Traumatic events, grief, fear of confrontation, divorce, death of a loved one, anger & over-reaction, emotions are felt as if the event is still happening, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t let go.
The clinical term for these continued reactions to long past events is "post traumatic stress.” This term emerged from the experiences of many Vietnam--and now with upon their return to their lives back home after facing traumatic situations: flashbacks (active reliving of a traumatic event), nightmares (disturbing dreams) and night-terrors (bad dreams that continue for a minutes after waking), lack of concentration, emotional numbness, over and under reactivity, and inability to maintain closeness to those important to us. These were common symptoms of many soldiers long after they had returned home and were far away from the battlefield.
During and after World War II, these experiences were described as "shell shock.” After the Korean Conflict it evolved into the term "battle fatigue." After much research into the phenomena of these recurring extreme reactions, it has been found that post traumatic stress reactions also apply to people with less severe but none the less traumatic, disruptive and unexpected critical life events: family tragedies, abusive relationships, domestic violence, common divorce, emotionally and physically abusive childhoods, or any event that produces intense feelings that are too great to resolve at all at one time or difficult pain over a long period of time, and a person never takes time to take stock of the effects of the difficult event(s) and grieve the losses that have occurred.The “unfelt” and “unacknowledged” emotion begins to show up long after event as it interrupts common, daily interactions with family, friends, and coworkers. As one client puts it, "It's a feeling that suddenly wells up in me. One minute I thinking loving thoughts about my husband, and he will do something that is just slightly annoying and I can't stand him. I will suddenly see him as this horrible person I hate, who is out to get me, and he has hardly said anything!" Post traumatic stress causes quick and unexplainable reactions to present moment situations that don't appear to merit them.
Many people today have some form of post traumatic stress (PTS.) In modern life we face so many losses and serious hurts that we often just keep on moving forward to the next thing and try to race ahead and away from the hurts that we have experienced. When a person who has symptoms and pain from hard-to-find causes, doctors and therapists are trained to explore what may have happened a year before. Often doctors and therapists find that it sometimes takes a year after a traumatic event for symptoms of unadvised emotional hurt and pain to appear. With this much time passing, a person may not connect the “anniversary” of a prior traumatic event or time in their lives.
Many pre-modern tribal cultures took much care to allow tribal members, especially warriors, adequate time for the natural release of emotions following any traumatic event. Their survival depended on strong leaders and people able to be totally clear in the moment of danger, and not having past hurt, pain, and revenge feelings imposing on that present moment. Unresolved feelings of grief and anger would distract and make them falter at important times of risk and threaten the survival of the tribe. They would be more vulnerable to putting the tribe at risk as they pursue their personal vendettas spurred by unresolved emotional loss and pain. Rituals, dancing, and carefully orchestrated ceremonies to evoke deep emotion bring this deeply repressed hurt and pain into the present to be acknowledged, released and resolved by letting go of the emotional hurt that can boil over time into dangerous revenge feelings. A potent scenario from the novel Haunt Yo depicts a conflict between the tribal chief and his people. The chief had recently lost his wife and children, destroyed by an enemy war party. Only when he had fully grieved many days in special shelter would his people allow him to take his place again as leader. Without this grieving process, they knew their chief would carry revenge and could risk the safety of everyone.
In modern society, most employees are given one day off if a close relative dies. They are expected back to work as soon as possible, sometimes the same day. We have forgotten the wisdom of honoring and working with the natural emotional process that our human psyche demands after traumatic events. We routinely lock trauma after trauma into our nervous systems. We build tremendous pressure until we find ourselves over and under-reacting to present moment events with both strangers and those people important to us. We are at the effect of unconscious intense feelings that haunt marriages, parent-child relations, and boss-employee battles. We avoid them until these denied experiences force themselves to our attention, by slowly causing troubling symptoms and problems in related and sometimes unrelated areas of our lives.
Although our bookstores and internet sites are packed with the psychological knowledge to deal with everything from divorce to painful childhoods, we all struggle to make consistent changes in these irrational reactions to those closest to us. We know volumes about the diagnoses of our problems and personality traits, yet we all have tremendous problems in relating to one another. Many times the problem lies less in the differences between us and more in our inability to manage to these differences due to the heavy load of unresolved emotional hurt and pain that we carry within us like a quiet, smoking, volcano ready erupt.
