EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.
More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. There has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense. Given the worldwide recognition as an effective treatment of trauma, you can easily see how EMDR therapy would be effective in treating the “everyday” memories that are the reason people have low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and all the myriad problems that bring them in for therapy. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy. Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 33 years.
EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used during one part of the session. After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.” Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed. As a natural outcome of the EMDR therapeutic process, the clients’ thoughts, feelings and behavior are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution—all without speaking in detail or doing homework used in other therapies.
To diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, your doctor will likely:
- Perform a physical exam to check for medical problems that may be causing your symptoms
- Do a psychological evaluation that includes a discussion of your signs and symptoms and the event or events that led up to them
- Use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association
Diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an event that involved the actual or possible threat of death, violence or serious injury. Your exposure can happen in one or more of these ways:
- You directly experienced the traumatic event
- You witnessed, in person, the traumatic event occurring to others
- You learned someone close to you experienced or was threatened by the traumatic event
- You are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of traumatic events (for example, if you are a first responder to the scene of traumatic events)
You may have PTSD if the problems you experience after this exposure continue for more than a month and cause significant problems in your ability to function in social and work settings and negatively impact relationships.
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. The primary treatment is psychotherapy, but can also include medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms by:
- Teaching you skills to address your symptoms
- Helping you think better about yourself, others and the world
- Learning ways to cope if any symptoms arise again
- Treating other problems often related to traumatic experiences, such as depression, anxiety, or misuse of alcohol or drugs
You don’t have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own.
Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:
- Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic things happening again. For PTSD, cognitive therapy often is used along with exposure therapy.
- Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares. One approach uses virtual reality programs that allow you to re-enter the setting in which you experienced trauma.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them.
Your therapist can help you develop stress management skills to help you better handle stressful situations and cope with stress in your life.
All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your mental health professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.
You may try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect with others going through similar experiences.
Several types of medications can help improve symptoms of PTSD:
- Antidepressants. These medications can help symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and concentration. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for PTSD treatment.
- Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs can relieve severe anxiety and related problems. Some anti-anxiety medications have the potential for abuse, so they are generally used only for a short time.
- Prazosin. While several studies indicated that prazosin (Minipress) may reduce or suppress nightmares in some people with PTSD, a more recent study showed no benefit over placebo. But participants in the recent study differed from others in ways that potentially could impact the results. Individuals who are considering prazosin should speak with a doctor to determine whether or not their particular situation might merit a trial of this drug.
You and your doctor can work together to figure out the best medication, with the fewest side effects, for your symptoms and situation. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.
Tell your doctor about any side effects or problems with medications. You may need to try more than one or a combination of medications, or your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or medication schedule before finding the right fit for you.
Coping and support
If stress and other problems caused by a traumatic event affect your life, see your doctor or mental health professional. You can also take these actions as you continue with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:
- Follow your treatment plan. Although it may take a while to feel benefits from therapy or medications, treatment can be effective, and most people do recover. Remind yourself that it takes time. Following your treatment plan and routinely communicating with your mental health professional will help move you forward.
- Learn about PTSD. This knowledge can help you understand what you’re feeling, and then you can develop coping strategies to help you respond effectively.
- Take care of yourself. Get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, exercise and take time to relax. Try to reduce or avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety.
- Don’t self-medicate. Turning to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings isn’t healthy, even though it may be a tempting way to cope. It can lead to more problems down the road, interfere with effective treatments and prevent real healing.
- Break the cycle. When you feel anxious, take a brisk walk or jump into a hobby to re-focus.
- Stay connected. Spend time with supportive and caring people — family, friends, faith leaders or others. You don’t have to talk about what happened if you don’t want to. Just sharing time with loved ones can offer healing and comfort.
- Consider a support group. Ask your mental health professional for help finding a support group, or contact veterans’ organizations or your community’s social services system. Or look for local support groups in an online directory.
When someone you love has PTSD
The person you love may seem like a different person than you knew before the trauma — angry and irritable, for example, or withdrawn and depressed. PTSD can significantly strain the emotional and mental health of loved ones and friends.
Hearing about the trauma that led to your loved one’s PTSD may be painful for you and even cause you to relive difficult events. You may find yourself avoiding his or her attempts to talk about the trauma or feeling hopeless that your loved one will get better. At the same time, you may feel guilty that you can’t fix your loved one or hurry up the process of healing.
Remember that you can’t change someone. However, you can:
- Learn about PTSD. This can help you understand what your loved one is going through.
- Recognize that avoidance and withdrawal are part of the disorder. If your loved one resists your help, allow space and let your loved one know that you’re available when he or she is ready to accept your help.
- Offer to attend medical appointments. If your loved one is willing, attending appointments can help you understand and assist with treatment.
- Be willing to listen. Let your loved one know you’re willing to listen, but you understand if he or she doesn’t want to talk. Try not to force your loved one to talk about the trauma until he or she is ready.
- Encourage participation. Plan opportunities for activities with family and friends. Celebrate good events.
- Make your own health a priority. Take care of yourself by eating healthy, being physically active and getting enough rest. Take time alone or with friends, doing activities that help you recharge.
- Seek help if you need it. If you have difficulty coping, talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a therapist who can help you work through your stress.
- Stay safe. Plan a safe place for yourself and your children if your loved one becomes violent or abusive.
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Here’s some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect.
Take a trusted family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided to you.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you’ve been experiencing, and for how long.
- Key personal information, especially events or experiences — even in your distant past — that have made you feel intense fear, helplessness or horror. It will help your doctor to know if there are memories you can’t directly access without feeling an overwhelming need to push them out of your mind.
- Things you have stopped doing or are avoiding because of your stress.
- Your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions with which you’ve been diagnosed. Also include any medications or supplements you’re taking, and the dosages.
- Questions to ask so that you can make the most of your appointment.
Some basic questions to ask your doctor or mental health professional may include:
- What do you believe is causing my symptoms?
- Are there any other possible causes?
- How will you determine my diagnosis?
- Is my condition likely temporary or long term?
- What treatments do you recommend for this disorder?
- I have other health problems. How best can I manage these together with PTSD?
- How soon do you expect my symptoms to improve?
- Does PTSD increase my risk of other mental health problems?
- Do you recommend any changes at home, work or school to encourage recovery?
- Would it help my recovery to tell my teachers or co-workers about my diagnosis?
- Are there any printed materials on PTSD that I can have? What websites do you recommend?
Don’t hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Be ready to answer them to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on. Your doctor may ask:
- What symptoms are concerning to you or your loved ones?
- When did you or your loved ones first notice your symptoms?
- Have you ever experienced or witnessed a traumatic event?
- Do you have disturbing thoughts, memories or nightmares of the trauma you experienced?
- Do you avoid certain people, places or situations that remind you of the traumatic experience?
- Have you been having any problems at school, work or in your personal relationships?
- Have you ever thought about harming yourself or others?
- Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs? How often?
- Have you been treated for other psychiatric symptoms or mental illness in the past? If yes, what type of therapy was most helpful?