PTSD can be a debilitating disorder, but various types of psychological treatments can help people manage their symptoms. EMDR has proven to be an effective therapy for many people who suffer from PTSD. This form of therapy involves a series of eye movements that help the brain process distressing life experiences. It’s not a new technique, but it is one that is gaining popularity as more research is being conducted.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The process was developed by Francine Shapiro, a clinical psychologist who pioneered the technique in the early 1980s. This type of psychotherapy technique helps clients manage their symptoms of PTSD by processing and integrating the disturbing events that occurred during traumatic experiences.
A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that EMDR was more effective than other types of therapy in reducing PTSD symptoms. Another study, published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, concluded that EMDR was more effective than exposure therapy in reducing PTSD symptoms. Furthermore, a study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that 90% of veterans who received EMDR therapy no longer met the criteria for PTSD after treatment.
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What is PTSD?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to one or more distressing events that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror. PTSD can occur in people of all ages but is most common in adults. Symptoms may include flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or memories, nightmares, acute stress disorder, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
PTSD symptoms can last for years and may interfere with daily activities. They can also lead to other mental health disorders such as depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts. It is important to mention that not all people who have experienced traumatic events develop PTSD. The causes of PTSD are not fully understood. Factors such as genetics, personality, and environment may play a role in whether an individual develops PTSD after stressful events.
People who develop PTSD have been exposed to emotional distress and struggle to make sense of painful memories. This mental disorder usually results from physical trauma, sexual assault, war, violence, and other personal traumas.
Some people develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event that involves no physical injury (e.g., watching someone being attacked or witnessing an accident). Others develop PTSD after experiencing a physical injury or trauma that does not involve direct bodily harm (e.g., being in the military, surviving a car accident). PTSD can also develop after witnessing someone die of natural causes.
Symptoms of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition in which people feel the constant presence of danger, are often triggered to react to a trigger with intense fear or horror, and have ongoing reminders of the psychological trauma. People with PTSD may experience several symptoms, all of which have been observed in people with other anxiety disorders. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Severe anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling jumpy or easily startled
Most people suffering from PTSD experience recurring memories of the traumatic event, including flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories that occur in response to a cue (e.g., a car backfiring). Nightmares or night terrors are a common manifestation of trauma. The traumatic memory may be relived in nightmares through visual or verbal content.
How EMDR helps treat PTSD
The PTSD diagnosis is not a diagnosis with exact known causes. The diagnosis relies on a person having experienced a traumatic event and struggling to control the effects of the trauma memory. Behavioral therapies for PTSD include psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, or prolonged exposure treatment. These forms of therapies attempt to alter the way a person thinks and behaves to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
EMDR doesn’t focus on processing the traumatic episode and associated distressing memory through talk therapy. Instead, it targets the physical symptoms and body sensations of PTSD and attempts to alter a person’s negative memory of the event by focusing on imaginal exposure and kinesthetic cues.
In other words, EMDR uses eye movements to alter how a person sees and remembers a traumatic event. The client is asked to recall and describe the distressing experiences so they can eventually turn the negative belief associated with them into a positive belief. The therapist guides the client through a series of eye movements that induce an alpha rhythm brain wave. Alpha waves are associated with relaxation and reduced anxiety.
In EMDR therapy, an individual is encouraged to revisit the traumatic experience memory in a safe and contained way. The therapist focuses on helping the client process and react to the memory in a gradual manner. This helps the individual be more accepting of the memory and reduce his or her distress about it. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that EMDR therapy helped patients with PTSD to decrease their levels of hyperarousal, which is a symptom of PTSD.
What to expect during an EMDR therapy session
EMDR therapy involves the therapist asking the client to focus on a disturbing memory or image while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth. This may seem odd or uncomfortable, but it is very effective in helping people process the memories or images that are causing them distress.
The client will be encouraged to move through each stage of the experience, including intrusion, avoidance, dissociation, and reexperiencing, then integrating the event. For EMDR to be an effective treatment, the client needs to focus more on the physical sensations and emotions gravitating around the adverse life experiences and less on the details. Emotional processing is vital for the success of EMDR. If the client experiences a flashback, they will be engaged in various exercises to decrease fear and anxiety and reconnect to the present moment.
The therapist will then ask the client to move their eyes back and forth along with the external stimulus until the flashback subsides. If the client experiences dissociation, the therapist will support the client in practicing grounding techniques to reconnect to the safety of the present moment. This ultimately makes the memory of the adverse experiences more tolerable and helps them re-experience them with less intense distress.
Clients may also be asked to reflect on their traumatic memories in session. These writings should include sensations, emotions, and thoughts about the traumatic event and any feelings that arose during or after the event. The client’s fear of the trauma is often so strong that they may request that the therapist provide additional support for this part. For the client, hearing their own words will help them recognize and understand the meaning of the memory.
Most people report feeling very relaxed and calm after an EMDR session. However, it is important to note that EMDR should only be performed by an experienced therapist who is familiar with both the technique and symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and understands the process and its effects on symptoms of PTSD.