The Role of EMDR in PTSD Recovery

When something stressful happens, the body is designed to react by either fighting or fleeing. The pupils dilate, the muscles tense and digestion slows. In just seconds, the entire body is poised and ready for some sort of reaction, and all of that work happens deep in the subconscious portion of the mind. A person has no control over these reflexes, meaning that they can’t be either turned on or turned off with conscious thought, but they can be intensely powerful in terms of saving someone’s life when a crisis hits.

But if this fight-or-flight reflex is like a switch that is turned on by the subconscious mind, how can it be turned off again? Unfortunately, some people find that they simply can’t turn off their feelings of nervousness and stress.

But if this fight-or-flight reflex is like a switch that is turned on by the subconscious mind, how can it be turned off again? Unfortunately, some people find that they simply can’t turn off their feelings of nervousness and stress. These people could have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and research suggests that a novel therapy involving talking and eye movement could be the key that turns that switch back off, restoring a person’s sense of relaxation and normalcy.

Living with PTSD

PTSD is often associated with the life of a soldier. People who engage in armed conflict are often exposed to events that could cost them their lives, or they could see other people die right in front of them on a regular basis. Going through an experience like this can be scarring, and it isn’t unusual for people to return home from the battlefield with memories they can’t shake and emotions they can’t quite control.

Traumatic Event Triggers

But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, wars aren’t the only things that can cause symptoms of PTSD to appear. In fact, this form of mental illness can develop in response to all sorts of traumatic events, including:

  • Rape
  • Torture
  • Kidnapping
  • Car accidents
  • Abuse
  • Floods
  • Mugging
  • Plane crashes
  • Earthquakes

Going through something like this, or watching a loved one experience this kind of trauma, can trigger a fight-or-flight response that goes haywire and sticks around long after the original problem has gone away.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests that people who have PTSD feel consistently alert and agitated, even when they’re in places that should be considered safe. They can’t sleep well and they can’t concentrate, and they might be apt to jump or startle in response to even the smallest amount of stimulus. At the same time, people with PTSD might seem as though they’re numb or sedated, as they can’t discuss their experiences or make connections with those who want to help. They might avoid interactions or activities, and they may not plan for the future, as they don’t feel as though they’ll live to see their plans to fruition.

Some people with PTSD display these symptoms in the immediate aftermath of trauma, but NAMI also says that some people develop these symptoms months or even years later.

Common Therapy

There are a number of different approaches therapists might use in order to help clients who have PTSD. They might use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, in which therapists encourage their clients to think about the situations, people and thoughts that are associated with feelings of PTSD nervousness and stress. In these sessions, therapists might also help their clients to learn more about techniques they can use to soothe their stress before it escalates, so they won’t be overwhelmed by their feelings when they appear.

Therapists might also use prolonged exposure therapy, in which people with PTSD are encouraged to learn more about how to soothe their minds when they’re stressed, and then they’re asked to use those techniques as they describe the events that took place on the day that triggered their PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that this exposure therapy like this is the most effective type of treatment for PTSD. But a new form of this therapy could do even more to help people struggling with their memories.

Phases of EMDR

In eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, clients are also asked to discuss the traumatic events they lived through, as well as the sensations they experience when they think about that day right now. While the people talk, however, they’re also asked to move their eyes back and forth in a sweeping motion. They might follow a therapist’s hands with their eyes, or look at colors moving from side to side on a screen.

According to the EMDR Institute, the therapy typically follows eight phases:

The client discusses his/her history, and the therapist and client develop a treatment plan

The idea of this therapy is to help people explore their memories in detail, and identify all of the persistent thoughts that have been stuck in their minds in response to trauma. As they learn to soothe their bodies while thinking about the images and thoughts they’ve been avoiding, they may find that the memories don’t have the power to harm them. They’re in control, and the persistent thoughts about those memories can be challenged and proven incorrect. It’s a way to turn off that fight-or-flight switch, so people can move ahead with their lives instead of being trapped by trauma.

Does It Work?

This therapy can sound a little unusual, particularly because it involves moving the eyes in a seemingly random pattern that has nothing at all to do with the real world. However, a significant amount of research has been conducted on the efficacy of this particular type of therapy, and much of that research suggests that people can and do get better when they’re provided with the right therapy at the right time.

For example, in a study in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, researchers placed people with PTSD into two groups. One group received EMDR, and the other got no therapy at all. The researchers found that 67 percent of the people in the EMDR group had no symptoms of PTSD when the study was complete, compared to only 11 percent of people who got no therapy at all. Studies like this demonstrate that this therapy really has the power to help people to improve and move past their memories.

A separate study profiled in Scientific American suggests that the eye movements are a key part of the recovery process. Here, researchers gave some people with PTSD standardized EMDR, while another group kept their eyes closed and still during their sessions. In this study, the people who moved their eyes in therapy had a superior rate of healing when compared to people who did not move about. They didn’t sweat as much as they explored their memories, for example, and they reported a smaller level of distress.

Getting Started

Many people choose to self-medicate by taking in huge amounts of drugs or alcohol, hoping to numb the pain and make the memories harder to access. People who experience PTSD with addiction have a Dual Diagnosis, and while it might seem like it’s hard for someone like this to get better, we would like to help.

While EMDR could play a very important role in the healing process of some people who have PTSD, the therapy will only work when people who have this disorder agree to work with a therapist in order to heal. Unfortunately, many people who have PTSD simply don’t feel comfortable discussing their feelings and working on the past.

Dual Diagnosis treatment programs are the specialty of Foundations Recovery Network treatment programs. The staff members in these facilities stay abreast of the research concerning the intersection between mental illness and addiction, and they use all sorts of therapies to help patients to heal. For some, this means using EMDR. For others, this means using another form of treatment, paired with complementary therapies like equine therapy or art therapy. No matter what might ail our patients, we’re here to help. If you’d like to find out more about the therapy options available close to your home, or you’d like to explore the facilities that are a bit outside of your comfort zone so you can really make a break with the past, please call. We’ll help you find the program that’s just right for you.

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