Trauma Has An Unlikely New Opponent: How Your Eyes Can Help You Heal Emotionally – PublicSource

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Editor’s Note: This story contains references to trauma and sexual violence.


Madalyn Guthrie attributes much of her recovery from rape in 2019 to – if you sum it up – quickly moving her eyes.

A therapist treated Guthrie for PTSD with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, called EMDR.

“It really is life changing,” Guthrie said. She is now 20 years old, works as a waitress, assists disabled people and studies early childhood education.

EMDR is emerging as a feasible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which is estimated to be one in 11 people in the United States face. Sexual assault, as Guthrie experienced it, is one of the main contributing factors to PTSD.

EMDR was all the rage recently when Prince Harry told Oprah it helped her with PTSD.

“It cleans up my hard drive,” he said on a new Apple TV + series. “The me you can’t see. ”

Its disclosure was timely.

The pandemic “has triggered major emotional, physical and economic problems around the world,” doctors at the University of Oklahoma wrote in The Psychiatric Times. A study found that 96% of COVID-19 patients exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Other research shows increased rates of PTSD among healthcare workers and the general public.

Now like before COVID, it’s not easy to find a therapist to treat PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Most providers have a waiting list right now, ranging from a few weeks to several months, especially on an outpatient basis. Said Stéphanie Smigiel, EMDR therapist at Green Tree. Smigiel is one of at least 68 therapists practicing EMDR in the Pittsburgh area.

In the United States, only half of adults living with mental illness get the help they need, according to the Administration of Addiction and Mental Health Services. In Pennsylvania, just over the national average of 47.6% received mental health services from 2017 to 2019.

Given the backlog of services, EMDR offers this advantage over other therapies: it could work faster.

“It’s a relatively short-term therapy, so there’s a faster turnover, from three to 10 sessions,” Smigiel said.

EMDR therapist Stephanie Smigiel demonstrates how she moves her fingers to guide her clients’ eyes during therapy. She also shows that she places her hands on her shoulders like her clients would during EMDR therapy. She calls this movement “the butterfly valve”. (Courtesy photo)

Besides being a potentially shorter treatment, EMDR doesn’t require people to use words – and it can be useful for people who can’t express what they’ve been through. This includes people who do not speak out about their trauma for fear of reprisal, those who do not speak, and those who have limited vocabulary. In June, Dr Dale Adair, chief of psychiatry at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said EMDR has been successful in people with developmental disabilities.

“People rather accept [EMDR] in Pittsburgh, ”Smigiel said. “A lot of people say that previous therapists or PCPs have recommended it.”

EMDR is approved by the World Health Organization. The American Psychological Association says cognitive behavioral therapy is highly recommended for PTSD, while EMDR is recommended conditionally. “The quality of the studies is too low to draw firm conclusions” about its effectiveness, say researchers in the Netherlands and Romania Last year.

But some customers swear by it, and healthcare companies pay. Smigiel said most insurance companies will reimburse 50 minutes for talk therapy and an additional 30 minutes for EMDR, provided the therapist is EMDR certified. “Some insurances only allow 45-minute sessions,” she said, but the length of the sessions can be adjusted and still be beneficial.

During the pandemic, Smigiel and others administered EMDR via live video.

Smigiel detailed the process.

She tells her clients to remember the emotions associated with trauma. Then she moves her fingers from left to right and asks them to follow the movement of the eyes. She says it shifts emotional memories from one part of the brain to another. Practitioners say that once they’re done, the emotions aren’t stuck in what’s called a “fight or flight” part of the brain. When emotions are shifted to the part of the brain that handles emotional responses, clients can think calmly and clearly and are less anxious. Besides eye movement, therapists also use techniques such as asking clients to stomp one foot at a time or to fold their arms across their chest and alternately tap their own shoulders.

The session ends with a grounding technique to bring the client to a calm state. After a few preliminary sessions, people usually only need one or two sessions of EMDR treatment to feel their trauma has been resolved.

With EMDR, Smigiel said, “You don’t get rid of (emotions), you don’t suppress them. You only defeat them.

Prince Harry recently allowed cameras to film his EMDR session. Her arms are crossed over her chest and her fingers lightly pat the opposite shoulder. Meanwhile, his closed eyes come and go.

Like many people who have been in therapy lately, Harry has used telehealth. As they worked through his traumatic memories, Harry explained how the process helps him.

“Every time something happens, whoos, we’re done with that, ”he said.

Smigiel said trauma can take away a person’s sense of control over their own life. She said EMDR can help a person regain that control.

While EMDR first emerged as a treatment for people diagnosed with PTSD, it has also been used to treat people with panic disorders, anxiety, and other diagnoses. Like other forms of therapy, EMDR practitioners do not recommend it for everyone.

Tara Pannell, an EMDR therapist, said EMDR therapy is “counterintuitive” for people who are actively experiencing trauma. “What is needed is a loving and caring environment with compassionate people when dealing with injuries as serious as those that cause PTSD or CPSS,” she said.

And Smigiel said that while some people opt for long-term EMDR therapy, she finds it better to switch to cognitive-behavioral or humanistic therapies.

American psychologist Francine Shapiro developed EMDR. “On a walk in May 1987, (she) noticed that her eyes were moving quickly from side to side, while at the same time the disturbing thoughts in her head became less intrusive, ”read his 2019 obituary in the Guardian.

During his lifetime, Shapiro established a certification and network of therapists to prevent unqualified practitioners from using EMDR. She helped provide therapists to treat people after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The success stories have spread to therapists around the world, like Guthrie’s mother. She suggested that her daughter try it.

Prior to that, Madlyn Guthrie said: “There were certain things that would trigger me because of that night where I would completely collapse every time I saw him,” Guthrie said in an interview.

Madalyn Guthrie and her mother, Kristie Knights.  Knights, a certified EMDR therapist, recommended her daughter try EMDR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.  (Courtesy photo)

Madalyn Guthrie and her mother, Kristie Knights. Knights, a certified EMDR therapist, recommended her daughter try EMDR to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. (Courtesy photo)

The emotions, she wrote on Instagram, were “like a burning and tingling in my veins.”

EMDR “completely got rid of those triggers,” she said. “It also helped me remember things from that night that I was blocking out because of my PTSD.”

Now that she’s taken a step forward, she’s sharing her experiences with her Instagram followers to help them regain their sanity. His biography has the lifeline of suicide prevention and the words:

“Be someone who makes everyone feel like someone.”

Smiegel said customers will often thank her for giving them back their sense of control. She told them, “It was your hard work. It was your brain telling you you could do this.

Clarification (8/18/2021): This story has been updated to add more context around therapist Tara Pannell’s comments.

Claire Lindsey is a second year journalism student at Point Park University. As an intern for the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, Claire wrote this article for the All-Abilities Media Project at the Center for Media Innovation in Point Park. To send a message to Claire, send an email to [email protected]

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is the editor of Unabridged Press and the founder of All-Abilities Media.

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