EMDR: a way to process trauma

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Magen M. Reeves
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

The 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, has recently expanded treatment options available for service members who may be dealing with traumatic events in line with new initiatives from the Department of Defense.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, more commonly referred to as EMDR, is a psychotherapy method that can help individuals process trauma and other stressors such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and some panic-related disorders.

“At the most basic [level], EMDR is a therapy that does an amazing job on trauma, anxiety, phobias, grief and even addictions,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Mark Juchter, 325th Fighter Wing chaplain and certified EMDR counselor. “EMDR uses the brain’s own abilities to reprocess traumatic memories or events so that they are less sensitive, less distressing to the individual.”

Stress responses, or alarm bells, are part of the brain’s natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When stress from a traumatic event isn’t “worked through” the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions might create overwhelming feelings of being back in that moment or of being “frozen in time” for an individual without meaning to recall those feelings.

“Imagine a mildly traumatic memory that comes up without you willing it and brings emotions along for the ride,” said Juchter. “After EMDR that memory would still be there, but the emotions would no longer come to the surface on their own. A slammed car door would no longer take you back to combat. An argument with your spouse would no longer trigger emotions from growing up or from a past relationship. Driving becomes anxiety free again after a car accident.”

EMDR therapy helps the brain process those emotions and allows the brain to heal as it normally would.

“When a traumatic experience occurs, some individual’s brains create strong associations of emotion with the traumatic event, of which can lead to some significant trauma-based symptoms, (such as) nightmares, intrusive memories, significant anxiousness and emotional numbness,” said Maj. Stephen Marcoux, 325th Medical Group mental health clinic flight commander and psychiatrist.

The event is still remembered by the individual but the original fight, flight, or freeze responses have been processed so the brain has no gut-reaction to keep “reliving” those stressors.

“EMDR is not hypnosis, does not erase memories, and does not require the client to spend much time talking about traumatic events,” said Juchter. “While receiving EMDR, the clients stays as much in the here-and-now as possible and does not have to talk through, or analyze, the memories and sensations that come up during therapy. The counselor’s job is to provide the ‘bi-lateral stimulation’ (eye motions or other methods to activate the two halves of the brain) and a safe-space but the client’s brain does all the work.”

The therapy allows the brain to utilize its natural healing process rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from or associated with the issue the service member is struggling with.

“EMDR uses the same processes the brain already has in place to handle such incidents, but focuses them on a specific target; think of EMDR as the special forces of the trauma world,” said Juchter. “You give them a target, they go in, deal with it, rescue the hostage being held by the trauma, and get back out again.”

“Service members are human beings and they do amazing things every day but still bring with them a past, and still have the same reactions to stressful circumstances in the present,” Juchter continued. “EMDR is about helping process those events so they can focus better on the mission, on their families, and on themselves. EMDR is one tool to help them remain fit to fight.”

For Airmen stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, there are EMDR counselors available on base who are ready and willing to help.

“While trauma therapy is always hard work EMDR is not terribly intrusive and those of us with trauma experience are more than happy to share more in person about this and other treatments,” continued Juchter. “We can talk about the process without bringing up any specific issues and answer any questions you may have about receiving EMDR for yourself or to recommend it to others.”

“All trauma therapies…help to decrease the severity of this emotional reaction to the memory of the event and thus reduce and eventually lead to remission of the distressing symptoms,” said Marcoux.

For more information, please contact the 325th Medical Group mental health clinic at (850) 283-2778 or the 325th FW chaplain corps religious affairs team at (850) 283-3397.