York-led study on trauma intervention shows early success, seeks student participants

A person in meditation pose

Jennifer Kaczanowski is a trauma survivor.

The 36-year-old is also a student in York University’s psychology program, and aspires to one day counsel others.

Her inspiration to help those who are faced with mental health challenges comes from her own experiences; five years ago, she suffered a trauma, and she continues to struggle with the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Kaczanowski recognizes that her healing process is an evolving journey, and has sought help over the years. What she didn’t expect, however, was to deepen that journey by answering a call for student participants in a research study at the University.

As part of the first-year psychology degree program, students are offered the opportunity to earn marks toward their PSYC 1010 grade by participating in psychological research at York. While perusing available studies, Kaczanowski came across one that piqued her interest: an impact of trauma study.

Although not a study offered for credit, Kaczanowski contacted Megan Kirk Chang, the York PhD student leading the research, to ask if she could participate.

Megan Kirk Chang

Kirk Chang is a doctoral candidate in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science, and a 25-year trauma survivor. Her research focuses on investigating the mind-body impact of PTSD, and involves an eight-week online mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and yoga intervention to help survivors of trauma. It’s a free program called Heal My Trauma Imprint, and the clinical trial is open to young adults enrolled at York University.

Kirk Chang’s research explores the effectiveness of mindfulness-based approaches such as breath awareness, meditation and yoga-based movements to help with healing symptoms of past trauma. Participants in the study also receive a free yoga mat and eight weekly health coaching calls to assist with symptom management.

“I did trauma counselling in the past, and it helped, but this study is a study with a mind and body focus, and it helped so much,” said Kaczanowski. “In my last long-term trauma counselling, we would go through different issues, such as triggers and feelings. But in this study, whenever there was a cognitive component we would also delve into the physical impact of that.”

For instance, if she felt anger, she would be asked how that translates physically, and would also be offered tools and suggestions to help ease the physical symptoms.

Kirk Chang says there are some exciting preliminary results since beginning the clinical trial in October 2018. The study so far shows a close to 50-per-cent reduction in PTSD symptoms and a 57-per-cent reduction in depression.

“I believe that people with symptoms of PTSD feel chronically unsafe in their body, as if the danger or threat were still present, even if the trauma happened many years ago,” said Kirk Chang. “I’ve noticed that the chronic fear people carry manifests as uncomfortable bodily sensations such as pain, migraines, muscle tension and digestive issues. My goal is to help people address their bodily sensations in a safe, empowering and calming way.”

Kirk Chang’s intervention is part of the first registered clinical trial in Canada to investigate an online mind-body intervention to regulate autonomic function and alleviate symptoms of PTSD. The trial is also studying the psychophysiological aspects of PTSD using innovative technology, including the Tobii Pro Glasses and an electrocardiogram (ECG) machine to measure pupillometry and heart rate variability of participants before and after the intervention.

“Our research is the first of its kind to examine biomarkers of PTSD using an ECG and the Tobii Pro 2 Glasses to assess if our intervention helps people regulate their autonomic nervous system,” she said. “We use a blend of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, health coaching, and muscle stretching to help people repair and restore their mind-body connection.”

Although it’s the first study of its kind in Canada, Kirk Chang’s goal is to one day present this to the World Health Organization. Findings from this research will help inform large-scale global mental health interventions aimed at addressing PTSD, said Chang.

Kaczanowski, who completed the program in January, says she continues to use the tools and strategies from the study to help manage her PTSD symptoms.

“It’s really, really neat how everything really stuck with me, and that I’m still using the tools like meditation and breathing techniques,” she said. “I also have all of my email summaries to reflect back on when I need them.”

She encourages other students who are struggling with trauma-based challenges to consider enrolling in the study and working with Kirk Chang.

“I would say, even though all of the information and the tools are really helpful, one of the biggest differences (between this and other programs) was the person I was working with,” said Kaczanowski. “Megan is such a kind, compassionate person and she really cares about you and about what she’s doing.”

The clinical trial is actively recruiting York U students who may be struggling with PTSD until at least December.

For more information or to participate in this clinical trial, contact Kirk Chang at mkirk@yorku.ca. To read more in YFile about this research, visit yfile.news.yorku.ca/2019/04/17/students-invited-to-participate-in-york-led-clinical-trial-studying-online-interventions-for-ptsd.