PTSD and EMDR Therapy from the Co-Founders of ExtendaTouch

This is a personal blog by the Co-founders of ExtendaTouch about PTSD and EMDR therapy. Our goal is to help those who suffer from PTSD and the loving partners and families who are caring for them.

Trauma seriously affects our military, who experience horrors during combat, our civilian population, who suffered immeasurable losses of 600,000 deaths of their loved ones during COVID, and the many others traumatized by isolation loneliness over the past 18 months.  

Those events created PTSD, where individuals have disturbing thoughts and feelings relating to their experience that remain after the traumatic event ends. Victims may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear, anger and detachment from other people.

When a person experiences a traumatizing event, adrenaline courses through their body. The memory imprints into the amygdala, part of the limbic system. The amygdala grips the emotional significance of the event, including the intensity and impulse of emotion.

Traumatized individuals are subconsciously getting ready for the next attack. Someone preoccupied with a real or imagined threat has fear, rage, or disappointment reflected in their body.

After a traumatic event representing a threat to personal safety, it transforms the brain and body. The threat creates a physical and emotional reaction, which activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)—also known as fight or flight response, a necessary and essential response for survival. 

After the traumatic event, the SNS remains activated, and the body and mind remain on guard. The brain and nervous system become cemented in trauma and are rewired, making healing a daunting challenge. According to the late neuroscientist Paul MacLean, the brain is made up of three parts, known as The Triune Brain Model:Reptilian (brain stem): responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.

  • Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
  • Neo-mammalian (cortex, forebrain): controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory, and inhibitory functions.
  • The reptilian brain is activated during trauma and alerts the body to react and go into survival mode. [1]

When non-threatened, the brain and body shift back to its normal functioning, also known as “top-down” control, to how our brains use information that has already been brought into the brain by one or more of the sensory systems.

However, with trauma, stress and hormones that are activated in the brain stay in survival mode and do not restore. The brain stem remains primed for threat and keeps the survivor in a reactive state, ultimately affecting other brain structures to react accordingly. When the brain is in constant stress mode, it trickles down and is normalized into the physical body. If the brain does not reset, it creates post-traumatic stress disorder.

We experienced PTSD within our own family for more than 20 years until we discovered EMDR therapy. My partner Al was the victim of child abuse for the first 16 years of his life. His mother, who had untreated mental health issues, would torment him verbally and beat him almost daily until she was exhausted. She had him kneel on peas facing a corner for hours and would make him sit in ice water after wetting the bed until a neighbor dropped in one day, saw him turning blue in the freezing water, and rescued him. That was Al’s first indication that what his mother was doing to him was wrong.

Al and I have been together for 25 years in a supportive and committed relationship. During the first 20 years, we spent countless hours reliving his childhood ordeal when he was triggered, and his mind reverted to troubled childhood days. PTSD created a neurological separation inside his brain to protect him from trauma. When activated, his PTSD reverted to the time and place of his trauma, with no access to the frontal lobe where reason and intellect are stored. During this time, he was forced to use the only language he knew at that time. Given Al’s traumatizing events when he was just a young child, his reversions would sometimes be so early that he had no words and only emotions. Other times it was only the words his mother used on him. The severing of this portion of his brain and the triggers that would put him back into that place became a debilitating problem. 

After 20 years of couples therapy, which did not resolve the PTSD, we discovered EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. EMDR is an interactive psychotherapy approach used to alleviate mental stress. It is used as an effective treatment for trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR uses bilateral stimulation while recounting the trauma such that the brain uses the stimulation to grow new nerves. This reconnects the parts of the brain that were severed from PTSD.  

During EMDR therapy sessions, individuals relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses. At the same time, the therapist uses bi-lateral stimulation of alternating sounds through headphones or paddles that buzz in sequence from the left to the right hand. Together, they recall the trauma, and the protective stimulation repairs the brain. It is the only talk therapy known to alter the brain and grow new neurons. 

EMDR is considered to be effective because recalling distressing events is less emotionally upsetting when guided by a professional. This allows an individual to be exposed to memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response and includes the new bilateral stimulation at the same time. 

Over time, as Al revisited the memories, the trauma lessened each time. He regained the ability to be present minded while triggered for the first time since acquiring PTSD. People dealing with traumatic memories and those who have PTSD are thought to benefit the most from EMDR therapy for this reason.

EMDR therapy is broken down into multiple phases: 

Phase 1: History and treatment planning

A therapist will first review an individual’s history and talk about the trauma and identify potential traumatic memories to treat specifically.

Phase 2: Preparation

The therapist will then help the individual learn several different ways to cope with emotional or psychological stress. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and deep-breathing may be suggested. 

Phase 3: Assessment

During the third phase of EMDR treatment, the therapist will identify the specific memories targeted along with the associated components (such as the stimulated physical sensations when concentrating on an event) for each target memory.

Phases 4-7: Treatment

The therapist will then begin using EMDR therapy techniques to treat the targeted memories. During these sessions, the individual will be asked to focus on a negative thought, memory, or image, after the therapist first suggests the individual imagine themselves with a trusted person in a calm and enjoyable place to relax. 

The therapist will simultaneously have the individual create bilateral stimulation through eye movements, alternating taps or other actions mixed in. 

After the bilateral stimulation, the therapist will ask the individual to let their mind go blank and notice the thoughts and feelings spontaneously. 

After identifying these thoughts, the therapist may have the individual refocus on that traumatic memory or move on to another.

If the individual becomes distressed, the therapist will help bring the individual back to the present before moving on to another traumatic memory. Over time, the distress over thoughts, images, or memories start to fade.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final phase, the individual will be asked to evaluate their progress after these sessions. The therapist will do the same.

Multiple independent and controlled studies have shown EMDR therapy to be a powerful treatment for PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs strongly recommends EMDR to treat PTSD.

While EMDR therapy has proven to be effective in treating trauma and PTSD, it may also help treat other mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and panic disorders. 

After EMDR therapy, Al still remembers the events of his childhood days that caused the PTSD, but they are now memories and do not create an emotional return to the trapped triggering event. We have had four years of post-EMDR life together, which has allowed us to have consistently peaceful and enjoyable times and become more productive and empathetic. During this time, we created ExtendaTouch to bring together a network of family caregivers who can support each other, because we are able to focus on helping others. 

The triggered troubled responses have not returned. We hope this blog helps all individuals with PTSD learn about EMDR therapy and try it if the information we presented resonates. It is not invasive or hurtful and can literally be a lifesaver. 

References: [1] Psychology Today 

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