There are several treatments for post-traumatic stress; however, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is nearly universally recognized to be one of the most effective by certified trauma professionals who practice it and by individuals who have received treatment.
I’ve had it done myself, and a traumatic issue that had bothered me for over 25 years went away after only two sessions. It can give you your life back. It can save your officers’ and dispatchers’ careers and lives as well.
EMDR is endorsed by both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the World Health Organization for healing traumas. There are over 20,000 certified EMDR
trauma professionals practicing in America. The treatment has been around for 30 years and is used extensively in the military. However, tragically, well over 80% of police officers and their commanders have never heard of it. If you’re suffering from work traumas and you don’t know there’s a way to heal, then you can lose hope very quickly.
As I travel the country providing emotional survival and wellness training to police departments, I have yet to hear one negative comment about EMDR. Consistently I hear comments such as, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” “I should have done it years ago,” “It changed my life” or “It helped save my life.”
What many officers say is that they had no idea how much better they could feel. More likely than not, you will learn to be able to manage your symptoms and gain back control over your life, if not heal altogether. I really wish that I had the opportunity to be introduced to EMDR much earlier in my career. I would have done it regularly and it would have saved me a lot of heartache.
Sergeant Ryan Opeka from the Carlsbad, California, Police Department has said: “After EMDR, I’ve been sleeping consistently, my quality of sleep has gone up, my patience has improved dramatically. I feel much more clear-minded, my decision-making process has improved and the quality of my life has dramatically improved.”
How EMDR works
In its simplest form, EMDR attempts to replicate rapid eye movement (REM) sleep while you’re awake and focused on the image or memory that is particularly irritating and disturbing to your brain and central nervous system. It is the brain’s injured ability to fully process and file these experiences away in your memory without the attached crippling thoughts and emotions that cause the PTSD symptoms.
In REM sleep, your brain organically reboots your system and refiles this data (trauma experiences and memories) without the disruption and without the stress. During your session, the trauma professional focuses in on that information, memory or incident that’s causing you problems and they enable you to successfully process it — something the brain has been unable to do since traumas injure its natural processing abilities.
It’s a concentrated procedure that enables the brain to get whatever is related to those memories and file them in a place that doesn’t create the stress symptoms. The process desensitizes the memory so that the crippling negative thoughts and emotions become detached and released from your memory. You will still remember the details of the experience, but will likely no longer be negatively affected by those memories.
The typical result is that the flashbacks, the hypervigilance, the tightness in the chest, the many other symptoms — all these things tend to subside. It’s all about rebooting your system and brain processes so that they can start to do what they naturally do on their own but have been unable previously.
One of the best things about
EMDR is that it is not talk therapy. You will not be going in once a week for five years having EMDR and talking about your traumas. Trauma professionals report that on average, even very complex post-traumatic stress can either be healed or brought to a manageable level within at most 12–15 sessions. Often it is fewer.
Case success story
A San Diego police officer shared with me that after his involvement in a fatal shooting, he experienced severe post-traumatic stress symptoms that nearly cost him his life. He began “seeing” phantom blood everywhere — on his hands, in his food, in the shower drain and all over his 5-year-old son’s face. He said he could even “feel” the stickiness of the blood on his hands and that he couldn’t remove the sight or feel of the blood no matter how many times he washed his hands.
For several months, every time he looked at his boy, he would see his entire head covered in blood. His heart would race out of his chest and he’d be panic-stricken, thinking his son was bleeding to death. Even though he knew he was only seeing things and that his son was not really injured, his
trauma-injured brain was telling him it was real and caused his system to respond accordingly.
This officer thought he was losing his mind when the symptoms continued with greater intensity. After becoming depressed and suicidal, he confided in a peer support officer who told him about EMDR. The officer said he stopped going for treatment after two sessions because he has never seen phantom blood again.
How and where to find help
For additional information on EMDR and to find a certified
EMDR trauma professional in your area, visit EMDRIA.org. Additionally, you can Google “EMDR trauma therapist” in your city or region to find several others. Call and find those who have extensive experience with police officers and healing their post-traumatic stress.
Every police department should have EMDR-certified trauma professionals as part of their EAP programs; unfortunately, many do not. Also, officers and dispatchers need to be made aware of this potentially lifesaving treatment and ways to access treatment confidentially.
Finally, please do not wait to be in crisis. Several of us advocate for officers and commanders to have EMDR done once per year as a form of maintenance and prevention. You do not need to have a specific traumatic experience to discuss. Someone who is experiencing
post-traumatic stress symptoms can still get relief and healing from the treatment (see my article in the March issue of American Police Beat for more).
Another outstanding resource is The Counseling Team International (TheCounselingTeam.com). My agency has used them for several years, and they have clients all over the United States.
To me, EMDR only makes sense. If you’ve gone through a period of time not being your normal self with possibly some disturbing calls or lingering experiences, you should be doing some maintenance and getting EMDR. It helps you to file those memories without all the negative, bad emotions and thoughts attached to them. It helps you separate the emotional pieces and make sense out of it all. It then puts you in a position to go forward with enhanced resiliency, so your health can be restored and you can regain an improved quality of life.
Captain Dan Willis (ret.) served for 30 years with the La Mesa Police Department and now is an international instructor on police trauma and ways to heal (www.FirstResponderWellness.com). He is the author of the emotional survival and wellness guidebook Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart, which is required reading at the FBI National Academy.