Sunday, May 3, 2009

Professional Perspective: Trauma Recovery IS Possible

In our PTSD Education series, one final word on EMDR from practitioner Jill Landefeld. In this interesting and insightful piece, a professional talks about her personal trauma healing experience. (I swear, I didn't ask her to write the first sentence, but I didn't edit out the kudos!)

Michele is to be commended for putting forward the message on this site that we can recover from trauma and move forward into rewarding and productive lives. Too many people who have suffered trauma assume that they have no alternative other than to be stuck in anxiety and fear for the rest of their lives.

I’m an EMDR therapist who specializes in assisting people to heal from their traumatic past in order to live fuller lives. I came to this work by healing my own trauma through EMDR. Half way through my first EMDR session, I knew I was going to be okay, that my trauma would be over and that I would help other people as I had been helped.

My personal EMDR Experience

About 10 years ago, I relocated from Los Angeles to another city, anticipating a positive life change. Unfortunately, the change was anything but positive for a variety of reasons, and I returned to L.A. in a state of 24/7 anxiety, unable to sleep and stuck in a series of unending visual flashbacks. I tried medication, which helped some, and traditional therapy, which didn’t help at all. I read about EMDR in my local newspaper and decided to give it a try.

No one knows exactly why EMDR works. The predominant theory is that it forges a connection between the primitive part of the brain, in which the memory is frozen in wordless terror, and the linear part of the brain, which has the logic and language to reason things through. When these two parts of the brain can talk to each other, the person can resolve their own trauma from within. This connection between the two parts of the brain is made by stimulating the brain from side to side or bilaterally, with a light that shifts back and forth, or a side-to-side sound or tactile stimulation.

In my case, I put on a headset and listened to the tones go back and forth inside my head. My therapist asked me to identify my negative belief about myself that the situation summoned up (“I can’t protect myself, and I won’t make it out alive”), my SUDS, or level of distress where 0 is neutral and 10 is the highest level of distress ( a 9) and where I felt the distress in my body (chest and throat). At first, I found the sounds relaxing. Then they triggered an avalanche of sadness, fear and rage. When the feelings passed, I felt a sense of serenity and lightness that I hadn’t known before.

I had about five more sessions to address different aspects of the trauma. Then I was able to go off all my anti-anxiety meds, sleep better and focus my attention on my present and future. The nonstop images of painful situations had disappeared. Like most people who experience EMDR, I still had the memories, but they no longer had the power to dominate my life.

My Professional EMDR Experience

Discrete traumas like mine, where the source is situational, are generally resolved this quickly. Natural disasters, combat trauma and violent events are some of them. (EMDR was used successfully after the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11.) Some family of origin traumas are healed quickly, as well. I worked with a woman who had hated and feared her sister due to prolonged emotional abuse during her entire childhood. After two sessions of EMDR, she has been able to spend vacations enjoying her sister’s company without anxiety. In cases of prolonged, chronic trauma, such as childhood abuse, more work is generally required, although the symptoms can begin to lift after the first few sessions. EMDR is also highly effective with unresolved grief and loss. A young woman who suffered a cruel breakup with a boyfriend of many years was able to move on after four sessions.

EMDR also provides methods of helping people to feel more stable and positive about themselves, and of giving them inner resources to cope with difficult situations. Someone facing a challenging graduate program with a history of failure in school might use EMDR sessions to internalize a positive resource, such as a professor they admire; after the session they can have a deep sense that that admired figure lives inside them, giving them the confidence to succeed. Often an EMDR therapist will help the client gain strength in this way before starting to unravel the actual trauma, so they’re standing on firmer ground. Once the trauma has been resolved, we can do another process called “future template," which grounds the person in a vision of their ideal future. A client in drug or alcohol recovery might visualize a clean and sober future in very concrete terms, and then experience that future as an inner emotional reality.

As highly effective as EMDR is, it’s one of a number of approaches to heal trauma that have worked for many people in many situations around the world. There’s no “one size fits all" method for healing. The most important truth to keep in mind is that you do not need to spend the rest of your life living in a painful past.

Jill Landefeld, LMFT is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist based in Los Angeles. She works in private practice and with drug rehabs to enable people to recover from trauma.


Anonymous said...


it's not just recovery that you're talking about is it? In this business of "creating a post-trauma identity" you're not just encouraging people to go back to how they were but more fundamentally move beyond even that and choose who they want to be.

That's something much more exciting and profound than 'recovery'

Anonymous said...

I really love this post, and the more I read your blog Michele, the more excited I am. You really are taking such a strong message out there. Maybe one day I'll be able to do the same?

Anyway, I loved hearing Jill's personal and professional experience. I agree there's no one method that works for everyone. But EMDR really, really, REALLY worked for me. My situation was definitely a discrete set of experiences, as Jill described. So it literally worked like magic for me.

I really can't believe its true in some ways, that I'm now able to live my life and not feel threatened by my past trauma any more. But really, that's how it is...

I didn't do any of the future stuff though - but its something I might take back to my therapist to discuss.

Thanks again for this series of posts :)

Michele Rosenthal said...

@svasti -- So exciting to hear about your healing! And to watch it evolve on your own blog. I think maybe one day you WILL get out there with the message. I look forward to it! Perhaps we can combine our efforts.... :)

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