EMDR therapy for processing the emotional fallout

If someone asked you which is tougher on your teen: the actual ADHD (or LD, or whatever), or the negative emotions that they have because of it, what would you say?

How about for you:  has it been tougher dealing with your teen’s disorder, or with his/her emotional state?

The anger, stress, sadness, anxiety, and frustration can be overwhelming, and damaging – to general functioning, relationships, and even physical health.  Negative emotions can feed on themselves and bring your teen ever lower. It’s hard for parents not to be affected as well.

Exercise, music, nature, meditation, laughter, and cute furry animals are among the “home remedies” that can improve mood – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. But when those things are not happening or are not effective, where do you turn?

Medications may help with depression and anxiety. If they work, the change they bring about can be a godsend. However, meds can have undesirable side effects. For many patients, a lot of trial and error may be needed before finding the most effective medication(s) and dosage. Sometimes an effective medication can’t be found, and sometimes the patient is not compliant in taking medication, regardless of its effectiveness. Not-taking-meds is a phenomenon known to occur in the strong-willed teen population.

Another route to consider is finding a psychologist or counselor whom your teen is comfortable talking with. This type of therapy, alone or in conjunction with medication, can be a life-changer. The downside is that it may require many, many sessions to see positive results. A discouraged teen might not be inclined to stick it out.

Recent years have seen the rise of other types of therapy that maybe aren’t mainstream, but are moving in that direction. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is sometimes helpful in treating certain types of depression, among other maladies. Neurofeedback is believed by many to be effective in treating ADHD, and may help with depression, autism, and other conditions.

The alternative therapy our family is most aware of  is EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.  When it works, it can accomplish in a handful of sessions what might take many months of psychotherapy. The process doesn’t hurt, and has no unpleasant side effects.

To be very nontechnical about it, EMDR can flush out a lot of the negative crud built up in the patient’s limbic system (the brain’s emotion-processing center).  The way I understand it, the crud is in the system because the brain never adequately processed one or more negative incidents that are lodged in memory. As a result, emotional reactions that were appropriate for that incident continue to pop up, out of proportion to what’s really happening. The person might exhibit anxiety, vengefulness, self-loathing, or other undesirable traits.

The Brain Limbic System

The Brain Limbic System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One way our brains do their emotional-processing thing is during sleep. We’ve heard about the importance of sleep, including REM sleep, in sorting out what we’ve dealt with during our waking hours. My understanding of the theory is that when sleep is adequate and the stressors of daily life aren’t too outrageous, the brain’s emotional processing is able to keep up. But without adequate sleep, and/or with an overload of trauma, the brain can get behind in putting big emotions in their appropriate place. For instance, “Wow that was scary, but it’s over” can instead be “That was scary, and I’m still scared and helpless.” We may not put words to it, but that’s how our brain is handling it.

What happens in EMDR therapy? In broad outline: the trained therapist helps the patient identify a negative belief about him/herself, such as “I am worthless”, “I am unlovable”, “I am helpless,” “I am not safe.” The patient brings to mind a past event when that feeling was very, very strong – with the option of not telling the therapist what the event was. While the patient is thinking about the event and feelings, the therapist provides cross-lateral stimulation: the patient watches an object (like the therapist’s index finger) move side to side, and/or they hear clicks in alternate ears through headphones, and/or the therapist taps the patient rhythmically on alternate knees. The therapist asks a few questions to help the processing along, and at the end asks the patient to rate on a number scale how true the negative belief now feels. Typically, the rating goes down several levels. The patient installs a positive or neutral belief to replace the negative one.

EMDR  is most often associated with treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Psychiatric Association have both noted its effectiveness in treating PTSD.

Our family counselor is among those who believe that EMDR can help not just people who’ve experienced major traumatic events, but anyone who’s had significant stress build up in their system over time. She’s witnessed EMDR help  clients with Asperger’s, ADHD, etc. unburden themselves from emotional crud built up by years of bullying, alienation, and school failures.

When at age 18 Nathan started seeing our counselor for regular sessions, she was pretty sure EMDR could help him too. But although she saw him almost every week for 9 months, she never could persuade him to give it a try even once.  She’d told him at the outset that he could stop the therapy the minute he didn’t like what it was doing, but still he refused. (She believes that Nathan’s very identity had become entangled in his negative outlook and his problems, and he wasn’t about to do anything to get rid of them.)

About a year after Nathan stopped seeing her, he was telling us and his new therapist that he had specific plans for ending his life, soon. My husband and I went to our counselor to ask, How can we get ready for this? She said, Come see me. And so, we each had several sessions with her, some of which included EMDR.

I can tell you that the combination of talk therapy plus EMDR helped me tremendously. Beforehand, I felt flattened.  I also had physical symptoms, like clenching my teeth at night, and my muscles were constantly “bracing for impact”, even when I was sitting on the couch watching a comedy. After the therapy, I felt much better able to cope with whatever might happen, and my physical symptoms diminished. My husband reports that EMDR also helped him.

As it turned out,  Nathan backed away from his plans, and seems to have tabled the idea at least for the near term.  However, a few months after I finished the therapy, Life decided it was a good time to throw a whole lot of other stressful events at me in rapid fire. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through those tough times if I hadn’t had the therapy.

The effects of EMDR therapy last awhile, but maybe not forever. Our counselor has several patients who come back for a “tune-up”, meaning a few EMDR sessions every year or so. That’s probably something I’ll do as well.

Here are some links if you want to learn more about EMDR. This article was written by Dr. Francine Shapiro, who pioneered the technique. Notice that she has written a book called Getting Past Your Past, which includes techniques you can try on your own. That can be a good way to explore whether the therapy is potentially helpful for your situation. You also might want to check out this lengthy Q&A with Dr. Shapiro after an article about EMDR appeared in the NY Times.  Scroll down more than halfway to see questions about benefits to people on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD.

Finally, here’s a link to the EMDRIA page that will help you locate a therapist trained in the technique.

If you are a professional who offers EMDR, please leave a comment about whether and how I’ve mangled the description. If you or a family member has had EMDR therapy, please leave a comment to let us know what you think of it!


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About janet565

I've lived in the Inland Empire of Southern California since 1982. My profession involves maps and geography. I hope you find the blog useful, and wish you well....

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