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Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Treating Trauma With Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Fear resulting from psychological trauma can be extremely deep-seated. The distress, feelings of helplessness and constant flashback of traumatic events can turn one’s world upside down, causing major problems with daily activities and quality of life. It may be easy for someone to say, “Well, why can’t you just get over it?” But in reality, we need to recognise that it is much easier said than done. In order to help people move past their traumatic experiences, researchers and psychologists have worked tirelessly, creating various therapeutic methods and tweaking them to achieve the optimal recovery outcome. In regards to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may be familiar with an approach known as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. In this article, we’ll be introducing you to an alternative psychotherapy technique, also known as Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, EMDR therapy is an empirically validated treatment for trauma and other negative life experiences. While it is also increasingly applied for the treatment of other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks, researchers have not found EMDR to be as effective as with trauma-related conditions. As its name suggests, EMDR isn’t all about talk therapy or medications. In a different vein from cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR doesn’t focus on altering a client’s thought patterns or behaviours. Instead, it relies on one’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements, allowing the brain to process memories and resume its natural healing process. 

What is the Basis of EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is fundamentally based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model. A key tenet of this model is that the symptoms of PTSD are manifested due to memories that are dysfunctionally stored or not fully processed. Memories of disturbing experiences often string along negative emotions, thoughts, beliefs and even physical sensations that were associated with them at the time of occurrence. This can bring about a multitude of unpleasant symptoms that can be exceptionally detrimental to one’s mental health. 

When one is exposed to stress or trauma, the body’s automatic response would be to activate its Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). As an adaptive system, it controls our natural fight, flight or freeze instincts, which is critical in ensuring our survival. When the SNS is activated, the individual will undergo physical alterations such as increased heart and breathing rates, decreased blood flow to the digestive system and constricted blood vessels. In addition, hormone levels including those of adrenaline and cortisol will increase dramatically, causing hypervigilance. However, for someone who is under constant stress from traumatic flashbacks, the over-stimulation of the SNS will be greatly damaging to this person’s physical health. As such, EMDR therapy aims to process memories such that the experience is remembered, but the fight, flight or freeze response is eased. 

At this juncture, you may be wondering how clinician-directed eye movements could possibly alleviate trauma-induced stress. EMDR therapy involves guiding the client towards reliving triggering experiences in short phases while the clinician directs his eye movements. During the process, the client will be tasked to focus on trauma-related imagery and the relevant sensations. The clinician will then simultaneously move their finger across the client’s field of view, with each phase lasting approximately 20 to 30 seconds. This will then be repeated a couple of times. At some point, other forms of rhythmic left-right stimulation (for example, listening to tones that go back and forth between the left and right sides of your head) will also be incorporated into the therapeutic process. As distressing as it sounds, the process in fact allows for the vividness and emotional triggers of the memory to be reduced over time. When the client’s attention is diverted as they recall the traumatic event, this makes the exposure to negative thoughts and memories less upsetting, hence limiting a strong psychological response. After attending several EMDR therapy sessions (depending on the individual), the impact of the traumatic event is believed to be significantly reduced. 

How is EMDR Structured? 

Generally speaking, EMDR takes on an eight-phase approach. 

Stage 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning

For a start, the clinician will work hand-in-hand with the client to identify the traumatic experiences which require attention. Should the client have a problematic childhood, the initial stage of EMDR may focus on resolving childhood traumas before moving on to resolve adult onset stressors. Identifying targets for EMDR treatment is also crucial – this means looking further into the client’s past memories, their current emotional triggers, as well as what they hope to achieve by the end of the treatment phase.

Stage 2: Preparation

In this phase, the clinician introduces the client to a few emotion-coping strategies to ensure that the client is well able to manage their emotional distress whenever a trigger is brought up. It is important that the client is able to deal with overwhelming emotions even between EMDR sessions in daily life. The clinician may also familiarise the client with the eye movements or bilateral stimulations. 

Stage 3: Assessment

The clinician will then identify and assess the specific traumatic memories that need to be tackled. This also involves analysing the associated emotions and sensations triggered by the memories. 

Stages 4 to 7: Treatment Process

These intermediate stages focus on the process of desensitisation, installation, a body scan, and seeking closure. The client is asked to concentrate on the trauma-related imagery and memory while engaged in the directed eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. After each set of stimulation, the client will be asked to clear their mind and report what they feel, think, and the sensations they experience. Depending on the individual, the clinician may have the client refocus on the same memory, or move on to another. This process is repeated until the client reports no distress. 

Installation is where the clinician works with the client to increase the strength of positive cognition. This means focusing on the preferred positive beliefs, rather than negative ones. For example, an individual dealing with trauma arising from childhood domestic abuse may start off with a negative belief of “I am weak and powerless”. Installation aims to change that belief into one of “I am now in control.” Of course, EMDR does not force one to believe in something that is inappropriate or unsuitable for the situation. In the example brought up, allowing the client to realise that positive belief could mean encouraging them to take on self-defence training, or other skills that can provide them with a greater sense of security and control. 

A body scan is used in order to check for any residual somatic response that is linked to event-related tension or stress. Should any undesirable bodily sensations be present, the clinician will then target them specifically in subsequent sets. 

Stage 8: Evaluation

The next EMDR session begins with this phase. This stage is mainly for the re-evaluation of the client’s plight. More importantly, this step is to ensure that the necessary progress is made and to review the client’s psychological state. Further review will be carried out, and the relevant changes will be made to provide the optimal treatment effect. 

Although EMDR may be a relatively new technique as compared to other forms of therapy, it is nonetheless an extensively researched method proven to alleviate the stress symptoms of trauma survivors and other individuals who have had distressing life experiences. If you think that EMDR therapy is right for you, do seek help from a mental health professional.


