When people think about experiencing a trauma, they often think of some of the most obvious examples: abuse, loss, violence, serious accidents or serious illnesses. The results of this type of extreme experience can be devastating to us physically, emotionally, spiritually and interpersonally. These traumatic events are often due to a life-threatening event or circumstance one has experienced. As a result of this type of exposure, some may be prone to serious mental health issues including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress. While too many of us have experienced these types of trauma, many people don’t recognize the signs of trauma in our psychological lives.
Many individuals, with proper supports, do not experience long term problems with a traumatic event and can recover within a few weeks or months. Others, as a result of various factors, may feel the impact of that event for months or years after the event. It is not the objective facts of the event alone that determine how traumatic an event is, it is also the individuals emotional experience of the event. The same event can impact different individuals differently.
Additionally, others experience a condition called secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. Secondary trauma is defined as an indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account. This type of trauma can be experienced by many first responders, police officers, mental health providers and other helping professionals. While these individuals did not experience the event first hand, their constant exposure to the events at scenes of accidents, crime scenes or even hearing about the trauma repetitively as a health care provider, can lead to many of the same symptoms as those who have been exposed directly to a traumatic event. These symptoms may include, anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Many understand that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an amazing support for those who have experienced trauma directly or through secondary exposure. Recently there have been some amazing breakthroughs in the science of treating the effects of trauma. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been a growing and successful treatment for trauma victims and secondary trauma sufferers.
When I first heard about EMDR, like most people, I had a lot of questions. The tapping and finger waving I read about made me a little skeptical. After taking a 5-day intensive course in EMDR, I was able to learn and understand the mechanics of the therapeutic technique many mental health practitioners are incorporating into their practices. As a result, I can see directly now how utilizing this treatment modality can have an amazing impact on the clients I work with.
Are you curious about EMDR? Here are some FAQ’s to help explain the therapeutic technique a little bit better:
1) What exactly is EMDR and how can it help with exposure to trauma?
EMDR is a therapeutic technique that concentrates on the client’s present concerns. The primary focus of EMDR is to reduce emotionally charged responses from past experiences and re-process those memories with positive thoughts. For example, you may have a memory from your childhood that made you feel powerless. That feeling of being powerless and the negative thought of “I am powerless” could carry on into adulthood. EMDR helps us reprocess that memory with a positive message of “I am powerful”.
2) I heard there is “finger waving” (bi-lateral stimulation) during EMDR. What does that do?
When we sleep, we enter REM (rapid eye movement). During REM sleep our eyes move back and forth to help us process the day’s events (this is usually when we dream). Any emotions or experiences that we had that day will be processed during this time. Eye movement is a form of bi-lateral stimulation. During EMDR, the therapist and client work to recreate that process through eye movements, tapping or auditory sounds.
By recreating this experience, it gives the client and therapist a chance to make connections in the client’s memory. A string of these memories is referred to as a neural pathway and, at times, they can reinforce negative beliefs the client may have about themselves. The processing phase of EMDR gives the client a chance to recreate neuro pathways with a positive message.
3) What is A-TIP?
A-TIP or acute traumatic incident processing, is referred to as “emotional CPR”. A-TIP is a technique that can be used immediately after a distressing or traumatic event. Unlike EMDR, A-TIP focuses on a single recent memory instead of a whole neuro-network. A-TIP can be practiced at scenes of accidents, natural disasters and other distressing events. You don’t have to be a licensed therapist to learn A-TIP. First responders can learn it from a trained coach. It can also be used to help first responders process particularly dramatic or stressful calls.
4) Is EMDR hypnosis?
This is a very common question. No! EMDR is not hypnosis. The client is fully aware and present during treatment. Like most therapeutic interventions, EMDR is client centered. The client is in charge of how much they want to share, when they want to stop and what memories they want to tackle, with the therapist acting as a guide.
6) Will I have to re-live my traumatic memories in therapy?
EMDR will require you to remember some distressing memories. That is why you and your therapist will do a lot of prep work before beginning re-processing. During prep work you and your therapist will go over coping skills and techniques to help you stabilize yourself in and out of sessions. However, with EMDR you will not have to discuss the event in detail out loud. Your therapist will work with you to target thoughts and feelings attached to the memory.
7) Is EMDR only for veterans or people with complex trauma?
While EMDR is an effective tool for clients with complex trauma, it can be used for a wide range of clients. Trauma also doesn’t have to be something we experience first-hand. Secondary trauma can happen when we listen to other people’s traumatic stories. People who work in the helping field are at risk for secondary trauma. EMDR and A-TIP can help with that as well.
When we experience a trauma physically, we often require some first aid to stop the bleeding and begin to heal. Additionally, the emotional trauma of an event can be equally as difficult and painful. Asking for the “Emotional First Aid” we need to process the traumatic experience and begin to heal, which is a vital step to restoring stability and emotional security in order to recover.
If you have experienced a trauma either directly or indirectly and are experiencing anxiety, depression, substance abuse issues, relationship issues or post-traumatic stress, asking for emotional help is a vital step to getting back to a happy and purposeful life.
To make an appointment with one of our therapists or to get more information on EMDR, please feel free to give us a call. We are here when you need us.
Chelsea Moccio, LMSW
By Chelsea Moccio, LMSW & Gordon Gooding, LCSW