How EMDR Can Help First Responders With Trauma

How EMDR Can Help First Responders With Trauma

Published on August 3, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

The eyes are a window into the soul, as the saying goes. They may also provide crucial assistance for overcoming trauma — something that first responders often see and experience on a daily basis. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a process that uses the physical movement of the eye to work through unprocessed, traumatic memories. The connection between the storage of memories within the mind and the physiological movement of the retina stimulates mental recovery similar to that of a dream state.

The benefits of EMDR function as a form of therapy. By detailing past traumatic events as specifically as possible, trained psychotherapists and clients work together to heal the damage inflicted through trauma. Developed approximately 30 years ago, EMDR has shown great promise for patients when coupled with trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT).

Working through trauma is often counter-intuitive, as the mind struggles to make sense of fragmented impressions. The effects of therapy can be life-changing and anyone dealing with post-traumatic stress — especially first responders who frequently deal with stressful situations — should consider seeking therapy to help heal trauma.

How Does EMDR Work?

EMDR aims to join the recollection of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions with rhythmic side-to-side movement of the eyes, sound, or other body parts. Because all memories are abstractions of past events, triggering rapid eye movements may help create connections between neurotransmitters in the brain in order to access stored experiences, which lay dormant as a result of undergoing trauma. Like physical therapy, reprocessing traumatic events builds strength within atrophied muscles of the mind.

While the evidence surrounding the efficacy of EMDR is inconsistent, much of the research behind the treatment is still in its infancy. Some studies find that stimulating eye movement does little to aid trauma recovery, while others point to significant improvements through the implementation of EMDR. Still, the lack of substantial research fails to definitively prove or disprove the effectiveness of the treatment.

Regardless of the lack of consensus in the scientific community, many believe the driving mechanism behind EMDR stems from a similarity to our sleeping cognitive pattern. With rapid eye movements indicating the most dream-filled sequence during sleep, many neurologists believe this to signify a prominent factor in the storage of memory.

By imitating the physical process of rapid eye movement at the same time as recalling traumatic events, patients are able to push-start the reprocessing functions of their brain — much like a car engine unable to ignite without pre-existing momentum. This reverse engineering of memory compression provides an opportunity for those recovering from trauma to work through the gaps, pain, and abstraction of the inciting incident(s).

What Is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) acts as an intervention intended to increase one’s awareness of their own behaviors. The primary aim of TF-CBT is to pinpoint unhealthy cognitive distortions with the hopes of changing behavior and managing emotional response. Most sessions — which can take place one-on-one with a trained therapist in person or virtually — identify an existing negative thought pattern. Clients and specialists work together to create “homework” for the client to progress through before meeting again.

This goal-oriented therapy allows several important things to happen. First and foremost, the client is given the freedom to step back and examine their own thought processes. This self-observation is immediately followed by the encouragement of an actionable response to the client’s own behavior in the form of a short-term goal. Coupling the recognition of a particular thought pattern with a predetermined course of action creates a reflexive instinct to change unhealthy thought patterns when they arise.

The mode of self-observation and response encourages self-help. Taking the time to empower one’s potential for healthy thinking gives way for them to build positive strategies for effecting change. In this way, clients learn from the structure of TF-CBT just as much as they learn from the content of each session. Providing the tools for trauma recovery allows clinicians to show their clients the map for working through trauma, as opposed to making them codependent on their therapy.

A New Way for First Responders to Heal

EMDR strives to heal the mind through connection with the body. Strengthening both simultaneously with reprocessing encourages clients to seek out their vulnerabilities and learn from them. Growing out of a traumatic past or a traumatic work environment helps prevent the many pitfalls experienced when we run from the damage of remembering them.

Seeking this treatment can feel uncertain and nerve-wracking, but realizing that the efforts can often be life-changing may help. First responders make a difference in the world — they owe it to themselves to make a difference in their own lives as well. Our traumas and mental burdens do not define us, and it’s never too late to begin making the change we need.

While experiencing trauma does not guarantee that a person will develop an addiction, research clearly shows that trauma is a major underlying cause of addictive behavior. The addiction rates of first responders are also disproportionately high. Fear is a primary driver of all post-trauma related behaviors, and trauma therapy works to resolve those fears. While trauma is inevitably a part of the treatment process, especially within the setting of individual therapy, True Recovery recognizes that trauma therapy is often better suited in the context of long-term therapy. In this spirit, we aim to begin the process while first responder clients are in care with us. They are provided comprehensive education on how trauma affects their body and mind, thorough trauma screening, and, as needed, referrals to the best trauma specialists in the area. If you are a first responder and you’re ready to begin living an alcohol and substance-free life, True Recovery is available to you 24/7. Call us now at (888) 743-0490.