Therapy using rapid eye movements helps veterans heal from psychological trauma.
After a life-threatening event or other shock, it’s not unusual for upsetting memories of the experience to come flooding back, leading to anxiety and difficulty sleeping. But sometimes these reactions don’t go away and may get worse —resulting in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without effective help, PTSD often leads to social isolation, combativeness, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy attempts at self-medication with drugs and booze.
American veterans who’ve seen combat and faced violent life-threatening experiences are at heightened risk for the condition, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for PTSD. There are several forms of treatment for PTSD, including individual therapy, group counseling, and medication. Another approach called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a from of rapid eye movement therapy first developed in the l980s, has grown popular in recent years because it appears remarkably effective in helping vets recover from PTSD so they can live happier, more productive lives.
For EMDR therapy, a person suffering with PTSD moves their eyes rapidly back and forth while focusing on hand movements, such as tapping, or sounds. At the same time, they talk about the traumatic events that sparked their symptoms. Although researchers don’t know exactly how it works, rapid eye movement therapy appears to change how a person reacts to memories of trauma over time. It aids with relaxation and eases emotional distress, too.
Dozens of studies show this therapy can be a relatively quick and long-lasting PTSD treatment; it has a “level A” rating from the Veterans Administration for effectiveness. For George, a 22-year-old veteran, it may have saved his life.
After serving two tours in Iraq, George received an honorable discharge following his first suicide attempt. (Recent veterans are committing suicide at a much higher rate than people who never served in the military.) Back in the U.S., he tried to adjust to civilian life, but felt isolated. His fiancée broke up with him, and the young vet was haunted by traumatic memories of war, including the death of a close friend, his own injury sustained in a frightening mortar attack, and his killing of an Iraqi combatant. George began to avoid anything that reminded him of his war experiences, including watching television news.
Sleep, interrupted by nightmares, became more difficult. George also experienced episodes of raging, explosive anger, causing estrangement from many of his remaining friends. Another suicide attempt followed and, after a second psychiatric hospitalization, he was diagnosed with PTSD and began EMDR therapy for his condition through the VA.
George was able to work through the painful memories that had haunted him and triggered his psychological stress during a series of EMDR sessions, guided by VA psychologist Susan Rogers, PhD.
The brain normally sorts out daily experiences, stores the information you need, and releases what you don’t need. But when people suffer from PTSD, their brain doesn’t completely process traumas such as George’s frightening combat experiences, causing recurring vivid memories, bad dreams, anxiety, and other symptoms, according to Rogers, who regularly uses rapid eye movement therapy to help vets.
“When a client comes in for EMDR, I ask them to identify the most disturbing part of the trauma memory,” Rogers said. “Usually there is one image that is the most disturbing. I ask them what negative belief about themselves goes with that picture, what emotion they’re feeling, what sensations they feel in their body, and then have them focus on that while we do brief sets of eye movements. I usually just have them follow my hand back and forth with their eyes. The eye movements help people relax enough to think clearly about the trauma, sort it all out, and resolve it.”
The VA’s Understanding PTSD Treatment booklet offers information on EDMR therapy and other effective treatments for PTSD.
April 13, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA