Why can’t I get past that event? It’s been so long since it happened. I guess I’ll never get over it.” I hear that a lot from new first responder clients. A few months back, Dan Willis wrote a fantastic column on eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) (“PTSD treatment that works,” April 2021), but it’s worth repeating. I’ve been treating first responders with EMDR for about 10 years. It has been a significant help to them in dealing with all the trauma they’re exposed to. I’ve had many clients who felt incredible relief from EMDR but were very frustrated that they didn’t know about it sooner. They suffered too long needlessly. I made a promise to spread the word.
When facing a traumatic event, the information-processing part of the brain, the cortex, is hijacked by the emotion-processing and storing part of the brain, the amygdala. This interrupts the brain’s ability to properly store the event in memory. Instead, the memory is stored as an emotional memory in bits and pieces — a smell, a sound, a flash of the scene, etc. Since the story is fragmented, the brain doesn’t realize the story has ended and keeps sending the person reminders because it thinks the threat is ongoing. This is why there might be flashbacks, nightmares and other ways of re-experiencing the traumatic event. The brain thinks it’s doing you a favor by continually bringing these fragments back to your attention to be dealt with.
EMDR is believed to help the brain put these fragments together. The eye movements are believed to stimulate both sides of the brain while you are thinking about the most vivid fragment of the trauma and your interpretation of it. The image, thoughts, emotional reactions and physical sensations are all pulled together to integrate the event into a whole. You are then able to properly store the whole memory in your brain, adjust your skewed interpretation of it and become desensitized to it. This lowers your disturbance level, usually to the degree that it is not disturbing at all.
This process will not make you forget your trauma, nor will it make you indifferent to a loss. You may still be sad about a loss, but that would be appropriate. What EMDR does is give you relief from triggers, extreme emotional distress and any self-judgment about the event. EMDR works whether the traumatic event was last week or 25 years ago. I’ve worked with clients whose traumas were more than 20 years ago, and they were astonished at how different they felt about the event after just one EMDR session.
Sound too good to be true? I agree, but I have read the research and, more importantly, I have seen how well it works with my own eyes. I have even had it myself. Attempts to discredit it only serve to offer more support, because it worked too well to not be considered effective. Theories of it being a placebo effect have also been tested and ruled out. Its effects are permanent, since the memory is believed to be integrated.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a distressing event, I would urge you to read more about EMDR and find an EMDR-trained clinician (emdria.org). One session won’t do it all, but it will make an appreciable difference, motivating you to continue until you can put the event behind you.