Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects the lives of many across the world. In Canada alone 9.2% of individuals will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes and many more will suffer from symptoms associated with trauma exposure. Experiencing a trauma can leave an impression on the brain and body triggering emotional and physiological responses. These can include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, fear, and panic, an inability to focus and concentrate, loss of self-control, avoidance behaviour and social withdrawal, flashbacks to the traumatic event, and in severe cases thoughts of suicide. Individuals may also experience physical symptoms like sweating, heart pounding or racing, headaches, and muscle cramps especially when triggered or recalling memories of the traumatic event. Treating PTSD by targeting the body, brain and mind can result in successful reduction of many of these symptoms. If not treated, symptoms can worsen over time and have a devastating impact on daily functioning, relationships, and life in general.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, provides a wonderful account of his work with real-life trauma experiences, a worthy explanation of changes that occur in the traumatized brain and body, as well as a description of the evolution of trauma treatment. Dr. van der Kolk highlights two trauma-specific interventions that have gained popularity and success in the treatment of trauma symptoms in recent years, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and neurofeedback.
EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that can help you process the memories associated with your trauma. The goal is for you to no longer find the experience distressing. In sessions, you will work with a therapist who assists you in engaging in a series of eye movements while recalling and focusing on specific details of the traumatic memory. Through EMDR, the memory becomes less pervasive and intense as it becomes integrated with other memories of the past.
Common results of EMDR sessions include:
- Reduction in distress and flashbacks brought on by the memory
- Diminished emotional and physical symptoms
- Improvement in daily functioning and living and interpersonal relationships
- An ability to recall the traumatic event without being triggered
- Improved stress management
Just like EMDR, neurofeedback can help you recover and heal from your trauma. When you experience a traumatic event, there are changes that occur in their central nervous system and body. Brain patterns and frequencies are rewired and dysregulated which affects trauma symptoms. Neurofeedback works by gently pushing the brain out of stuck patterns and stabilizing the brain and thus weakens the client’s response to the trauma. It does this by focusing on brain wave frequencies and sends a slightly different frequency back to the brain. For a few seconds, the brain is given something to do by copying the new frequency. After a few sessions of neurofeedback, clients may begin to experience the following:
- Improvement in executive functioning (i.e. improved ability to plan and organize activities, move from one task to another with more ease, improved and clearer focus, attention, and concentration)
- Improvement in sleep and reduction in flashbacks and nightmares related to trauma
- Reduction in thought looping
- Reduced emotional and physical symptoms associated with the trauma
- Improved control over one’s emotions
EMDR and neurofeedback have been found to be effective in treating PTSD and trauma symptoms even when compared to other forms of trauma treatment like medications. One major benefit to EMDR and neurofeedback treatments is that clients experience little to no side effects and the approaches are considered safe. At Nicole McCance Psychology and the Toronto Neurofeedback and Psychotherapy Centre, we are pleased to offer our clients struggling with trauma the option of EMDR therapy, neurofeedback, or a combined therapeutic approach.
“Unlike other forms of psychological disorders, the core issue in trauma is reality.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk,