Psychological trauma affects people in different ways. Some people walk away from life-threatening events seemingly unscathed whilst some may experience a normal fear response, but this either fades with time or is resolved after a few sessions of therapy.
However, the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been increasing over the last 2 decades. Many people feel trapped after a painful or traumatic event. They describe living in an unending cycle of emotional disturbances, and feelings of helplessness which progressively affect their thoughts, emotions, and ability to function.
It is anticipated that each of us will experience psychological trauma at least once in our lifetime. This number is expected to be significantly higher in people who experienced respiratory complications resulting from covid-19.
Whether you believe that there is overreporting or misdiagnosis, EMDR offers a powerful and insightful technique for the way we work with psychological trauma.
EMDR was developed in the 1980’s specifically to treat PTSD and is recommended by the World Health Organisation as a first treatment approach for psychological trauma.
The technique offers experienced therapists a flexible tool that is easily integrated into other therapeutic approaches and which can also be effective in the treatment of addiction, depression, anxiety, and emotional distress.
EMDR addresses the root of the trauma and is evidenced to bring help to clients who are often self-medicating, depressed, avoidant and desperately unhappy.
Trauma Affects The Brain
When something threatens a person’s survival and sense of safety, the whole body launches into a stress response. The thinking brain shuts down and the brain stem and the fight or flight centre in the amygdala take over. The result is a flood of stress hormones causing reactions such as a pounding heart, sweaty palms, and tight muscles. Memories that are formed during this time are often imprinted without words. They are laid down when the person is in a high state of agitation and exist primarily as a combination of biological responses and vivid impressions of feeling endangered or in emotional pain.
This places them virtually out of reach of the thinking brain, and it can be extremely challenging for talking therapies alone to help clients to heal from psychological trauma.
Is EMDR A Quick Fix?
EMDR is more than a technique for resolving trauma.
The therapists’ guiding role remains fundamental to the treatment protocol. The first step is to ensure that the client has acquired the emotional resources necessary to work through their trauma. It is also essential to establish that the client has developed a dual awareness that includes being in a safe place (the therapist’s room) whilst they also reexperience the trauma.
Once this process called stabilisation is established, the therapist has an effective tool that can help the client reconnect with painful images, self-thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in a safe and measured way.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR offers a bottom-up approach that connects the thinking brain to the trauma altered survival system. The client is guided to move their focus from side to side to stimulate bi-lateral processing. This processing often takes place with minimal conversational dialogue.
The changing focus mimics the rapid (bi-lateral) eye movement stage of sleep and is designed to encourage whole-brain processing. As the different parts of the brain connect, blockages are dismantled, and the opportunity for adaptive resolution and healing can begin.
The results can appear almost magical. But the number of sessions required depends on the emotional stability of the client, the situation, and their personal history. Simple incidents such as a car accident can generally be processed after two or three sessions, but complex trauma involving prolonged distress or childhood abuse can take longer.
Helping People To Heal
Events do not occur in isolation.
Culture and belief systems influence the therapeutic process. They also have an impact on the support that the client can anticipate from their family and society. Different cultures also report different responses to psychological trauma, making it particularly important for therapists to be sensitive to these nuances and to listen to the way that their clients communicate their experiences.
The LSCCH-LCCH Asia Group virtual classrooms have created the opportunity for therapists from around the globe to gather, learn and share with each other in a culturally diverse and dynamic environment. This creates a safe space for therapists to explore their own belief systems and to challenge their assumptions, and those of colleagues, by sharing their experiences as they learn the techniques.
The result has been a lot of fun, and new initiatives such as helping refugees and communities are emerging, supported by therapists in different parts of the world.