References:

  1. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  2. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/ (Accessed 18/03/2021)
  3. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/ (Accessed 19/03/2021)
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4467776/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  5. https://anxietyreleaseapp.com/what-is-bilateral-stimulation/ (Accessed 20/03/2021)
  6. https://hornsveldpsychologenpraktijk.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/full-8-phase-explanation.pdf (Accessed 20/03/2021)
Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Using Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Using Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

Originating from the Greek word ‘wound’, trauma is used to describe the unwelcome recollection of disturbing experiences – those which can cause one to relive horrifying, spine-chilling moments of a disaster or a tragic event which leaves a deep mark on a person’s life.

Flashbacks can be particularly frightening for people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a delayed stress reaction, where an individual involuntarily re-experiences the mental and physical responses (i.e emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects) that accompanied the past trauma. Symptoms can be particularly intrusive, presenting themselves in the form of nightmares and emotional distress upon remembering upsetting memories, and even certain physical reactivity after the exposure to traumatic reminders. Additionally, depending on the severity of one’s condition, the negative alterations in mood and behaviours may vary. Alterations may comprise of (non-exhaustive):

  • Exaggerated self-blame or others for causing the trauma, and a sense of invalidation
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Increased irritability or aggression
  • Hyper-vigilance, excessive paranoia or heightened startle reaction
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Risky or destructive behaviour (can include the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse)
  • A sense of isolation
  • Avoiding trauma-related stimuli / reminders of the traumatic event (including places, activities, people, thoughts or feelings that may bring back unwanted memories).

Unlike what most would perceive, PTSD does not solely affect individuals who have been through a tragic event personally. Apart from the direct exposure to a trauma, people can also develop PTSD through the witnessing of the event, or upon learning that a close one was exposed to the trauma. The indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma in the course of professional duties (such as first responders or paramedics) can also make one prone to developing PTSD. With the effects lasting a lifetime for some individuals, PTSD can be debilitating to one’s mental health, robbing one of joy and freedom.

This is where Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) comes in. DBT is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioural treatment that can provide strong empirical support for individuals struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), and others. Intended to help persons with complex issues that place them at high risks of suicide or other self-destructive behaviours, DBT focuses on imparting the knowledge and skills to cope with PTSD and trauma reminders. Moreover, it also aims to assure the generalisation and application of skills learnt to the environment beyond the treatment setting, as well as to ensure that dysfunctional behaviours are not inadvertently reinforced. DBT consists of four stages, with the first two being the standard, essential stages for all clients.

Stage 1: Aiming to Achieve Better Stability and Behavioural Control

It is safe to say that most of the work is done at stage 1, where clients work hand-in-hand with their therapists to target behavioural dyscontrol and to address the chaos within them. When clients first take on DBT, they are often said to be at their lowest point in their lives. As such, stage 1 focuses on achieving control over life-threatening behaviours, therapy-interfering behaviours, as well as other factors that are causing a decline in their quality of life. At the same time, it will serve to increase one’s behavioural skills which can include mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness , emotion regulation, distress tolerance and self-management. In short, this helps the individual to stabilise, and to reduce the frequency of impulsive and emotional outbursts.

However, stage 1 alone is insufficient. Although there are reductions in unwanted behaviours arising from the traumatic experience, these people may not have perfect control over their condition yet, and thus may still feel depressed, and anxious along with other PTSD symptoms.

Stage 2: Normative Emotional Experiencing & Expression

In this stage, trauma-focused treatment is engaged, and past traumatic experiences are safely explored. Therapists will help clients to emotionally process them by approaching (gradually) the avoided trauma-related memories, as well as to help them continue applying the skills learnt in stage 1. With that said, the main objective of stage 2 is to discourage the client from silencing and burying the emotional pain.

Subsequently, this makes it easier for therapists to assess the severity of the problems, the relationships between the issues faced and to determine the hierarchy of needs based on the client’s goals.

Stage 3: Achieving Ordinary Happiness and Tackling Unhappiness

Upon ensuring that the individual is no longer suffocating under the same weight of fear that they once were, stage 3 aims to maintain progress and reasonable goal-setting. This establishes greater stability and addresses any other remaining problems in living. As the clients’ previous undesirable behaviours may have disrupted other aspects of their lives, stage 3 will also focus on improving relationships, and increasing valued daily activities.

Stage 4: Regaining the Capacity for Sustained Joy

Lastly, some people will choose to engage in stage 4 to find comfort in and to work towards spiritual fulfilment. This mainly helps to tackle any feelings of incompleteness as well as to ensure one’s capability to maintain an ongoing capacity for happiness.

DBT is an efficacious prototypic phase-based treatment of PTSD as it is a support-oriented approach to treatment, helping individuals to identify their own strengths and then building upon them to improve the person’s outlook on their life. By improving one’s ability to cultivate emotional regulation, increasing one’s ability to handle challenging emotions, and coping with conflict properly through interpersonal effectiveness, DBT can help traumatised individuals develop invaluable life skills that will allow them to achieve an overall improved quality of life.

 

At Promises, we have psychologists and therapist that are trained to administer DBT. If you or your loved one is struggling with PTSD, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), etc and would like to speak with one of our psychologists or therapists for help, do drop us a line or write to us through the contact us page. 


References:
Zimbardo, P. G., Johnson, R. L., & McCann, V. (2017). Psychology: Core Concepts (8th ed.). Pearson. (Accessed 22/11/2020)
Wagner, A. (2015). Applications of dialectical behaviour therapy to the treatment of trauma-related problems. Portland DBT Institute. https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Wagner_MC.pdf (Accessed 22/11/2020)