Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of those terms that’s jokingly thrown around so much that it’s become widely misunderstood. But this condition is far more complex than simply having unpleasant memories. People often associate PTSD with soldiers returning from war, but combat isn’t the only trauma that can trigger it.
PTSD can occur as a result of any traumatic event. It impacts people’s quality of life and ability to function, and it doesn’t simply go away on its own.
Although people with PTSD often feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of their symptoms, there is hope. EMDR Therapy for PTSD is a unique treatment that helps people re-process traumatic memories and free themselves from their grip.
What is PTSD?
When someone goes through a traumatic event, it can have lasting effects on their brain. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the disorder was originally noticed in soldiers returning from WWI, when it was called “shell shock.”
But you don’t have to be in a combat zone to have PTSD. Anyone who has gone through a traumatic event may develop symptoms. A serious accident, natural disaster, mass shooting, rape, or domestic violence are all examples of events that can trigger PTSD. Losing a loved one in a shocking or violent way can also cause it. People who are repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma, such as emergency medical workers or police officers, can also develop PTSD.
When someone has been through an event like this, they can develop symptoms that are extremely painful for them and their loved ones. The symptoms of PTSD fall into one of four categories.
- Intrusion. These are involuntary memories, dreams, or flashbacks of the event. They’re so intense and vivid that people often feel like they’re back in the moment of the trauma.
- Avoidance. In order to protect themselves from these intrusive moments, people will avoid situations that may trigger them. They might stay away from places, people, and activities that remind them of what happened, or refuse to talk about the event. For example, someone who has been in a terrible car accident might avoid the street where it happened, or simply not drive at all.
- Cognitive and mood alterations. People may be unable to remember the event at all. They might develop beliefs that aren’t rational, such as mistrusting everyone around them or blaming themselves for things that are out of their control. They may find themselves unable to connect with people they love or feel numb to things that once brought pleasure.
- Arousal and reactivity. PTSD can cause exaggerated emotional responses, such as angry outbursts or being easily startled. People may be hyper-vigilant about their surroundings or be reckless or self-destructive. These intense feelings make it hard to concentrate or sleep.
Most people go through some of these symptoms for a while after a traumatic event. But for some, they don’t go away. PTSD is diagnosed when someone is still experiencing these problems more than a month after the event. This persistent nature of the disorder is exhausting, causing people to feel hopeless and overwhelmed. People with PTSD often have related problems as well, such as depression, substance abuse, memory problems, and other illnesses.
What is EMDR?
According to the EMDR Institute, EMDR was created specifically to help people cope with traumatic memories. The name stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it harnesses the brain’s information processing system to help people heal from traumatic events.
EMDR enables people to work through trauma by exploring the memory while using bilateral stimulation. This stimulation is usually done with eye movements, but the patient can also use sounds or physical sensations, like holding a small, vibrating paddle in each hand. Regardless of the type, the stimulation moves from side to side. This alternating input activates similar brain responses as during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep. REM is associated with memory consolidation in the brain.
Patients think about the memory they’re struggling with while the therapist guides them to use stress control techniques to help reduce their reaction to it. Then, once they’ve managed to dial down their response to it, they explore different ways of interpreting what happened. For example, instead of believing that an attack means you are weak and vulnerable, you can focus on the idea that you are strong because you survived.
Using EMDR for PTSD allows processing of these events while bilateral stimulation activates the brain helping patients “rewrite” the memories. Once they can think about what happened without triggering a cascade of painful emotional and physical reactions, they can truly start to heal.
Is EMDR effective for PTSD?
When you think about the symptoms caused by PTSD, it’s easy to see why it can be so difficult to treat. If memories trigger a response that feels like you’re in serious danger, the brain will work very hard to protect you. After all, your brain wants you to be safe. This can make it extraordinarily hard to process the memory and heal from the trauma.
But as the American Psychological Administration explains, EMDR targets that self-protective response, teaching the brain that you don’t have to escape when you think about what happened. Instead of trying to control the emotions that come up with a memory, it enables you to re-write your brain’s response to it. This frees you from the intense reactions that keep you from healing.
Patients often find that the process helps them regain the feeling of security they’ve been missing. It enables them to choose their response to the memories that have kept them trapped in trauma. By compassionately training their brain to respond differently, they can take charge of their lives again.
Patients’ needs will vary according to their situations but in general, EMDR requires one to two sessions a week, and it is usually completed in six to 12 sessions. If you’d like to learn more about EMDR for PTSD, please contact us.