EMDR: The Rarely KnownTreatment of PTSD
I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was 15 years old. The first few times were pushed by my mother, as she sensed something was wrong with me and wanted me to get help. In therapy, it mainly works if someone has a good connection with their therapist and feels heard.
The first few times… I really didn’t feel a connection. I didn’t like how the therapist approached the sessions, and so, they were dropped. Then money and insurance became an issue and I was struggling to get by without any mental health help.
Entering my 30s was difficult as my mental health was suffering through two emotionally and mentally abusive relationships. With no insurance or means of transportation, I couldn’t seek out help. My mind sunk into deep depression, each issue compounded by the one after them.
Though I’ve just recently learned I have Persistent Depressive Disorder, it took until 2015, when I was 35, that I had Complex Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (c-PTSD). I was living on my own after half a year in a domestic violence shelter, still had no vehicle of my own, and was low-income enough to qualify for Medicaid.
Through some luck I found a therapist who would come to my home. This made it easier for me, as the buses in my area were far in between with a difficult schedule. Just getting to and from work was an hour and a half; by car, it would have been 30 minutes.
The first thing my therapist did was answer a questionnaire. She would run it by her supervisors and give me my diagnosis the next time she saw me. When she did, she revealed I had C-PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The depression and anxiety I knew; the PTSD was a shocker.
It fit. I remember going through the complete list of PTSD symptoms and realized the issues I’ve had all my life stemmed from PTSD. It was just that the stigma attached to it, the belief that only military veterans can get PTSD, that held back the realization that survivors of abuse, of traumatic events (such as 9–11), and other incidents can get PTSD.
I had talk-therapy for a time. That with medication took the edge off of my sypmptoms,… but nothing more. I struggled for some time. I lost the first therapist I had, who I felt was one of the better ones I ever had. She had to quit because her income wasn’t enough to make up for the costs of everything going on in her life (which speaks volumes of needing better wages).
The one after her… I grew uncomfortable with. I felt judged by her instead of being heard, and she didn’t help me in any way. So I dropped her… and was without a therapist for a while again.
It is my recent therapist, the one who had to do my initial assessment for mental health so I could get approved for my bariatric surgery, that gave me a great deal more. More than I ever knew was available.
He did a mental health evaluation of 500 questions. Just true or false. The end result that ran through his computer noted I had several major issues, including PTSD. I mentioned to him that I already received that diagnosis from my previous therapist a few years ago. That’s when he mentioned EMDR.
EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a fairly new addition to the area of psychology and mental health treatment. In 1987, Francine Shapiro was given a devastating diagnosis: she had breast cancer. Right after that, she took a walk through a park, struggling to process the information she was given. As she walked, her gaze fell on a tree where the wind rustled through the leaves. For some reason, she was captivated by the rustling and within a few minutes, realized that the emotional impact of her diagnosis wasn’t as powerful. Intrigued, she looked into it.
Shapiro assumed that the eye movements had a desensitizing effect, and when she began to experiment with the theory with others, she found that they also had the same response to eye movements. However, it wasn’t just eye movements themselves that created the comprehensive therapeutic effects, and so she added other elements to the treatment, including a cognitive component. Through that, she developed a standard procedure that she called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD).
Shapiro conducted a case study and a controlled study to study the effectiveness of EMD. In the controlled study, she randomly picked 22 individuals who had traumatic memories and assigned them to two conditions: half would receive EMD, and the other half would receive the same procedure with imagery and description in place of the eye movements.
With EMDR therapy, affected distress is relieved, negative beliefs are changed, and physiological arousal (such as fear) is reduced. The process of EMDR therapy is that the client focuses to emotionally disturbing materials and memories in brief sequential doses while focusing simultaneously on an external stimulus. Therapists often use directed lateral eye movements, often their fingers, but can include hand-tapping and audio stimlation.
Skipping the technical discussion and explanation, the therapist will direct the client to hold the traumatic memory in their mind while focusing on the external movements to direct their eye movements. This helps the client shuffle the memory away, like putting a file away into the filing cabinet as opposed to being stuck being opened and repeatedly traumatizing a person. Once the memory is put away, the impact is drastically reduced, releasing its hold on the person.
It’s not an overnight treatment. It often takes upward of 6 sessions or more before people report an improvement.
For more information on how the clinical process was discovered, please look here.
However, the issue is, very few therapists are clinically trained to use EMDR as a treatment. I didn’t know it was an option until my current therapist, and coming across him was a fluke of convergences.
I had only begun treatment when COVID-19 struck, but that one session helped already. I have a great deal of trauma to file away. It is my hope and belief that EMDR will help shift things for me mentally and emotionally to the point that I may no longer have PDD.
Please, if you are struggling with PTSD, seek out a therapist who can treat with EMDR. It may just change things for the better.