My first series of EMDR sessions focused on my post traumatic stress reaction to an Oakland, CA mugging that occurred ten years prior. I did not classify this event as a possible cause of post traumatic stress in my life until I experienced the EMDR method that focused on my the memory of this event. Denial is common with those who have experienced traumatic events. After the assault and robbery, I talked about it in my personal psychotherapy and expressed strong anger, hurt, and rage. At the time I felt better. After a few days I could crawl out from under my bed sheets and resume my normal routine. I thought that was the end of it. Years later I noticed a tension whenever I saw young men who were dressed similar to my muggers. When I drove by the street where it happened, I felt tense and would take extra time to drive far around the site where I was assaulted and robbed. Over the next ten years, I labeled my reactions as normal. I learned to live with my adrenaline rushes and lingering fears whenever I walked at night, even in safe well-it areas. Ten years later, during my first EMDR sessions, I felt the intense terror I had repressed pass through me. I felt great relief. After the third session, I noticed that when I turned off the light before I went to bed, I was not afraid.
I was amazed. I wasn't aware that I felt constant fear. I only became aware of it when what I thought was “normal” was not there anymore. It wasn't normal, but every night for ten years, it was very familiar. Other benefits of my sessions of EMDR included the cessation of a recurring nightmares, night terrors, and the elimination unrealistic fears and rushes of adrenaline when seeing young men who dressed like the muggers. After a series of EMDR sessions I could recall the entire event without the former numbness and fear. I could drive by the site without fear reactions. I stopped avoiding driving by the site. It became a memory of an unfortunate event that was over. As if waking up from a long bad dream, the upsetting symptoms stopped intruding in my mind and body during both day and night.
Many clients report similar results after psychotherapy with EMDR. It is important to note that not all post traumatic stress events can be concluded in several sessions, though some can. The severity of the symptoms, the degree of trauma, as well as the age when the trauma occurred, affects the length of therapy required. EMDR does, however, often speed up the therapy's pace from what many therapists and clients have grown accustomed. Clients who have struggled for years with unresolved grief of a loved one, bouts of anxiety, panic, depression, nightmares, and recurring emotional outbursts have noticed that, after EMDR, their automatic, anger, sadness, fear-induced reactions are greatly reduced and in many cases gone. Their minds and attention can move onto other concerns.
After one client sat down from speaking her mind in a business meeting, she realized her panic attack was not there during the meeting as before. For the first time ever, she not only spoke at the meeting, but addressed a long-standing problem that had bothered her. In short, the post traumatic stress emotion that was locked into her nervous system, causing the symptom, generalized fear when talking to a group of people, was no longer there. She was able to address the conflict that she was actually facing, instead of being haunted by reactions to events that had long passed but still lived in here mind. Clients who are successful with EMDR often notice their changes after they realize they are without the symptom. They no longer have to exert their will to hold back or down strong emotions. The “old” emotional punch is no longer there. People respond more to their present environment and react less to the ghost-like fears that haunt them from the past.
Many approaches to personal growth use affirmations and the engagement of will power. I have often used these methods and found them helpful, but difficult to maintain. These methods alone produced what I call "white knuckle change." I had to hang on tight to my thought and will power to keep my changes. With EMDR, the changes fall into place naturally. I "find myself" responding to others in appropriate ways. When someone hurts me I say, "Stop!" When I am sad I feel it. When I need to confront someone, I do. Personal boundaries start to appear where they belong. I feel my aliveness.
Therefore, psychotherapy with EMDR allows us to stay with the present moment by releasing the unresolved, locked emotion that keeps us out of touch with our self. Instead of fighting phantoms that are projections of our past, it restores our ability to respond naturally to the present moment versus "white knuckling" it with dysfunctional behavior or battling it with positive thinking and will power. The self is allowed to blossom and act without interference from past trauma.
Research is now in progress to understand why EMDR is so effective with emotionally-event-based trauma. Several theories abound, but none are conclusive. One popular theory holds that EMDR taps into an already existing healing mechanism in the brain that is also activated by REM (Rapid Eye Movement) dream sleep. When a person is dreaming, his or her eyes move about under their eyelids as their dreaming works to manage and process the anxieties of past experiences. People who do not sleep for days suffer more the mental instability that come from the lack of REM sleep than from physical exhaustion. Their unresolved anxieties and emotions affect their mental stability. EMDR may be tapping into the REM phenomenon while awake, and healthfully release pent up emotions that are locked into the nervous system.
