
  • Perceived stress
  • PTSD

In addition, participants experienced greater mindfulness skills:

  • Self-compassion
  • Non-reactivity to difficult emotional experiences
  • Decreased self-judgment
  • Accept of one’s own internal emotional experience in the moment

People with untreated trauma are at higher risk for substance use disorder, anxiety, depression, and suicide—which is the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. This research suggests that taking a more direct, intensive, holistic approach could provide equal or better outcomes than traditional outpatient treatment in less time.

A new approach to treating trauma in women.

At its core, the Holistic Healing Arts Retreat model focuses on the individual’s inherent resilience and radical acceptance of internal experience—honoring the women’s autonomy and agency – while offering connection through healing community. Everything in the retreat is offered through invitation – no one is made to participate in the workshops and other activities, creating an individual pace for wellness.

The study included a group of 110 racially and ethnically diverse females, age 18 and up, with a history of interpersonal trauma (child abuse, sexual assault, or domestic violence), who had previously received trauma-informed community-based social services.

Every detail of the retreat was trauma-informed—from the workshop descriptions to collaborative meal preparation. The structured curriculum included therapeutic workshops rooted in:

  • Psychoeducation related to trauma and the structural injustices that support it.
  • Creative movement
  • Visual arts expression
  • Mindfulness practices, such as yoga
  • Outdoor education challenges and immersion in nature

Participants could also choose to participate integrative modalities such as massage. Clinical support services were also available 24/7.

By removing distractions and providing a safe environment, participants could focus on their own healing. The team of trauma-informed, multi-disciplinary providers helped retreat participants chart a trajectory of health and well-being, where symptom relief was a by-product rather than the focus.

Participants were followed one, four and seven months after the retreat, with the majority reporting lasting positive effects seven months later.

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Community resources, and next steps.

Responses to trauma vary among women and can appear immediately or months to years after a traumatic event. If you or someone you know is in crisis or just needs someone to talk to now, call one of these anonymous resource lines for help:

For women—especially those without support systems and those with work and caregiving responsibilities—committing to weeks or months of doctor visits for traditional treatment can seem overwhelming.

Investigators are evaluating how to apply the Holistic Healing Arts Retreat model in communities throughout the U.S. While more research is needed, our findings are a positive step forward in women’s behavioral health care. 

Dutton, M. A., Dahlgren, S., Martinez, M., & Mete, M. (2021). The holistic healing arts retreat: An intensive, experiential intervention for survivors of interpersonal trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0001178

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