Case Study: EMDR Treatment – Rachael
Rachael was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the horrific symptoms she experienced following a surgery. Unfortunately, Rachael had a few ‘false starts’ with EMDR, where the services provided had a specific timeframe for the sessions to be completed, and retirement of another therapist (although these all had positive benefits too), however, despite her initial reservations of EMDR being undertaken over video call, her latest round of EMDR ‘changed her life’.
“I had an operation in December of 2015, it was my first ever surgery at the age of 34 and I was absolutely terrified. I had a phobia about needles and medical procedures and I was also scared about going under anaesthetic. Everything went as planned in the surgery but I was so terrified and then woke in an immense amount of pain.
In the days following my operation (still in a lot of pain) I began to experience some unusual symptoms. My speech was disrupted and I struggled to get words out, I also found myself moving in involuntary movements and breathing in a strange pattern. My GP at first thought it was a side effect from medication I had been taking after surgery. Even once I stopped taking them the symptoms continued. A few days later I began to feel really strange and scared, its hard to even describe why. Now looking back with what I know, I had a dissociative seizure. I was taken to hospital where no one seemed to know what was happening and some were really dismissive. I was told “it was only a panic attack” I was sent home none the wiser, all my observations appearing ‘normal’.
I spent days terrified and my GP spoke to the neuro team at the hospital in the area and they agreed that I should try sedatives to calm the symptoms. The following days and weeks were a blur. My GP referred me to a neuro outpatient appointment, where I came out feeling confused. Everything in my brain was functioning as it should, I was told I had functional neurological symptoms. Which after reading a lot about and luckily being referred into a service in the area, I was helped to understand that I had been completely traumatised and my body was reacting to this. I couldn’t work for months, my symptoms were just always there, sometimes calmed but there was so many triggers. Too much noise, too many people, bright lights, pain, my mind was so overwhelmed and my body was just completely acting out. I felt like I had lost control.
I waited a few months and then got an appointment in a dissociative seizure clinic, having no idea what to expect and still not quite understanding what was happening to me, my symptoms were bad and I was dissociating a lot. I met an amazing psychologist here, who for the first time since my surgery made me feel safe. She understood what was happening to me and helped me understand. For many months that 1 hour a week was the safest I felt. During times of feeling terrified I had thoughts that I was losing control and might die. She talked to me about EMDR and how it could help and we spent quite some time putting in the groundwork first, bringing me to a stable enough place where my window of tolerance was bigger. I completely trusted her and was really keen to try EMDR and be fixed.
I did find it hard and frustrating as it wasn’t a short or quick process. I must admit my first session I was sceptical but I was also keen to try anything. She asked me to follow her finger with my eyes, left to right. Sometimes this could be difficult as when I had the dissociative symptoms my eyes would shake side to side so sometimes I would get lost off from following her finger.
She really helped me to create some grounding techniques to help when I was dissociating, we looked at a safe space and explored some different ideas. For me I brought my sister to mind and this warm feeling of standing right with her, sharing an amazing experience with her, feeling safe and happy and like I could take on the world.
During this time with that therapist it became apparent that I was also in an abusive relationship which I hadn’t really realised. This just made everything a bit more complicated as I was still in this relationship so really to do EMDR when I didn’t feel fully safe at home wasn’t going to work. I had a few months break and then went back again. Unfortunately there was no more funding for the service and it was coming to an end. We managed a little EMDR before it ended and it was really incredible the effect of a small piece of work. During the processing I remember seeing images passing like in a train window, it was strange and I didn’t really understand how it worked. Soon after though the memory I had been focusing on seemed further away when I brought it to mind. I wasn’t right there in that moment feeling the fear in my body, seeing the images so clearly anymore. Even now that particular memory is still filed away. I remember what happened but I don’t live it anymore.
I felt like I achieved a lot in this time with this therapist but also sad as I knew I had more to work through and I also had developed trust in her and it was hard to be completely honest and open at first.
I separated from my partner at the time which was a really tough time in lots of ways, maybe a year after I went to see my GP as I experienced flashbacks often, the physical symptoms and dissociation were still there and I lived with huge anxiety all the time.
I was referred into talking changes service through my GP who offer a huge range of mental health services. They offered me 12 weeks of trauma therapy with the aim to do EMDR. It took me quite a lot to begin to even think about talking to a new person but the man I saw was lovely. The time frame for me was too short, I had trouble even speaking sometimes and there were more than one trauma to work through which made it much more complex.
By the end of the 12 weeks, I had gone through lots of grounding and preparation work and was ready to start the EMDR processing but it was too late, they couldn’t offer more sessions. I could go back on another waiting list with them but would be months and no guarantee it would be the same therapist. He referred me into secondary mental health services for longer term support. I waited months for this, and finally got to see a lady for EMDR. We managed to do some great work but unfortunately she retired and there was no one else who could do this type of therapy in my area in secondary services. I felt like I was really processing things but I knew there was more underneath, it was like peeling back these layers of my trauma. For a while I felt really defeated about waiting lists and being passed around and also starting over with new therapists and building that trust in someone.
In 2020 I referred myself back to talking changes, and I was offered trauma therapy again with EMDR being the aim, but because of COVID restrictions it was via video call. I was completely sceptical, wondering how it could work not being in an actual room with someone.
Actually it was amazing, I didn’t have the anxiety of waiting in a waiting room in some kind of medical building (which is a trigger) and I could sit in a familiar safe place with home comforts around me. This therapist was amazing, I had spent a lot of time over the last few years building on grounding techniques and understanding myself better so we got right to work with the EMDR.
We discovered early on that instead of following her light that tapping my own arms (like giving yourself a cuddle) worked really well. I really don’t fully understand HOW EMDR works but it really does.
Since finishing my sessions earlier this year something fundamental has changed in my brain. Its only when my symptoms, flashbacks and anxiety isn’t there everyday have I realised how bad those things were and the huge impact on my everyday life. I lived in this state of hypervigilance always thinking something was about to happen. It is exhausting completely, even when you sleep it isn’t enough. I would be restless and my brain would be wired so I struggled to fall asleep and then when I did sleep I would have nightmares, I slept curled in a ball full of tension. Its amazing now going to bed and actually resting.
EMDR is hard work and there is a lot of preparation, facing some of the traumas was really hard for me but having that safety to do that with a trained therapist was essential in being able to process those memories.
Even after the latest sessions my brain has still been processing things, I’ve learned to notice them and let them pass. I feel like I’ve had this massive life journey over the last 6 plus years and its been terrifying but now I feel like I understand myself better than I did even before the surgery trauma. I think I’m living at a more normal level of stress now, before it was so bad.
I look back and I’m not surprised my body stopped behaving because it needed me to listen to what I need, I was under a huge amount of stress, fear and pain.
Honestly EMDR has changed my life, it is no easy or quick fix but absolutely worth the work. I feel so grateful for the treatment I received from the NHS, there isn’t enough available in my opinion and waiting lists are so long to see someone who understands trauma well. At times I felt so disheartened and if I could have afforded private therapy I would have gone down that route.”
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