When trauma is locked into the nervous system, a fearful judgment or belief holds it in place. The trauma-based belief about my mugging situation was, "I don't know how to stand up for myself." I knew this was correct, because when I thought this phrase in connection with the mugging, I felt extremely nervous. Upon completion of the psychotherapy with EMDR I could think "I don't know how to stand up for myself" without such a reaction. My new self-judgment became "I know how and when to stand up for myself and others." Before, when I said this phrase, I did not believe it. After completion, I was amazed to find the phrase felt naturally true. I found that since I have a new sense of personal boundaries and discernment in situations where I need to act for my best interests and the interest of the ones whom I care about.
Dr. Shapiro uses the metaphor of the digestion of food to explain this healing reflex of the brain and nervous system. Food is broken down to liquid, some for growth, some for fat, and some for waste. The body's metabolic system knows exactly what to do with every molecule of food that is consumed. When it is done the food is no longer there. The nervous system is similar in that it knows what to do with every feeling a person has, as long as it not locked up in the nervous system by trauma. The locked feeling is like a piece of food that resists digestion and sits in the stomach causing discomfort and irritation. EMDR unlocks that feeling and releases it to the already existing network of nervous system, that knows exactly how to process every aspect of the feeling until it is used up. This frees a person to be more alive and fresh in the present.
Therefore, psychotherapy with EMDR works in at least two areas: releasing the locked trauma into the nervous system for "digestion," and the replacing of the negative judgment of oneself with a realistic and carefully crafted positive one that draws on the natural human instinct of surviving and thriving.
Dr. Shapiro research of EMDR indicates long-term effectiveness. Her initial work with Vietnam veterans with serious post traumatic stress symptoms is still holding up after more than 20 years.
Veterans in the study report no re-occurrence of the symptoms that were treated. Her research as well as researchers around the world continues. As in any scientific research project the conclusions are far behind the pioneering work clinicians are now doing.
For more information on the current, formal research, you can read EMDR: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. It is interesting to note that prior psychotherapy has been shown to increase EMDR's effectiveness. However, previous psychotherapy is not required. EMDR has been used with children as young as three years of age, as well as teenagers, and adults of all ages. I currently use psychotherapy with EMDR with adult men and women whose issues include codependency, marriage problems, divorce, rage outburst (impulse control issues,) adult's survivors of child abuse, career changes, low self-esteem, panic attacks, depression, survivors of violent assaults including rape, and other problems many of us face and have felt we just have to learn to live with the symptoms. The issues do not have to be dramatic as with violent assaults.
"I have talked myself silly in therapy over the loss of my parents in an accident. With EMDR, though painful to feel, the grief lifted and now I accept there is no going back, and I can move on and face a world without them." Bob D.
"Don's use of EMDR help me move on in my life from losing my young son to violence. I had stayed in my home for over four years stuck in grief. I will never get over the loss of my son, but I don't have to stop living."---Jan. M.
"I have been so angry with my young children that I had to get help. Don's use of EMDR helped me get to the roots of this deeper anger and release it. Now I can tolerate the normal frustrations that come with mothering without the explosive upset on my part." Debbie H.
"My wife is grateful for EMDR, as my temper has gone way down and the continuous underlying irritation is gone in my interactions with my family."---John D.
"I took a curve too fast,and drove my car into a tree. Though I miraculously came out with only bruises, I would feel fear every time I drove around this curve to work and in my dreams. Don's use of EMDR cut into the fear and the deep sadness that was underneath. I can drive around that curve now without fear, but sometimes I remember how fortunate I am to be alive. I also drive safer!"---Anthony B.
"The sadness, anger and fear from my sudden divorce emotionally paralyzed me for quite a while. I was either angry or numb. EMDR helped me peel back the layers of shock and numbness, unhook from my rage, and start accepting my situation in a way I could take care of myself and my responsibilities."---Sally G.
