PTSD: Symptoms and EMDR Treatment

What is PTSD?

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is characterized by the following symptoms:

Repetitive thoughts and memories related to a traumatic event

Recollections are intrusive, meaning you try not to think about them but can’t help it.

Recurring dreams about the traumatic event

Nightmares might be about the event specifically almost like a flashback, or they might just have the same feeling as the event with different visuals or characters.

Moments of feeling as though the trauma were occurring all over again

Often accompanied by visual/auditory/sense hallucinations of the trauma and are called “flashbacks”. Many who experience these mistake them for hallucinations of schizophrenia or psychosis.

Intense emotional distress when exposed to trauma reminders (triggers)

Emotions can look like anxiety, anger, or extreme sadness.  They might seem to come out of nowhere at times.  Trauma triggers can include sensory trigger such as sounds, smells, colors or flavors.  Triggers can be internal body sensations such as stomach aches, dizziness, or increased heart rate.

Physical distress when exposed to anything that reminds you of the trauma

Physical distress can often be the same physical distress that occurred during the traumatic event. For example, a woman who was held down during an assault might feel a pressure on her arms and legs. The distress can also be related to an extreme anxiety response such as throwing up, headache, shaking, stomach ache, or a butterfly feeling in the stomach.

Avoiding thinking or talking about the trauma

This tendency of trauma survivors is part of what maintains the disorder and prevents it from getting better. The more talking about the trauma is avoided, the bigger and scarier the experience becomes. Many individuals may not reveal their experiences to another person for many years after their occurrence, even decades. They feel that the event is in the distant past, over and done with, but it remains, subconsciously affecting their actions and feelings.

Avoiding places, people, or objects that are reminders of the trauma

This may look like taking pains to avoid seeing a certain building where the event occurred, or getting rid of clothes that were worn during the event. Some may avoid loved ones that were present during the trauma.

Inability to recall important parts of the traumatic event

This is partly due to a psychological defense mechanism called “dissociation”. When something is too painful to endure consciously, the brain shuts off, and the individual ceases to experience the event. The most painful parts of a trauma can be “blocked out” in this way.

Diminished interest in previously enjoyed or important activities

Depression is an obvious result of trauma.  It might feel like you don’t care about anything anymore, or that life has no meaning in light of what you’ve been through.

Feeling as though you won’t live much longer, or that you can’t see a future for yourself

This is mostly due to the constant sense of threat and vulnerability that survivors of trauma feel. Through their trauma they have become all too aware of the presence of danger, pain and death.

Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep

This is the body’s way of being prepared for danger by keeping itself awake and aware.  Your body might feel tense, and in a constant state of fight or flight.  You might be able to fall asleep but wake up multiple times during the night.  This is your body trying to be vigilant of threats.

Irritability, and angry outbursts

Individuals who have suffered trauma have very little mental energy for much else. Their energy is devoted to keeping the trauma at bay. For this reason their tolerance for conflict decreases.

Hyper vigilance

Feeling like you’re always on the look-out or on guard. This comes from the belief that something bad can happen at any moment, and one must always be prepared.  This almost seems to turn into a superpower for some as they are aware of everyone around them, all the exits in a building, every sound, every smell.

Exaggerated startle response

Jumping at the slightest noise such as a balloon popping, a trashcan lid closing, fireworks, doors opening and closing, beeping, or footsteps just to name a few.

EMDR therapy for PTSD

When a person experiences a traumatic event, the natural flow of information processing in the brain is interrupted. The negative feelings associated with the trauma are so difficult that the natural inclination is to bury the memory, and disconnect from the painful feelings it brings up. This prevents trauma information from becoming connected with adaptive information that is stored in other memory networks. The traumatized individual continues to feel things intellectually they know are not true. For example, a rape survivor may continue to think of herself as “bad” or “dirty”, when she knows intellectually that she did not cause the rape, and that she is not “bad”. The memory of the event is dysfunctionally stored and isolated.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy for PTSD accesses the trapped trauma information, and pulls it to other parts of the brain, allowing it to finally process in an adaptive manner. EMDR is a highly effective treatment for PTSD. After completing the 8 phase protocol for EMDR with a trained clinician, the individual can expect to feel differently upon recollection of a trauma memory. The memory is still unpleasant, and it is not forgotten, however, it will cease to have the physical and emotional effects that it had before therapy for trauma with EMDR. There is likely to be more rational thought associated with the memory, and more adaptive beliefs about the incident. The emotional reaction to the memory changes and becomes much less devastating, shaming, or alarming.

Searching for a Therapist for PTSD?

A word of caution when looking for a therapist to treat PTSD: some therapists will make claims that they can treat PTSD in as little as a month or two months. While this might be true for a select number of people who have suffered one single incident trauma, the time it takes to treat PTSD varies on a case by case basis. A therapist needs to do a thorough evaluation of your history, symptoms and readiness to undergo treatment for PTSD before proceeding. Even then it is hard to make a guess as to when symptoms will resolve. In cases of complex PTSD, and dissociation, the therapist needs to proceed carefully, slowly, assessing client’s readiness at every step.

EMDR should also be used with caution. Therapists who jump prematurely into doing EMDR could be doing more harm than good. EMDR can be very a challenging emotional experience for a trauma survivor and readiness should be considered carefully.

Here are some resources including a group for Female Identified Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.

Sexual Abuse Survivors Group

Video on Trauma and the Nervous System

EMDR Description from EMDRIA

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)- National Sexual Assault Hotline (800)656-4673