Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a widely known mental health illness that many military veterans experience. It can happen to combat veterans and non-combat veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that about 30 percent of Vietnam War-era veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. The VA also notes that 12 percent of Gulf War veterans and between 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Factors other than combat can come into play when coping with PTSD. Some of these factors are where the combat was fought, politics about the combat, what a veteran did in combat, and the enemy one faced. It is essential to mention that direct combat experience is not the only way a veteran can experience PTSD. Personnel working in medical or surgical areas also experience the disorder as well as veterans who work in other support positions.
PTSD is not just experienced by veterans who were deployed overseas to known combat areas. Veterans stationed at home can also be affected by it. When a person is sexually harassed or assaulted, they can also be affected by PTSD. The VA indicates that 23 percent of female service members in their care reported sexual assault. Fifty-five percent of women and 38 percent of men reported sexual harassment while in the military. Any form of assault can bring on PTSD for both women and men veterans.
Many forms of treatment are known to help veterans manage PTSD. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is one such approach.
Keep reading to learn how this therapy type may help you or a veteran you care about manage PTSD.
What is EMDR Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, is one approach to treating trauma that uses the body’s natural response to stress. EMDR therapy focuses not on the traumatic event itself but more on the emotions and symptoms that result from the event. This treatment utilizes a hand motion technique by the therapist, which guides the person’s eye movements from side to side.
Psychology Today describes what EMDR therapy involves. Early on in treatment, the client discusses their problems and symptoms with a therapist. However, it is not necessary to describe all of the details of the trauma right away. The therapist helps the client focus on negative thoughts and feelings that the client is experiencing and decide on which ones are relevant and which ones should be replaced with positive thoughts and beliefs.
The client may learn techniques to help them deal with disturbing feelings. The therapist will guide the client through a process known as desensitization. This entails keeping the memory of the trauma in mind as the client follows the therapist’s back-and-forth finger movement with their eyes. The primary purpose of this technique is to help the client fully process their negative feelings and start to recognize that they do not need to hold on to them.
Later on, in therapy, sessions are geared toward reinforcing and straightening positive feelings and beliefs until the client can talk about memories of the trauma without experiencing the negative feelings that the event caused.
EMDR is a fairly common therapy type, even though it is controversial. Some say its effectiveness has nothing to do with eye movement but instead is just a form of talk therapy where the client works through thoughts and memories with a professional. Those in favor of it say the eye movement aspect is vital to help them stay in the present through the desensitizing process.
No matter which way EMDR is viewed, it is meant to be a short-term process used with other therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy or talk therapy.
EMDR doesn’t have a set minimum or maximum number of sessions, but it usually doesn’t last more than a few sessions.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR works by the therapist using what is called bilateral stimulation (left-to-right stimulation). They could ask the client to focus on an object they hold or their finger as it is moved back and forth. Some therapists use a clicker or may tap on either side of the client. As the client focuses on the bilateral movement, they may talk about their traumatic memories, reprocess them, and the memories are altered in the mind to maintain control and create positive memories that make the negative and traumatic ones less painful.
There are eight phases of EMDR a client will go through before treatment is complete. They might not occur in order, and some may be repeated to be effective.
Phase 1 – History and treatment planning.
This first step is vital as the client goes over their history of trauma, treatment history, and what the client wants to work on next.
Phase 2 – Preparation.
Establish trust and explain the treatment in-depth.
EMDR prep starts with the therapist going over what to expect, how to relax and stay present mentally throughout the sessions, and how to respond to treatment effectively.
Phase 3 – Assessment, establish negative feelings, and identify positive replacements.
The assessment is for the specific memory of the traumatic event. Memory is split into several parts, such as an image created in the mind, how the client thinks about the memory, and how that memory affects the body on a physical level. The assessment phase usually takes the longest time.
Phase 4 – Desensitization, including the eye movement technique.
Bilateral eye movement begins in this phase as the client focuses on the traumatic memory. In this phase, the client is asked to focus on new thoughts about the experience, which can help to desensitize and ease the pain related to the memory.
Phase 5 -Installation. Strengthening positive replacements
This phase will help the client internalize the new positive thoughts and emotions about the negative memory. Some of the ways this phase can be beneficial are to change the image of the memory the mind made into something else, such as inserting a supportive buddy into the scenario.
Phase 6 – Body Scan.
Next, the client examines how the memory affects them physically by paying attention to physical responses that specifically relate to the newly placed positive thoughts. Eye movement continues through this phase.
Phase 7 – Closure.
Closure occurs at the end of each session, even if the client hasn’t moved through the entire process yet. Closure can help the client finish processing the memory and stabilize, and save the place where they are until the next session.
Phase 8 – Reevaluation at the end of the session and at the beginning of a new session.
The client reevaluates their current state before moving forward. New thoughts or memories that have come up between sessions are discussed and evaluated.
How Can EMDR Help Veterans’ Trauma
Several studies show how EMDR is helpful for veterans struggling with PTSD.
A 2012 study of 22 participants found that EMDR therapy benefited 77 percent of the people with PTSD and psychotic disorder. The study notes that the symptoms of anxiety, depression, delusions, and hallucinations significantly improved after treatment.
A previous study from the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that EMDR therapy was more effective in treating symptoms, had a lower dropout rate, and noted a reduction in traumatic stress symptoms, including depression and anxiety.
Veterans who are struggling with PTSD may find their VA healthcare provider recommending EMDR therapy to help with memories and emotions relating to the traumatic event. The VA strongly recommends EMDR therapy for PTSD. However, if you or the veteran you care about is not under VA care, ask your family health care provider for a referral to a therapist who utilizes this type of trauma therapy.
PTSD can be debilitating for many veterans, and some have symptoms that may never seem to let up or become worse. There is no reason to let it go on.
The Palm Beach Institute has been treating veterans for decades and provides programs specifically for them. Many veterans try to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but only find it is a very short-term way to ease their symptoms. They also could end up with a substance use disorder. Don’t let that happen. Call us today.