Every body is unique when it comes to most things, including EMDR. The first session will be an evaluation session designed to target the exact issue and its history. The first EMDR session can follow after that, however in some cases, more evaluation is necessary in order to be safe and efficient. Clients report a variety of reactions from the first session where the EMDR method is used. Some have surprising strong emotional reactions, such as tears, fears, or great relief. Other people notice lighter surges of feeling. On occasion physical trembling may occur. If there is severe physical and emotional trauma, especially from early childhood, there can be very strong physical and emotional releases. Symptomatic reactions, however, tend to reduce in their intensity by the end of the session. An entire reduction of intensity may take several sessions. Some clients have noticed little to no feeling response but a change in their thinking patterns. Some clients report a deep and restful sleep and increased dream activity. Others have no awareness of dream activity at all. Some continue to process their feelings twenty-four to forty-eight hours later. If there is concern about what is happening with EMDR, it is always okay to call your therapist and receive additional help.
Everyone's response to EMDR is unique. There is no right or wrong. Psychotherapy with EMDR allows for these variations. Since most persons are not accustomed to rapid emotional releases and changes sometimes elicited by EMDR, it is important to allow time immediately following your sessions to fully relax and fell the effects of what you have just experienced. It is helpful to keep a log and write down your feelings and thought processes afterwards and during the week. This increases EMDR's effectiveness. In the beginning, it is probably better not to start EMDR right before your vacation so if you have distress, you can have another session without waiting. It is advisable not to have your first or second session right before an important business presentation or anytime where you are under great pressure to perform. After several sessions, however, most clients say that their EMDR experiences become more integrated into their daily lives.
The method is effective but must be used carefully in cases of incest, sexual abuse, dissociative disorders (DID,) borderline personality disorders, bipolar disorder and persons in extremely fragile health. It will not work if the person is deriving benefit from their symptom and isn't ready to make changes in their life. EMDR will have partial results that don't hold in cases where the client needs medication because of a biological imbalance. However, when the correct medication is in place, EMDR results tend to hold well. (Note: EMDR is NOT intended to replace any treatment of medical conditions.)
Compared to traditional psychotherapy, sometimes change is sometimes are rapid. "I came into the session hating my husband. I left not only understanding how I was reacting to the old pain from an event a long time ago, I no longer felt the pain." A male client who was struggling with intense anger and depression said, “I felt relief as I watch scene after scene of angry episodes pass. I felt so relaxed afterwards.” Though not all post traumatic stress reactions are resolved in only a few sessions, some can be. Over time, changes do happen using EMDR to unlock the many layers of pain we carry. Once the core or the original pain of the specific trauma is fully released, the symptoms relating to that particular pain are relieved freeing your attention to focus on what is actually occuring now in your life instead of reacting to the past.
As in any therapeutic endeavor, it is important to choose a therapist you like and is well trained in the area of your concern. Ask the potential therapist questions regarding their training and make sure that it is from Dr. Shapiro's EMDR Institute, Inc., in Pacific Grove, CA. Ask the potential therapist whether s/he is a client of this method. Like most therapies, you can only go as far as the therapist is personally willing to take you. EMDR does not replace psychotherapy, but is often integrated into the already existing specialty of the therapist. Therefore, your experience of EMDR can greatly vary from therapist to therapist. It is important to plan financially.
EMDR fees are similar to psychotherapy rates and vary with each therapist. Beginning sessions are typically fifty minutes. Two fifty-minute hour sessions to deal with early treatment of intense past traumas are not unusual. Depending on the issues, clients can return to the fifty-minute hour. Ask you therapist how he or she structures their time and charges.
Like in any therapeutic endeavor, the specific issues and life circumstances determines the time and energy required. One client may wish to eliminate the fear of driving through a tunnel. Another client may want to learn to address difficult issues with their spouse in a calmer more productive manner. A person may want to deal with the grief of the loss of a loved one or a painful divorce. A parent may want to deal with the out of control anger they have toward their children or their spouse. An adult man may want to work on attitude and relationship problems they have had since childhood. EMDR is still psychotherapy; it will take more than one session. It, however, can help relieve emotional upset and reactions more rapidly than the traditional psychotherapy of which many clients are familiar. It is important to note that intense physical and emotional, and sexual abuse, especially from childhood, will not be healed with several sessions. This work will still require a commitment to on-going therapy, but it can move more rapidly in terms of noticeable results than without EMDR.
Whatever the length, psychotherapy with EMDR pursues the loosening and release, where possible, of the problematic symptoms so the choice of new behaviors that work for you and not against you can happen. Effective psychotherapy with EMDR can release you from the haunts of the ghosts of your past and assist you in creating a life full of new choices and responses to the world that exists, today.